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Profile On: John Blackburn, Blackburn Architects

The senior principal of Blackburn Architects kindly took the time to answer some questions regarding the architectural design of equine facilities. “Blackburn Architects, P.C. is a full-service architectural planning and design firm specializing in equestrian architecture, commercial interiors, residential design, and renovation and adaptive reuse.”
If you have an interest in this area, why not check out their employment opportunities.

Have you always been interested in horses and when starting out in architectural design, was this horse related or something that developed later?
I first became interested in horses when I was a child. I had a twin sister who rode and showed but I had no interest in showing at the time. I didn’t have the patience. As a young boy, I just loved to play around the barn, build “houses” out of hay bales in the loft, and swing on a rope out of the hayloft door. Through my teenage years as my sister grew away from horses, our family moved and we no longer had the neighbor’s barn for our horse or for me to play.

Oakhaven, Blackburn Architects.

I didn’t get back into horses until I started my own architectural practice in Washington, DC in 1983 when my first project was designing a thoroughbred breeding farm. With that project I was able to reconnect with my equine past–which was really more of a connection with the barn than the actual riding of horses.

How much of your day/week is related to horses?
Since 75 to 80% of my practice is involved with equestrian design I suppose I spend easily 40 hours per week with equestrian-related work.

In the architecture field – focusing on horse related designs, is it possible for someone to be a full time professional, earning a livable income?
Yes, though that depends on your definition of “livable.” I think the architectural field is a lot tougher, requires more time, and is much less lucrative than those not connected with the profession may think it is.

Success in this field requires a love of architecture, a talent, an appreciation for good design, knowledge and interest in horses, and a lot of luck.

What are the general steps taken to be an architect of these sorts of projects?
Become an architect and learn as much about horses as you can. But, if you don’t have the interest, you can’t force it. Having an interest in horses or having grown up with horses does not necessarily make you a successful equestrian architect.

I have seen a number of barns designed by architects that look great on the surface or as an idea but are not designed for the health and safety of the horse. On the other hand, I have seen barns that do respond to the needs of the horse but are terrible designs. My goal is to balance the goals of the owner and their horses with the demands of the site, but the needs of the horse and its health and safety are what must remain paramount.

Any advice for those interested in pursuing a similar career?
There are a lot of different areas in architecture of which one can specialize; find the one that has the right balance for you. For me, I enjoy designing buildings that are environmentally sensitive and “fit” with their surroundings. Horse barns perfectly match my interests.

Is there anything else with horses you’d love to learn about or try?
I’m always interested in learning as much as I can about horses. I read articles all the time, but I learn the most from just talking or working with barn managers, farm managers, trainers, riders, etc. Each one is different and has their way they like to do things, whether it has to do with the layout of the barn, the farm, riding, showing, etc. I have often said that for every 100 farm-managers in a room, you will find 101 different ways of running that farm. There is a bottomless pool of information and experience out there—some good and some bad—but you learn something from all of it.

Every time I learn something new, which is often, I file it in a place in my head so I can recall it some day. I’ve been practicing equestrian design for 25 years and, having completed over a hundred equestrian projects, I feel I have a lot of experience filed away up there. My staff tells me they would like to find a way to plug in a cable and just download all that experience.

Favourite horse memory?
As a 10- or 12-year-old kid, getting on a horse bareback with just a halter and a lead rope and racing my friends across the fields as fast as we could until one of us fell off. Luckily, we never had a broken bone—just a lot of bumps and bruises—and some great memories.

Future goals?
Continue to produce the best designs I can, to continue to make clients happy with the result, and do work that I am proud of… and try to make a living at the same time.

We have designed equestrian projects in 30 states and two foreign countries. But I would like to expand my practice overseas so I can design for new environments and different contexts. The needs and caring for the horse remain constant, but the site and clients always change. With that, I am always looking for new environments and different client experiences. That brings more challenges—and more experience to gain—with every project.

Best thing about your sport/profession?
The satisfaction received from seeing a design become a reality and a satisfied client. I got into architecture because I enjoy construction and the greatest satisfaction is seeing one of your own designs become a reality and to see that it works and the client is happy. No project is perfect and, like any creative profession, there is always room for improvement. However, I learn something from every project and always strive for perfection in each project despite knowing that you can only get close. But the process is exciting and the reward is a successfully completed project.

I enjoy designing buildings that are natural and respond to their environment, whether it is the climate, the site, or the architectural context. I enjoy the traveling to all parts of the country, designing for a variety of locations and climates, and working with different people and a variety of equine sports.

“I live in a house but my home is in the stable.”

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