Barns – the Long House

Situated on the North Norfolk coast, this is a building to admire…

After my recent complaints about the Balancing Barn, specifically the mismatched blend of Dutch design and the Suffolk countryside, I came across Alain de Botton and Living Architecture’s latest development, the Long House.

Situated on the North Norfolk coast, this is a building to admire, incorporating a modern reinterpretation of medieval barn roofs with references to the local vernacular through the enclosing giant flint walls and extensive timber work.

This quotation from the Observer suggests great success in the architectural design:

“Insulated from the elements yet somehow part of the landscape. Which is perhaps the best experience a holiday house can offer.”

Now that is more like it…

The trouble with barn conversions

I suppose that I’ve been avoiding writing this post for quite some time, probably since not long after we started work on the barn and this blog. So, cards on the table, time to explore the dark-side(or at least some of the challenges) of barn conversions…

There are a whole bunch of troubles that come with barn conversions, some that I’ve experienced first hand, others at a distance…

NB: This section is only applicable in certain parts of the country, my experience is in Carmarthenshire, other parts of the country do not have such restrictions.

Some time ago planners and planning departments thought that barn conversions were a good idea. But that was back in the 90’s and things have changed since then. The consequences of barn conversions – splintered, untenable farms and rural gentrification (too much gravel and too many bay trees), became too high a price to pay. Local plans were changed to reflect this about face and new restrictions were introduced to encourage non-residential repurposing of barns.

We bought the barn at the cusp of this change, before residential planning had a prerequisite of two years on the market for holiday let or commercial use only, so things were easier for us then than they would be now. We were able to simply buy a barn with permission in place and convert it – that’s not likely to be the case today.

In common with most building projects, chasing paper and knowing which pieces of paper to chase can become a real head-ache. Plans, schedules, planning permission & building control letters and a myriad of certificates – from the Environment Agency, Hetas, your electrician, energy assessor – the boxes to tick and bits of paper to collect are numerous.

Make sure that you know what documentation is required when you start your project, BUT also keep track of changes that occur as your project progresses. For example, when we started converting the barn an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) was a part the ill-fated, ‘later-to-have-its-wings-clipped’ HIPS home information pack scheme something for prospective house buyers – a few years later I needed one as part of the building control sign-off (Admittedly, I may well have missed the requirement for one at the start of the project – but I don’t think so!).

They are awkward things barns. Big, empty, hard to divide spaces, with messy rubble built walls and often cut-price roofing, the floor, doors and windows will all need replacing and utilities will need to be added – and that’s if you’re lucky. Where you need to make changes (new openings, an extension, a new roof etc.) these will need to be in keeping with the local vernacular and more importantly your local planning departments vision of how the local vernacular should now manifest itself.

ARCHITECTS, PLANNERS, BUSYBODIES and other know-it-alls…
There’s a strange thing about barns. Before you start to convert them they just sit there, often neglected, dilapidated and generally unloved. Relics of a bygone age of back breaking, manually punishing agriculture. By and large, dusty, dirty unloved places, usually unseen and largely uncared for.

Then some mad romantic fool comes along, buys the barn and changes the game… Now it’s a much loved throwback to a halcyon age of honest endeavour an icon & a relic and you as the owner have become its custodian. Those-who-know-best now descend and urge you to retain its essential nature, keep it locked up tight, dark, untouched and ‘barnlike’.

Having said all that I wouldn’t have missed a minute of my conversion…

Village Buildings of Britain by Matthew Rice

If you have an interest in vernacular architecture then you’ll find plenty here to while away an hour or two, but my feelings toward this book are ambivalent…

This is a compact and tidy little book with a plethora of information in both pictures and text. If you have an interest in vernacular architecture then you’ll find plenty here to while away an hour or two…

…but my feelings toward this book are ambivalent…

The artistic diagrams are pleasing on the eye, the text well written and informative, but at times I just cannot agree with Matthew Rice and his opinions.

