When making decisions, it typically is beneficial to follow our first instinct. Our intuition will lead us down the proper path—even if the outcome takes time to become apparent. Such was the case for Nea Poole, AIA, NCARB, principal of Midlothian, Va.-based Poole & Poole Architecture. She had a gut feeling her family’s home could be created within a Dutch gambrel barn in the Richmond, Va., countryside the moment she saw the barn. Her husband Mike Poole, AIA, NCARB, also an architect and a partner in Poole & Poole Architecture, was unconvinced.
“We drove down the little gravel drive and went around back and the land fell away,” Nea recalls. “In the back, there was an entire basement level that was open; it had once been used to store equipment. Each of the four bays was 22-feet wide by 42-feet deep, so you could park 16 cars under the barn. With our urban house, my husband’s biggest gripe had been our ‘two-car’ garage; it really just fits a car and a lawnmower. When Mike saw the basement garage, he said, ‘OK, this might work’.”
Thus began the four-year journey that would make the 1977 barn, known in the community as the Barn at Walnut Hill, into the Pooles’ dream home. “The amount of time it took was remarkable. If I had worked for another company, I would have been fired,” Nea laughs. “We knew the barn was very high profile, plus because we’re architects we really had to put our hearts into this because it was going to be a huge reflection of what we do for a living.”
A Structural Marvel
Although not technically historic, the Barn at Walnut Hill is engrained in Richmond history. Louise and J. Harwood Cochrane— the couple who built the barn—are remembered fondly in Richmond. Harwood founded Overnite Transportation in 1935; he sold that business for more than $1 billion in the 1980s. The Cochranes also owned tracts of land outside Richmond and had been cattle farming since the 1950s; they coined their farm Walnut Hill. When the Cochranes retired in their 90s, they donated the land, barn and their manor home to the Virginia Museum for Fine Arts in Richmond. Museum representatives and the Cochranes decided to create a neighborhood on the land, dividing it into 10- to 60-acre lots. The Barn at Walnut Hill is part of a 30-acre lot.
Before the Pooles bought the 42- by 82-foot barn, they invited friends who are structural engineers to analyze it.“The barn was built like a bunker,” Nea says. “There are 36-inch steel beams in the basement and 24-inch steel beams carrying the load of the gambrel roof. The floor joists are true 3- by 12-inch floor joists at 16-inches on center.”
Nea made a joke to the engineers about Mike liking the barn because he can park 16 cars underneath it. “The engineers said ‘Nea, you can park 16 cars inside the barn and you won’t have a problem!’” she declares.
Respect for What’s There
The Pooles endeavored to maintain the structure that captured their hearts. Original beams and posts are visible throughout. In fact, a name carved into one of the beams still is visible in the living room.
“We literally kept every single beam, every single column,” Nea explains. “Probably one of the most difficult design challenges was that—for reasons I truly don’t understand—the column and beam grid on the basement level doesn’t align with the column and beam grid on the next level; it’s shifted on the grid. If you have a beam in one place in the basement, it’s about 10 feet over on the next floor. The problem was getting vertical all the way through there, so the stairs were really tricky and, frankly, that’s why they’re not fully aligned.”
Framing also had to be done creatively. For example, in the basement, the team furred a wall out 2 feet in several places to run HVAC ductwork because the team could not work under the existing steel beams.
On the exterior, the Pooles wanted a covered entrance but attaching a porch to the barn didn’t look right, Mike says. Instead, they pulled the entry back 4 feet into the barn and left the original barn doors, which have been refurbished, to cover the new entryway if desired.
To avoid cutting new windows into the barn, the Pooles placed windows where vents already existed around the structure. This posed a challenge. “Now we had these big 4- by 7-foot windows and had to design the house out around it,” Nea says. “One of the most difficult areas to design was actually the master bathroom because normally you get a pretty nice long run for vanities. We had two 4- by 7-foot windows in our bathroom so we put opaque glass on sliding barn hardware and it works great because when you’re in the shower, you can close the glass door and then when you get out and you want natural light, you just open it up.”
The Pooles also reused whatever they could from the minimal demolition that was done. For example, when the team cut the 12-inch floor joists to locate stairs going down to the basement, the Pooles reused what was cut out as the treads for those stairs.
Although the painted cedar siding on the barn was in poor condition, when the team pulled it off, they found the backside of the siding was unpainted and beautiful.
“We had them pile and store all the existing siding they took off,” Mike recalls. “We didn’t know exactly what we were going to do with it but once the powder-room walls were in place, for example, we realized this would be the perfect spot for it.”
The cedar siding also was used as the base of the kitchen bar and for wine closets in the living room.