Barn Raising: A Maryland Woman Converts the Family Barn into an Eco-Friendly House

Through innovative remodeling and green design, a barn's architecture is preserved in this home.


The barn’s exterior, which had been covered by layers of lead paint, was encased in a membrane and covered with cementitious siding. Cassandra salvaged many of the windows that are now in her barn.

Photo By Laurie Dickson

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Changing your life requires courage and imagination, and Cassandra Naylor has plenty of both. Growing up at Cliffeholme, the Maryland farm her great-grandfather bought just after the Civil War, instilled in Cassandra a love and respect for nature, and she became a dedicated environmentalist long before the term had been invented. After her husband died five years ago, she decided the time had come to simplify her life and practice her beliefs about ecology and conservation.

First on Cassandra’s agenda was to give the large stone home, where she had lived all her life, to her son and his family, and move into a smaller, more practical dwelling—an old barn on her property that perfectly suited her simpler tastes and love of nature. Built by her grandmother in 1902, the structure was still sound, although the old horse stalls were inhabited now by birds and a variety of other wild animals. Encouraged by her children, she decided to turn the barn into her new home.

Her plan was nearly thwarted, however, when a housing development sprang up next door, its access road just six feet from her property line. Though tempted to abandon her project, Cassandra resolved to continue, determined to create an energy efficient barn home that would be the antithesis of mass-produced housing. Her decision made, she planted a screen berm of evergreens to hide the access road and went on with her plans.

Chasing green design

Cassandra admired the work of pioneering green architect William McDonough, the only individual to receive the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development. “I am especially taken by his idea that rather than trying to figure out how to lessen our effect on the earth, we should instead do more to make the earth better,” she says. Taking nature as his guide, McDonough envisions a world of zero waste—where nothing is thrown away but is recovered and used again and again as nourishment for other living systems.

“As it turned out, my son knew McDonough, who allowed me to call upon his firm for advice, providing I did all the work,” Cassandra recalls. In this case, “the work” meant extensive research to find the best materials and most efficient appliances. In addition, Cassandra traced each component back to its source to measure the fuel and air pollution involved in bringing it to the site. Whenever possible, she opted to use local materials.

Once she knew exactly what she wanted, Cassandra hired Baltimore architect George Holback to draw up the plans. Holback, who seldom does residential work, was interested in sustainable building and admired his client’s commitment to creating a house with minimal barriers between her and the natural world outside.

Preserving the barn

The barn, which is built into the side of a hill, was left almost entirely in its original state, although some parts were reconfigured. The top floor, where tractors were kept, was transformed into a large, high-ceilinged living room. Floors made of old wooden planks were sanded to remove the chemical sealers and left unfinished. Cassandra converted the adjoining tack room into her bedroom and two box stalls with their original doors still in place into bedrooms for visiting grandchildren. The remaining upper horse stalls were divided from the living space by sliding barn doors and left as a home for the chickens that provide eggs for Cassandra’s family and her grandson’s egg delivery business.

The ramp that led from the stables to the floor below was replaced with a stone staircase. Downstairs, Cassandra turned the old milk room into a cozy sitting room and reconfigured two standing stalls to make the kitchen. One of two box stalls now contains the mechanics of the house while the other has become a dining room that seats six to eight people.

The barn’s exterior had been covered by many layers of lead paint over the decades. Rather than stripping it, which would have meant creating toxic waste, Cassandra encased the barn in a membrane and then covered it with a cementitious siding. The building was also insulated with shredded, recycled paper treated with a fire retardant. Not only is paper an excellent form of insulation, but it turned out to be far less expensive than traditional fiberglass.

Relying on the sun

Because Cassandra shared McDonough’s objection to buildings that no longer rely on sunlight for heat and illumination, she decided to live entirely off the grid. Water for the kitchen and the bathroom is heated by solar power. Downstairs, hot water piped through tubes beneath the concrete floor provides radiant heat, and a stone fireplace serves as backup.

Upstairs, heat comes from the south-facing windows by day and a wood-burning stove at night. “I feel more alive being hot in the summer and cold in the winter,” Cassandra says. “During the early winter mornings, I get chilly, but I have sweaters, and I wear them.”

Even during the hot, muggy Maryland summers, the barn’s doors and windows allow excellent cross ventilation that keeps the house comfortable. For extra air circulation, there’s a ceiling fan in the great room, though it’s seldom used. Downstairs, the concrete floors, treated to look like stone but left unsealed, are very cooling.

The building runs on twenty-four-volt direct current generated by photovoltaic panels. Because the expansive windows provide enough light to read and work by even on cloudy days, Cassandra uses so little electricity that she usually has leftover energy, which she stores in battery packs for later use. In addition, direct current produces no electromagnetic field.

Although some solar-compatible appliances were hard to find—the Sun Frost refrigerator, for example, took more than a year to come from Canada—many of the lamps as well as the television and Bose sound system simply needed to be rewired to run on direct current. Cassandra is still working to simplify her energy design, for she is determined to know every detail of the energy she requires, especially during winter.

Living in harmony

Conserving water was important to Cassandra long before Baltimore began to suffer from one of the longest droughts in Maryland history. She has no dishwasher, and she has installed water-saving appliances and showerheads. Her bathtub, made of wood lined with copper, is extra narrow to consume less water, while the Clivus Multrum composting toilet requires no water at all. On an average day Cassandra uses about 24 gallons of water—considerably less than the 75 to 110 gallons required by most American households. All Cassandra’s used water is gravity fed into two stone troughs. From there it leaches slowly into the garden, and because she cleans with Oasis, a potassium-based soap, the graywater also fertilizes the plants. Once a year, liquid from the composting toilet’s liquid storage chamber is drawn off and spread throughout the beds to supply nitrogen. Finally, kitchen scraps and wood chips go into the receptacle for the toilet, so that the resulting compost can be added to the garden as a soil amendment as well.

Throughout her property Cassandra is replacing all non-native plants with indigenous species—particularly those that can survive with little water. She is slowly planting trees around three sides of a meadow that she seeded with native grasses and wildflowers, and after giving it one more year to become established, she plans a flock of sheep.

Living in harmony with the natural world, Cassandra reports, has had some unexpected and happy consequences. “A wonderful brown bat spends his days hanging upside down in the old part of the barn and his nights hunting insects, which helps keep my home bug-free, even without screens,” she says. Swallows that nest in the barn also keep pests at bay. Many of the barn’s original inhabitants have returned, and wilder and shyer creatures have come back as well. A fox is back in his old lair and can be seen almost every day patrolling the borders of the property.

As for the development next door, there are now more than 100 houses, and it’s still growing. It’s so well hidden by the evergreen hedge, however, that you’d never even know it was there.