Do You Live in a Barn?

Why, yes, as a matter of fact, Tom and Peggy Hamilton do.

By Meadow Rue Merrill
Photographed by Cait Bourgault
From our January 2016 issue

For 40 years, retired teachers Tom and Peggy Hamilton have lived in Cornville, a rural hamlet in Maine’s highlands five miles north of Skowhegan. Several years ago, they bought 65 acres with plans to build a small, efficient house, but first they had to contend with the huge, timeworn horse barn on the property.

“It was really ratty looking,” says Tom. The shingles on the 65- by 44-foot structure were paper-thin and the sills rotting, but the roof was in good shape. “We thought, ‘What should we do with this old barn? Maybe we should save it.’”

Dan Wright, an Abbot building mover, confirmed that the circa-1900 barn was worth preserving. So Tom borrowed a skidder, drove it into the woods, and spent a winter felling hemlock. He hired a sawyer to cut the logs into timbers for new sills, and then Wright moved the barn onto its new foundation, first raising it with hydraulic jacks onto a bed of metal rollers, then using a small excavator to nudge it a few feet at a time. “Post-and-beam buildings are really easy to move because of the way they are constructed,” says Wright, who has been moving buildings all over New England for 50 years. “They were built [to last] back then.”

Abandoning their original idea, the Hamiltons worked with Weld architect Conrad Heeschen to design an energy-efficient apartment inside the barn. “We wanted to take advantage of the passive solar gain and to incorporate the beams and integrity of the building,” says Tom.

Using lumber cut from wood harvested on the Hamiltons’ property, carpenter Marc Poirier worked with the couple to build their new quarters, as well as pine cabinets, wainscoting, and ash stairs. He even helped Tom plumb the apartment and, adds Peggy, “I took care of most of the electricity, but whenever I had something that stumped me, I’d pull Marc over.”

Their two-story living space totals 1,400 square feet, stretching across one-third of the barn’s width — or two bents, the measurement from one barn beam to the next. Downstairs is a kitchen and open eating area. Upstairs is a spacious sitting room with a 12-foot ceiling. French doors open to a master bedroom. Ample south-facing windows flood the apartment with warmth and light.

The apartment uses a radiant heating system with a wood boiler from American Solartechnics in Searsport supplying heat directly to floors, and the Hamiltons are installing solar panels. A rustic catwalk decorated with string lights leads to Peggy’s yoga studio. The rest of the barn houses Tom’s tools and serves as a garage.

“It turned out incredible,” Tom says of the nine-year project. “You enter through the barn and think, ‘This is kind of frumpy.’ Then you come in the apartment and see Marc’s work and say, ‘Wow!’”

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