The fascinating details of ‘farmitecture’

Houses, barns and outbuildings from the 19th century are quickly deteriorating across the American landscape, but an Appalachian State University professor is helping preserve the details of farm architecture, which he has coined “farmitecture.”

“Farm buildings are a point of inspiration for me,” said architect Chad Everhart, AIA, an associate professor in Appalachian’s Department of Technology and Environmental Design. He was a faculty leader on the award-winning Solar Homestead project at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon and is principal of Chad Everhart Architect.

“We want to document these structures before they are gone, and they will probably be gone in our lifetime,” he said. “They have a lot that is relevant to what we design now – location, passive solar design, vegetation. People back then didn’t have money so they had to build what was practical, and I think we can go back to that common sense approach to designing buildings.”

Everhart and his graduate assistant Eli Simaan, who is earning a master’s degree in technology, are examining the architecture of 100-year-old buildings at Appalachian’s Blackburn-Vannoy property in neighboring Ashe County. This is the first time they’ve looked at the architecture of an entire homestead.

Curious about the 19th-century forms, materials, siting and construction techniques, Everhart and Simaan are analyzing and measuring every board of each structure and then creating digital models and hand-drawn architectural renderings based on their data. These materials will be used by students, researchers and the public to better understand how and why buildings of that time period and location were built the way they were. 

About the structures

The Blackburn-Vannoy property near Fleetwood consists of two parts. The Blackburn farm has an 1880s farm house in fairly good shape, a 1960s brick ranch-style home and various outbuildings, including a fully functional, 100-year-old barn. The university relocated its Goodnight Family Teaching and Research Farm there from Valle Crucis in 2010, and students and faculty have returned the property to a working farm. The Vannoy farm is inactive, with a forested area and pasture and an 1880s farm house that is in poor shape.

Since beginning their study in summer 2012, Everhart and Simaan are nearly halfway finished making their field assessments, which can take up to three days per building. Now that vegetation is gone, they estimate the remaining field assessments can go more quickly this fall. They plan to complete the drawings and digital models by summer 2013.

“The digital models are helping me understand how the building was put together – why the carpenter did one part first and then the roof,” Simaan said.

Among their first structures to examine was a storage building on the Blackburn farm believed to be a salt house where meat might have been cured. It features a gable roof and east-to-west orientation, which Everhart said helped preserve the oak and chestnut siding, which are in good shape.

The salt house’s woven diagonal siding, which Everhart said took someone a lot of time to build, was likely created to enhance the building’s lateral strength. In contrast, the property’s weigh house – the floor of which contains a large scale likely used to weigh livestock or wagon loads – featured north/south access, and its siding is much more worn as a result, Everhart said.

Other interesting architectural styles discovered so far include the outhouse’s shed roof, a style Everhart said is indigenous to Ashe County, with its intricate, hand-cut rafter joints. Inside the farmhouse, there is a staircase constructed with a landing just three feet from the ceiling. The upstairs of the farmhouse also has 6 foot 6 inch ceilings with windows positioned at chest level. Reasons for some of these features are unknown, Everhart said.

Preserving history

When the university first became trustee of the Blackburn-Vannoy property in 2010, administrators wondered if the farmhouses and outbuildings could be restored and possibly turned into museums for the public. Based on his assessments so far, Everhart predicts all of them can be saved or recreated – with enough financial investment. 

The question of whether such funding can come before more deterioration occurs underscores the need for Everhart’s research, he said. “If we don’t record details of the farmitecture now,” he warned, “it will be an important piece of history that is lost.”

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