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America's Best Shops
Friday, May 25, 2018 11:01AM CDT
By Dan Miller
Progressive Farmer Senior Editor

Tom Ries poured a new concrete floor in a one-time chicken house and, then, just kept going. "It wasn't in terrible shape. But, it needed some work," he says. The result was a compact 690-square-foot shop -- simple in many ways -- but one that meets Ries's needs for a dry and warm place to maintain a small-equipment fleet.

It also created room for a 345-square-foot gym. Ries's wife, Lindsay, is an interior designer who is into kickboxing and CrossFit. It's not often you'll find a pair of boxing gloves lying in a farm shop. "She gets into it pretty heavy," Ries allows.

The Monticello, Iowa, farm where the Rieses live is inhabited by a cluster of white, circa-1950s buildings. In their day, each building served a specific role. There is a single-story machine shed, the cattle shed, a hog barn, corn crib and a pretty magnificent dairy barn, with tie stalls on the ground floor and above, gothic-style, laminated rafters arching over an immense hay loft.

"It was my great aunt and uncle who built all this, so there is some history here. With history, you really don't want to destroy everything," says Ries, as he walks with a visitor among the cluster of buildings on a nice summer day. They are all in fairly good condition -- not a sagging roof or bulging wall among them. "These buildings have a lot of good use left in them. Instead of starting over, starting new, we wanted to renew what we have here."


The chicken house has space for trucks, small tractors and lawn mowers, and the small gasoline engines that run blowers, trimmers and chain saws. "With our main shop space being 23 x 30 feet and an overhead door height of 11 feet, the size of equipment that can be brought in is very limited, although this still makes a perfect space for working on smaller equipment," Ries explains.

Former owners took a swing at converting the chicken structure into shop space. But, it had fallen into disrepair. The new renovation began with the floor. "The floor was like a lot of old concrete. Everything ran to the walls, and there was no drain." The new pad fixed both issues, and the new floor slopes to a new floor drain.

Water service was a big deal. Where it once flowed from an often-frozen hydrant outside, Ries ran a water line into the shop. "It might sound simple, but that was one of our best improvements," he says.

Ries installed energy-efficient doors and insulated, double-pane windows. The walls are insulated and, for purposes of easy cleaning, are also covered with Reinforced Polyurethane Foam boards, often called glass board. They are strong, lightweight panels resistant to rot.


The shop boasts a strong Wi-Fi signal and is lighted by long-lasting LED lights he may never have to change. All the wiring and outlets are new. Ries tried to go old-school with the heat, but the wood-burning stove didn't measure up to an Iowa winter. "About the time we got the fire going, I was done with whatever project we were doing," he says. Instead, he installed a propane heater on the ceiling. Temperature is controlled by a wireless thermostat and monitored remotely.

"We know we're going to use it every day, so we thought we might as well have brought it to the next level," Ries says.

This shop has a television monitor -- what shop doesn't these days? The monitor is connected to the internet. So, when the football games are over, you might find Ries watching a YouTube video showing him how to repair a piece of equipment.

The monitor hangs above an L-shaped workbench. Ries makes good use of the space. A section of the bench is covered with a metal top for heavy work. A large vise and hideaway bench grinder give the space good function.


Ries's shop has compressed air delivered by a retractable hose. The compressor is housed in a large loft space above the shop floor. A permanently plumbed pressure washer sits by the overhead door. Hot water is delivered to the sink by a point-of-use water heater.

Outside the shop door, Ries poured a 30-x-35-foot approach connecting the shop with the machine shed. The pad nearly doubled the hard surface area available for work in good weather and improved the passage of equipment between buildings.

He believes the old chicken house has been successfully converted. "Having the space to spread out and stay clean is a big improvement. But, the most important feature of the shop is [that it allows us] to organize. We're not spending our time hunting for tools and parts."


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