Improvisations on the Land: The Cowell Ranch Hay Barn Reinvented. A conversation with architect Richard Fernau (Cowell ’69)

October 26, 2017

The Cowell Ranch Hay Barn at UC Santa Cruz.

On Wednesday evening, November 8, architect, UC Santa Cruz alumnus and Professor Emeritus of architecture Richard Fernau will speak about his office’s renovation/reinvention of the Cowell Ranch Hay Barn in the context of his recently published book, Improvisations on the Land: the Houses of Fernau & Hartman. The event takes place at the Hay Barn, with a reception beginning at 6 p.m. and the presentation at 7 p.m.

This free event is the last in the UCSC Farm & Garden’s 50th Anniversary Book & Film Series. Free parking will be available at the Hay Barn and in the Carriage House parking lot at the corner of Coolidge Drive and Carriage House Road. For more information or to RSVP, call 831-459-2339, or email

The historic Hay Barn reinvented

A key element of the working Cowell Ranch and now part of the Cowell Lime Works National Historic District, the 150-year-old Hay Barn reopened in September 2015, following an extensive renovation funded by a gift from the Helen and Will Webster Foundation and designed by Fernau + Hartman Architects. 

The Hay Barn now houses the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), a research, education, and public service program dedicated to creating more just and sustainable food systems. The site also hosts classes, workshops, and high-profile campus events and programs, and is available as a rental facility.

The Hay Barn’s renovation had to honor the building's formal simplicity and dramatic siting, while also conforming to the state’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties as well as current building safety codes and stringent energy requirements.

The architects’ approach was "one of rehabilitation rather than strict preservation,” says Fernau. “Because our overriding principle was to do nothing to diminish the essential character of the historic barn, we chose to express what is old as old and new as new." 

On March 21, 2015, a group of 20 professional timber framers, joined by 50 community volunteers, employed construction techniques from the 1860s to join the massive mortise-and-tenon timber frame. The project used wood salvaged from the original barn (which was carefully dismantled prior to reconstruction), knit together with new, specially milled Douglas fir framing members and sided with redwood chosen to complement the original materials.  

Renovation work honored

The renovation of the Hay Barn has received multiple architectural awards: a 2017 California Preservation Design Award in Rehabilitation; a 2017 Excellence in Architecture for Building Additions for Adaptive Reuse from the Society for College and University Planning; a 2017 U.S. WoodWorks Regional Excellence Award, and a 2016 Excellence in Design Honor Award from American Institute of Architects Montana.  The AIA Montana award noted the “exhaustive documentation, piece-by-piece deconstruction, painstaking reassembly of the historic structure by weaving together new and old elements, and the incorporation of contemporary program. As home to one of the university’s most progressive programs, the Hay Barn is both an emblem of the campus’ origins and a reassertion of its commitment to innovation.”

Richard Fernau is a member of the pioneer graduating class of UCSC (B.A., Philosophy, ’69) and Professor Emeritus of Architecture at UC Berkeley. He is the author of Improvisations on the Land: the Houses of Fernau & Hartman (Monacelli Press, 2015).  Fernau is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a principal in the Berkeley-based firm Fernau+Hartman Architects, which has won numerous awards for its work. He has lectured widely, most recently in Barcelona at the Collegi d’ Arquitectes de Catalunya, and at Hong Kong University.


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