Architects Mike and Nea May Poole poured their design expertise into converting a barn in western Hanover County into their home.
“There was something about the barn that spoke to me,” Nea said.
The couple — co-principals of Poole & Poole Architecture in Midlothian — moved into the Barn at Walnut Hill this past June, months later than anticipated, with their two teenagers and long-haired Weimaraner.
“There were so many custom pieces,” Nea said, explaining the longer-than-expected renovation.
Poole & Poole specializes in multifamily, office and retail design, venturing into residential design only on occasion.
It currently has more than 10 apartment projects in the Richmond area under construction or in design, including Artisan Hill, a 200-plus apartment project in two buildings for developer Fulton Hill Properties in the Fulton Hill neighborhood east of downtown Richmond.
“We work together, we live together and we survived doing this house together,” Nea said.
The barn’s original 3,700 square feet of floor space is now a 7,000-square-foot house, with the addition of a second floor and conversion of a basement into living and storage space. Custom work includes:
- a two-story stone fireplace in the family room;
- a wall of Brazilian granite in the master bath;
- opaque glass mounted on barn door hardware as window coverings to provide privacy in the master bath;
- a floating metal staircase with wood steps and wire cable railing;
- white granite with gray veining cascading from top to side of a 5-by-7-foot kitchen island anchored by an original wood beam;
- a barn door to an office and a wall in a half-bath handcrafted from the structure’s original cedar plank siding; and
- stones from several quarries for a basement fireplace to match the stone foundation.
All of the original wood and steel beams were incorporated into the design.
“We wanted to keep as much as we could,” Nea said. “That includes all the original openings to preserve the natural rhythm of the space.”
Few things say Americana more than barns, which come in all shapes and sizes. No two are the same.
Restoration specialist Peter Post said the family farm was a self-contained community and that the barn was an important part of that self-reliance.
“The barn played a significant and functional role in the survival of the family,” said Post, owner of Peter Post Restoration in Henrico County.
Barns provided shelter for livestock and storage for feed.
However, “old barns are getting more scarce all the time,” vanishing over the past couple of decades as people scavenge and dismantle them for timber, he said.
Other old barns — not being central to as many families anymore — have fallen into disrepair. “That is another reason they are so rare and sought after,” Post said.
“People love the architectural style and expansive spaces.”
The barn is at the heart of every working U.S. farm and ranch, Jan Corey Arnett wrote in her book “American Barns.”
“The book chronicles — and celebrates — all the main types, and looks at how these treasures of early American architecture developed,” according to a statement.
The Barn at Walnut Hill was solid when the Pooles bought it and the 31 acres off Walnut Hill Drive in Rockville for $440,000 in 2014.
Built in 1977, it was used to store hay for cattle on land owned by late philanthropists J. Harwood and Louise Cochrane. He founded Overnite Transportation.
Judy Hines, the Cochranes’ daughter, recalls that orphaned and abandoned calves were once hand-fed in the barn’s open-sided basement with four bays.
Half the basement area now is a family game room and kitchenette that opens to a pool and outdoor entertainment area. The other half is a garage, big enough to fit eight cars.
“We walked all over the entire building,” Hines said about a recent visit to the barn house. “It’s done fabulously.”
The Barn at Walnut Hill sits atop a rolling hillside with an all-new exterior — wood siding in a color reminiscent of barn red but with more brown tones; a dark gray metal roof; window dormers cut and elongated from original 4-foot-wide vents; and stone pavers added for a front walk to match the original stone foundation.
Two huge barn doors shape the front entryway. A modern maple wood and metal front door opens to a two-story foyer and living room.
An 8-foot-wide industrial fan (from Big Ass Fans Co.) circulates air from the ceiling in the foyer.
Ceilings are 12 feet on the main floor and 9 feet on the second floor.
Also on the main floor are the kitchen, pantry, a half-bath, laundry, office, dining room and master suite.
The dining area features two floor-to-ceiling, custom-made wine closets with pegs to display the bottles and the art on their labels. Between the closets is a painting depicting Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and a countertop for serving wine — showing the owners’ attention to detail.
The Poole teenagers, Helen and Michael, claimed the second floor, with their bedrooms on either end of the house and open walkways running along the front and back sides of the house.
The house has three fireplaces (wood-burning in the living room, electric in the master bath and gas in the basement).
Every sink is different. The kitchen features a farmhouse apron sink and an unusual linear sink in the island.
The color palette throughout is gray and white (Amazing Gray and Shoji White by Sherwin Williams), punctuated with black steel beams, natural wood beams, black metal work and oak flooring on the main level. The color exception is Michael’s bedroom. He picked sage green.
“It was super-fun project,” said interior designer Susan Boatright, a partner in Atlanta-based Focus Design Interiors Inc. “It’s a modern farmhouse, not a rustic look.”
The Pooles had a vision from the beginning, Boatright said. “They knew what they wanted.”
Nea was the lead architect on the project. “Mike was the best husband ever, letting me make the majority of decisions,” she said.
He stepped in as a problem solver, figuring out, for instance, how to deal with 6-by-6-inch beams that would be incorporated into 4-inch walls. Let the extra 2 inches jut from the wall.
“Sometimes the weirdest things end up being the coolest,” Nea said.
That includes a unique hallway from the bedroom to the bath with a door to an outside deck on one side and closets on the interior side.
Nea designed an asymmetrical pool and seating arrangements for a backyard entertainment area. But she couldn’t figure out how to make a hot tub look like part of the design and not plopped on the deck.
Mike suggested a platform that became part of the design.
“We’re architects; we’re always going to tinker with it,” Mike said about the project in general.
He is researching awnings for the back of the house, which faces west and opens to glorious sunsets but also to the hot sun.
The rooftop holds 48 solar panels on the west side to generate power and credits from the utility.
“We’re paying about the same [for electricity] as the house before and this is twice the size,” Mike said.
The family moved to the barn house from a traditional brick-front Colonial in the Wyndham residential community in western Henrico about 7 miles from Walnut Hill.
“As two architects, we never would have picked the design for ourselves,” Nea said about the Colonial. But their children were 4 and 5 years old at the time and it was what the family needed then.
“This is us; it is our taste, our design decisions,” she said about the barn house.
The barn incorporates old and new. Nea admits to being more modern in taste, while Mike likes to balance the new with the old, bringing in antique furniture, for example, to add warmth.
The contractor on the project — like the interior designer — said he had never worked before on a barn renovation.
“Moving ductwork and plumbing around the beams and making ceiling lines look intentional definitely presented challenges,” said Scott Smith, owner of Portico Classic Homes in Chesterfield County.
“We tried to show and expose the [original] structure where it made sense,” Smith said. “Overall, I really enjoyed ... collaborating with the Pooles to build such a unique and impressive home.”
Ore and Fiber, a Richmond-based business that uses metal ores and reclaimed wood to make handcrafted items, did the custom metal work.
“It was an amazing project and I am very thankful that the Pooles gave us the opportunity to create such a high-profile detail for their home,” said Ore and Fiber owner Zach O’Carroll, who crafted the staircase, railings and sliding barn doors.
Surface Architectural Supply, also in Richmond, did the wood stairs and bar top. Brazilian Best Granite in Henrico supplied and installed the granite.