A few years back, I had a conversation with someone in the grocery store and we discovered that we both lived in the same area. When I described where our house is and what it looked like, he exclaimed, “Oh, you’re the guy that likes all the outbuildings!”
It’s true. If you take a look around our property, you’ll see four outbuildings, five if you count the playhouse near the orchard. Each has a unique contribution by way of function.
The first is shelter for cats, storage for yard supplies and our BBQ, and all the plumbing parts for outdoor irrigation. The second is our workshop, which is set up primarily for woodworking, but also serves as a general fix it and support facility for all the things that need to be made and repaired around here.
Next is our chicken coop — affectionately called, “The Cluckingham Palace.” Lastly, our tractor barn and storage building is where all the warm weather items, like porch furniture and lawn ornamentation, are stored over the winter. A priority space is set aside for our compact tractor.
I like the aesthetics and structure that these buildings provide to our grounds. Backdrops for various plantings are created as well as literal destinations of the web of paths we have. The buildings also provide shade along their sides for part of the day, as well as some wind protection.
We could have built a single large structure to house all of these functions and items, but it wouldn’t have been as entertaining or interesting if we did.
It’s generally more expensive to build separate buildings than a single larger one. So we had to figure out how to create visual interest and good economics at the same time. Our secret? Pole barn construction. Our first building — the shed — was standard framing construction. However, the shop, chicken coop and tractor barn are all pole construction.
The term “pole barn” can be misleading. Images of large, rustic, rough or utilitarian buildings can fill one’s mind. While it’s true that this type of construction can be used for these types of structures, the technique is entirely scalable, makes very efficient use of materials, and can be finished in a wide range of exteriors and themes.
I like the intuitive and straight-forward construction approaches when building with this method. It uses standard dimensions of framing lumber and timbers, all spaced in two-, four- or eight-foot distances, and can be adapted to either square or round posts. Sidewalls are fast to construct with boards running horizontally, typically spaced 24-inches apart. The roof can be built a piece at a time or using trusses.
Here’s another trick that pole construction offers. You can build the entire building and pour the floor after the fact, and the building’s bottom skirt board becomes a built-in concrete form.
Let me take you through the basic construction process of a 16 x 32-foot building, with 10-foot sidewalls, on fairly level ground, as an example. To begin, position of the building is laid out using strings, stakes or “batter boards” that allow horizontal adjustment of the string. Lines are laid out to create a 16 x 32 true rectangle with square corners. Pole positions are marked at four-foot increments around the perimeter of the layout. Where there will be large doors wider than four feet, the pole is eliminated and a door opening is created.
The strings are temporarily removed, and appropriate diameter holes for the poles are dug, typically three-feet deep or more, with the base of the hole widened out. Six to eight inches of concrete is poured into the hole and allowed to cure. These concrete pads distribute the weight of the building across a broader surface.
The layout strings are reattached and 14-foot poles are placed in the sidewall positions. Depending on the pitch (angle) of the roof, taller poles will be needed on the gable ends. Each pole is placed four foot on center, with their outer edged aligned with the layout strings. They are then plumbed vertically and a mixture of gravel and concrete mix is tamped in around them to hold them in position.
Sidewall construction now begins with the bottom pressure-treated 2×6 skirt board being fastened horizontally and level around the perimeter of the building, with door spaces being skipped. 2×4 boards, called girts, are then fastened in two-foot increments going up the side of the building, parallel to the skirt board. The top board (for this example, placed with the top edge at 10 feet above the bottom edge of the skirt board) is a 2×6, with another one placed on the backside of the pole. These two will have the rafters attached to them.
Vertical connections between the horizontal girts are made to create openings for windows, rolling and standard entry doors.
The roof can be constructed with individual rafters, a ridge board and rafter ties. Or, it can be constructed with preassembled trusses. Whatever way is used, spacing can be up to four foot apart, assuming adequate sized rafters are used and they are securely attached to the sidewalls. To finish the framing of the roof, 2×4 boards (purlins) are secured perpendicular to the rafters, in 24-inch increments across the entire roof. The tops of the poles are then cut off so they don’t protrude through the roof surface.
For a really strong and low maintenance structure, the entire building is skinned with screwed-on metal ribbed panels and specialized metal trim and hardware.
While I’m a big fan of pole barn building, you need to determine if the approach makes sense for you. If the building is sizable enough that it warrants obtaining a building permit, you’ll need to be sure this type of construction is allowed where you live. Don’t take a shortcut here — do it right. Building codes are in place for all of our protection. If you live in one of our cities in the county, you’ll need to check with the city offices for a permit. If you live in an unincorporated area like I do, the county offices are the entity you’ll need to contact.
I found the county engineers were helpful and gave me some insights that I needed to build a durable and safe shop building. Unlike our other buildings, our shop is actually a modified pole building. The slab was poured first, so the main poles do not extend into the ground like a typical pole barn would. Instead, they are attached to brackets that are bolted into the concrete. My county friends pointed out that under a lot of side pressure (that would be our Tooele Valley winds!), these support poles would tend to pivot at their point of attachment, compromising the building.
So, additional internal bracing was needed in the structure to keep it rigid. They called for two of these braces; I put in four! This is really cheap insurance when the wind is howling for a couple of days at a time. The building doesn’t move or creak in the fiercest tempest, and because the framework that the metal external skin is attached to is rock solid, there has not been one single incidence of wind damage. Peace of mind is priceless!
There are some great resources available for various types of buildings that use this process. Many state agricultural extension offices have many plans and diagrams that you can access for no charge. These are easily found online. A national publication, “The Mother Earth News,” also published an excellent article on this. You can read it by visiting https://www.motherearthnews.com/diy/pole-barn-building-zmaz09djzraw. Another way to see some great construction tips and techniques is to enter the search term, “anatomy of a pole barn” in your browser. You’ll get some great ideas as well as some details for such things as installing doors, windows, and finishing details.
And of course, you can stop by and I’ll give you a tour. I’m kind of proud of these buildings, and don’t mind putting them in the limelight.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.