Converting a barn represents a unique opportunity to carve out your own slice of idyllic country life, but it’s also a major undertaking. These structures – whether historic or new – weren’t built to deliver on comfort, so many will need a significant amount of work to bring them up to scratch.
Taking a sensitive approach to design and construction will ensure the original character shines out once the barn conversion is finished. So what can you do to make certain you pick the right property and draw out its full potential?
If you know the area you want to live in, then it’s worth contacting local estate agents – but bear in mind they may be more geared towards marketing finished homes than wrecks.
You might also find potential barn conversionsadvertised in the local paper, or even spot a prime candidate by exploring the catchment. General property websites like Rightmove and Zoopla may list suitable opportunities, but for a more specialised search try Barns Etc or Renovate Alerts.
Conventional mortgages don’t suit conversion projects, where you need funds released to support key phases of the works. Instead, you’ll choose a product that works more like a stage payment self-build mortgage. Leading broker BuildStore is a good place to start.
In April 2014, the rules for barn conversions were relaxed in England. Changing the use of farm buildings to create homes is now allowed as permitted development (PD). This means express planning permission isn’t needed; although there is a ‘Prior Notification’ procedure to go through.
However, there are some significant caveats. The total floorspace of the finished house must not exceed 450m2, for example. And PD status doesn’t extend to listed buildings or designated zones, such as conservation areas and national parks.
Permitted development rights to convert farm buildings currently only apply in England. Elsewhere in the UK, or for projects that involve significant works or extensions, you’ll still need to obtain full planning consent. In most cases you’ll be heavily restricted when it comes to making external changes, too.
Even if PD applies to your barn conversion scheme, you may still need permission for alterations such as changing the roof pitch or height, rebuilding significant parts of the structure or inserting new windows. The government’s permitted development guidance only allows for as much work as is ‘reasonably necessary for the building to function as a house’.
Barns were usually built quickly and cheaply as simple stores or to meet other agricultural needs. It’s therefore important to have their stability checked out by a surveyor, architect or structural engineer before you buy.
Key areas of the building’s fabric to look over include the load bearing walls, roof structure and foundations. It’s pretty common for barns to need underpinning if you want to add a second storey, for example.
Armed with this information, you’ll be in a much better position to decide whether a barn conversion project is viable.
You may think that, with the shell of a building already in place, there’s no need to hire an architect or similar professional.
In fact, barn conversion projects can be even more taxing at the design stages than new homes. It takes a lot of skill to maximise the potential of an existing structure; especially if it wasn’t initially intended as a dwelling.
The key is achieving the best balance between practical living space, the barn’s original character and making the most of features such as double-height space.
When Douglas Forrest from Acanthus Architects spotted a modern steel frame barn, he saw its potential. The finished conversion makes use of the structure’s stability to offer huge open-plan spaces, while the corrugated cladding affords an unusual industrial feel. The 300m2 home was completed for £350,000.
The essential ingredient in your new home will be the design of the original barn, and it’s important to keep in mind why you were attracted to it in the first place.
Features such as old beams, timber cladding and beautiful stonework will bring unique character and quality to the finished result – so try to show these off to their full potential.
If you get it right, you’ll be rewarded with a wonderfully individual, and highly saleable, property. Where you do need to introduce new materials, try to do so sensitively and with respect to the local vernacular – but don’t be afraid to put a contemporary spin on things.
Most working farm buildings are uninsulated, so one key job will be to upgrade the barn’s thermal performance to meet modern-day standards.
In most cases, you’ll want to preserve the external cladding (whether stone, brick, timber or metal). This means you’ll have to insulate the walls internally. Typically you would batten out and fit a breathable insulation such as sheepswool between the studs, which can then be covered with plasterboard.
If you’re planning to retain vaulted ceilings, insulation will usually be fitted between the rafters (as well as beneath, if required). You’ll need to add protection underfoot, too, which is likely to mean digging down through the floor to accommodate rigid insulation boards.
There’s a good chance your barn won’t be hooked up to mains water, electricity, gas or drainage. Get early quotes from the utility suppliers for the cost of connection, as bundled together these could easily add £1,000s to your budget. Fitting renewable options, such as heat pumps and solar electric panels, may help keep bills low.
Many Build It readers opt for underfloor heating for their barn conversions. The radiant warmth it produces can provide a more even climate in the open-plan, vaulted spaces common in barns. You can also enjoy the aesthetic benefits of not having to attach radiators to the walls. If head height is tight, consider a slimline system such as Nu-Heat’s easy-to-install LoPro range.
Few barns feature enough large openings to satisfy modern demands for internal brightness, so you’ll almost certainly want to increase the number of windows punctuating the structure.
The problem is that planners can see these changes as detrimental to the building’s agricultural appeal – especially at the principal facade. Even the new PD rights in England will only let you go so far.
Conservation-style rooflights tend to be favoured as a discreet solution, and the top-down illumination they produce can transform a home’s interiors.
Many designers are using clever solutions to get round restrictions on conventional new openings.
Among the fabulous examples that have gained planning permission include glazed double-height entrances (which is generally accepted to preserve the barn’s open look) and even entire glazed gable ends.
Barns tend to have narrow footprints, which don’t work well with lots of partitions and corridors. Open-plan internal layouts are usually a better bet – plus they can help to allow sunlight to filter through the entire space. Vaulted ceilings can accentuate the effect.
One of the trickiest elements to get right is incorporating bedrooms. If the structure doesn’t lend itself to a full upper story, consider locating the sleeping quarters on mezzanine levels at either end of the building, perhaps joined by a galleried landing.
Planners aren’t likely to accept large extensions to a barn conversion, but smaller versions that can be demonstrated to be subservient may be permissible.
A simple lean-to in a traditional style could house a utility or similar space; but contemporary additions can work well, too. These provide a counterpoint to the existing barn and a clear division between old and new that some planners like. Oak frame is popular for this type of addition.
It’s fair to say that a barn conversion won’t come cheap. You may well pay more per m2 of floorspace than you would self-building a new home from scratch.
This is because conversion projects involve a lot of painstaking work stripping back and repairing the existing fabric. All of this needs to be done while preserving original features as far as possible.
But while the costs are likely to be a little higher, a good-quality barn conversion can be hugely attractive to buyers for its imitable character.
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