With its Re-Barn concept, architectural planning consultancy autotroph has come up with a strategy to preserve not just one building, but a whole family: the endangered tobacco barn of Southern Maryland. The Re-Barn idea would see tobacco burns renovated into family homes, while maintaining their potential to run a working farm.

The need for to preserve tobacco barns stems from the Maryland Assembly passing the Tobacco Crop Conversion Program in 2001. The program effectively saw the state buy out tobacco farmers in an attempt to discourage cultivation of the crop. While it's impossible to quantify the precise number of tobacco barns that fell into immediate disuse, the fact that about 1000 farmers took the deal gives you some idea: abandoned tobacco barns number in the hundreds. The buildings which were once essential for air-curing Maryland's most lucrative cash crop became, in many cases, simply surplus to requirement.

A Mail Pouch Tobacco Barn in Maryland (Photo: David Swift)

In the years that immediately followed the program many barns were demolished by their owners or developers to make way for new schemes. Others still fell into a state of dereliction. The threat to the structures was, if not first identified, then at least made official when the National Trust for Historic Preservation gave tobacco barns "endangered" status in May of 2004.

The Trust has already seen success in spawning something of a movement in tobacco barn preservation, securing funding to the tune of US$200,000 via a Save America's Treasures grant, with which 34 barn restoration projects have been part-funded. However, the vast majority of the remaining barns remain very much under threat.

With Re-Barn, autotroph has effectively come up with a blueprint for tobacco barn preservation, and though they've produced visualizations based on a particular barn, the simplicity of the underlying idea makes it applicable to others. In essence, a family home is built inside the working barn, and then the outer "skin" of the barn modified to create opening shutters that align with the home's windows and doors. Closed, the barn looks almost indistinguishable from its former self. Open, the intent is that it resembles a contemporary home.

For illustrative purposes, autotroph has taken a mid-20th century barn on a 50-acre farm in Anne Arundel County as a case study. Most of the barn's walls and roof would be retained, but modified to create "flaps, shutters and sliding panels." Inside the existing wooden structure would be replaced for safety reasons, though this includes a large amount of non-structural latticework there solely for the purposes of curing tobacco. A new "panelized" house would be built in and around that structure (a panelized house being a type of prefabricated house in which, say, a wall panel would come pre-fitted with all the layers, windows, wiring and sockets it would eventually need).

The non-structural latticework from which tobacco leaves are strung in a traditional tobacco barn (Photo: William J Kimmerle)

autotroph suggests a number of additional measures intended to make a Re-Barn as sustainable as possible. These include both photovoltaics and solar thermal on the roof, a rainwater harvesting system with underground cistern, and the creation of a man-made wetland area for on-site water treatment. The opening skins form solar shades angled to let direct sunlight in during winter but keep it out during summer.

And of course the reuse of the existing barn reduces the need for additional materials. Combined, autotroph claims Re-Barn has the potential to be both a net-zero energy and net-zero water home.

Source: autotroph, via Inhabitat