Blue Ball Dairy Barn
Old Barn Learns New Tricks: A renovated dairy barn in Delaware transforms to a modern, multi-purpose space by embracing green design without sacrificing its historic roots.
Blue Ball Dairy Barn is not on your quintessential countryside farm. Instead of rolling hills and lush crops, the barn sits on the edge of Delaware’s U.S. 202 highway, where steady streams of traffic flow throughout the day. Tucked within the strip malls and corporate complexes of New Castle, Delaware, this $4.6 million restoration project is a refreshing bit of history in an industrial setting. However, the yellow stucco exterior and wooden barn doors have not been there for long. Before renovations got under way, the dilapidated barn looked unsalvageable with weathered stucco walls, broken windows, overgrown weeds, and a cracked concrete courtyard.
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Originally built in 1914, Alfred du Pont constructed the dairy barn to serve his Nemours Estate, a complex near Wilmington, Delaware, with manicured French gardens and a decadent mansion. After changing hands throughout the years, the barn was finally abandoned in 1977 and left to its own devices until 2001, when Delaware’s Department of Transportation, New Castle County, and the Department of Parks and Recreation commissioned Wallace Roberts & Todd (WRT) to create a plan for the new 225-acre Alapocas Run State Park. “While investigating the site for the master plan, we found that this old barn had good bones,” says Joe Healy, AIA, of WRT. “It has sturdy steel trusses and a cast-in-place roof deck, which was an atypical move at a time when most barns were constructed with wood.”
In 2007 WRT and John Milner Associates, a historic preservation firm, resurrected the old barn, bringing back its historic luster and also creating a slender modern addition in the footprint of the former adjoining livestock shed. “We wanted the modern building to complement the solid massing and agrarian roots of the barn through transparency and traditional materials such as corrugated metal,” says Healy. The most striking design feature of the new building is the aluminum sunshades on the southern facade, a functional addition that brings a horizontal rhythm to the curtainwall structure. “The screen responds to precise energy optimization modeling, allowing less heat in the summer and more solar gain in the cold winter months,” explains Healy.
WRT teamed up with Atelier Ten, an environmental consulting firm, to model various energy strategies for the two buildings. While the solar studies for the sunshades were relatively straightforward, providing energy to the barn required a more specialized approach. “After modeling numerous energy strategies, we decided to use a displacement ventilation system because it meant the fewest physical changes to the building,” says Paul Stoller, the project manager for Atelier Ten. Vertical metal air-handling units rest directly on the polished concrete floors, releasing cool air into the interior spaces and showcasing the sustainable features of the barn to all incoming visitors. The return air pipes are less visible, hidden within the existing vertical hay shafts in the central space. According to Healy, the displacement ventilation, in addition to heat-recovery systems, a maximum-efficiency boiler, radiant floor, and low-voltage and high-performance lighting, reduced the energy usage for the new and old building by 24 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
In this example, the modern energy system allowed John Milner Associates and WRT to fully restore the historic elements of the barn’s interior without unsightly air-conditioning vents. On the first floor, red steel columns complement white-washed plaster walls and a new cast-in-place concrete floor conceals ductwork and electrical systems. Whenever possible, the design team retained the existing materials of the barn, but sometimes the restoration became more symbolic. “We wanted to maintain the vestiges of dairy production on the first floor so we inlaid red brick patterns into the floor to delineate where the horse and cow stalls once were,” says Michael Falstad of John Milner Associates.
On the second floor, the structure of the barn feels much more exposed, with large steel trusses overhead and unadorned stone walls. When elements of the barn could not be preserved, WRT sought recyclable and locally produced materials, such as the cork flooring finish. In other cases, the team had to replace entire systems. “Originally, we also wanted to maintain the cast-in-place roof deck, but in the end the concrete was too brittle and the entire system had to be replaced, including the exterior slate shingles,” explains Healy.
Overall the barn maintained 88 percent of its existing structure and shell and reused 76 percent of its interior elements, which, among other sustainable features such as operable windows, rainwater collection, and bioswales for stormwater management, earned the project a LEED Gold rating. The barn is a testament to the synergy of adaptive reuse and green design. Instead of bulldozing a failing building and erecting a structure in its place, WRT, John Milner Associates, and the State of Delaware seized the moment to educate the public about the benefits of reuse and smart design.