A Community Barnraising
By Sean Sullivan
Rising from the ashes of its longstanding forebear, the Natick Community Organic Farm’s new barn has slowly been taking shape over the course of the last few years. During that time, fundraising and planning stages have been underway.
In more recent months, actual beams of the new barn have been going up.
The emerging structure might impress even the Amish, a culture renown for its adherence to traditional building techniques and quality of finished product.
There are some threaded, metal fasteners visible here and there, but much of the joinery is achieved and held fast via the old-school system of hammered pegs - hefty dowels tapped into place, protruding ends sawn off. Heavy horizontal beams are snugly fitted into notched recesses to support the structure and supplies that will go above.
“We’re not messing around,” said Erin O’Brien of the new barn’s robust build. She serves as the farm’s Marketing and Communications Coordinator.
With her was Nicky Wilson, Assistant Director of Internal Operations at NCOF.
The sun still shone down through ribs of an uncovered roof upon an earthen floor as we walked under the structure’s thick amber bones, though finished plans include a poured concrete floor.
A crew was busy under a hot morning sun that day in early June, nailing machined planks of white pine into place - the new barn’s exterior. The wood’s pale blonde skin stood in contrast against the golden hue of the barn’s beams beneath.
“It fit together so beautifully,” said Wilson. “We just couldn’t stop watching” as it began and continued to take shape.
The erstwhile barn was claimed in a fire a few years earlier, a loss that made headlines around the region. The exact date of the blaze has been burned into the memories of staff members, and the two recalled and recited it without hesitation. March 17th, 2021. Four o’clock in the morning.
Livestock had long been housed in the barn, and several animals did not survive the fire. A few antique hinges were all that was salvageable from the old building, which dates back to the early 1800s.
“Everybody was affected by this awful event,” said Wilson. “It was a huge tragedy. Honoring that history has been really important to the farm.”
Wilson is a British expat, and has been in the U.S. for about two years. She’s still acclimating to Yankee jargon, a process in which O’Brien has played a key role.
“This is 30 percent of my job,” said O’Brien: serving as an interpreter of American colloquialisms for Wilson.
To safeguard the new barn against the fate of its predecessor, it will be outfitted with fire-prevention measures like alarms and a sprinkler system. No heat lamps will be permitted in the structure, the fixtures cited as a possible cause of the conflagration that consumed the old barn. Safer technologies will instead be installed to keep spaces and livestock warm during darker months and days of the year.
The barn’s designers also took advantage of a generous southern-facing façade, planning a solar array on the steep roof that crowns it. Glass paneling on the same side will also allow for passive use of the sun’s rays, turning much of the south side’s interior into a greenhouse and source of heat for the entire barn.
In keeping with traditional building techniques of yesteryear, one layer of oil will be applied to the bare wood to seal it against the elements and years.
The structure will feature two-and-a-half floors, a spacious first and second level. In between, a false floor will be built into the southwest corner. Stairs connecting the levels will be located there as well.
Since the loss of the former barn, the farm has been making use of metal storage containers to keep perishables and other supplies out of the elements. All the additional square footage the new barn offers will allow the farm to buy and store greater quantities of supplies - saving money by buying bulk.
A brand new barn also opens opportunities to create new indoor spaces for programming at the farm. During inclement weather or other activities, the indoor space could serve as a fun place for gathering indoors - for young students taking part in the farm’s camp offerings.
The new building is the handiwork of New Energy Works, an architectural and building firm that creates heavy timber edifices as its niche. At sites in New York and Oregon, the company cuts components of each building on-site. They then ship them out to clients like Natick Community Organic Farms, where the pieces are assembled into sturdy and sightly structures.
To raise funds toward raising the new barn, friends of the farm ran a successful campaign soliciting donations. The destruction of the old barn was felt acutely by the community, and many individuals and organizations came forward to help replace some of what was lost.
In addition to many small gifts, about 150 donors gave over the $1,000 threshold. Passersby beneath the beams will note names carved into the thick wood; they identify a handful of major benefactors. One anonymous donor gave $200,000. Total cost for the new barn came in at around $1.2 million.
“An awful event has been a chance for us to connect with so many people again,” said O’Brien.
Crowning the growing barn is a cupola, that small, roofed square that has served as an iconic cherry atop such structures for centuries. The cupola (from the Latin cupula: “small cup”) has a functional role as well as an aesthetic one, venting the rising heat and smells from inside the barn upward and outward.
Looking closely, one could see a branch had been placed inside the frame of the unfinished cupola, a tradition in keeping with the barn building practices of old. A birch branch - its leaves still green - was thought to serve as a talisman toward good luck while building was still underway. Birch also symbolizes rebirth, new beginnings, and growth - a fitting tribute to the old barn and the new at NCOF.
As for when the barn will be completed, Wilson and O’Brien wouldn’t hazard an estimate. The end of the building process is in sight, confirmed Wilson, but she demurred from making any definitive predictions.
“It’s really anyone’s guess. We don’t want to jinx it.”