In an enlightened age, a constructive attitude to the conservation of villages should encompass responsible expansion with harmonious new building and a sensitive and well-informed approach to restoration. Happily this is a responsibility that falls on the individual householder or developer and not on government or local authority bodies. In this lies the greatest hope for Britain’s vernacular architecture.

From my experience the vast majority of self-builders just can’t be trusted to respect the vernacular architecture of the locality of their site. I only have to look at the cut-price Palladian mansions springing up around Carmarthenshire to evidence that.

However I name myself a hypocrite as last year I was proclaiming self-builders to be a force for good when moaning that self-builders-need-some-encouragement so a big fat raspberry to me!

In my defense, I think that’s what Matthew Rice does to you (or at least to me), with his somewhat superior tone your opinions are reinforced and crystallised, even to the extent where your opinions (admittedly not very strongly held ones) are reinforced down an unusual track that Mr Rice has opened up to you.

I also found the content somewhat incomplete – close to home Wales seems to consist of the North and little else… nothing in my part of the world.

Then we come to barn conversions:

Barns have proved an irresistible temptation to farmer and developers who found in the late 1980s that these redundant buildings were worth more than the rest of their land. The countryside is scarred with the results of the work of these speculators. All too often […], the stone roof is pierced with shining skylights, the architectural form of the doorway is broken up […] and an unsuitable feature, such as this ‘Victorian-style’ conservatory is added. The new windows, with which the walls are dotted, are in a style with no architectural antecedents and stained a particularly nasty treacly brown, much favoured in new developments. By demolishing the lean-tos and altering the overall shape of the building, much of the character of this barn has been lost while charmless fencing and straight-edged driveways have suburbanized the yard. […]

In theory the conversion shown below [pictured] is a better one but, although there are fewer architectural incursions – the outbuildings have been kept and the grounds are less manicured – the appearance of the barn has been altered to such an extent that its original purpose as a farm building has been lost. Rather than becoming a country house, it is now an awkward hybrid.

Barns are as important to the look of the English* countryside as churches and houses, punctuating the fields and hedges. We are historically an agricultural population and these buildings are its monuments and should preserved as such.

[*Much as I hate to be picky this sloppy geography is a particular bugbear of mine, the book is about Britain, so this reference to English is either wrong or Mr Rice is discounting the importance of barns in other parts of the country!…]

I wish Matthew Rice and his ilk (one of whom has passed by here recently) would remove the sepia glasses that provide them with a view of the supposed historic agrarian idyll to which barns are a monument – monuments for which I and other barn owners are responsible. Whilst I agree with sentiments about ‘Victorian-style’ conservator[ies] and particularly nasty treacly brown window frames, these are details, personal choices that we should respect even as we dislike them. Converting a barn is hard and expensive work, to add to that an additional requirement of treating the barn as a monument is unrealistic. I’m all for sympathetic conversions, but to expect them all to be monuments to their former purpose just doesn’t sit easily with me.

…I think I’ll leave further comment on that to another post…

But, don’t get me wrong, this is a pretty book of strong opinions and that’s a good thing. You may not agree with everything in it, but it’ll give you something to think about and I’d much rather that than a bland, fawning read. Just don’t expect to be able to live up to Mr Rice’s exacting standards unless you have very, very deep pockets, are willing to put the past on a pedestal and largely disregard modernity.

If you’re interested in British vernacular architecture then this book is recommended.

Maintain Traditions – architecture, design and the local vernacular

Consider the local vernacular.

Consider the local vernacular. When converting or renovating you’ll already have a great reference point in the building itself and others close-by of a similar age.

So, in East Anglia, a wheat straw thatched roof is a appropriate choice just as are brick and flint walls in Wiltshire or a cross-over slate lintel on a house in North Wales.

Of course your local planning office may have differing opinions, having decided on a local ‘style’ – rendered walls with stone corners for example, that is not actually in keeping with the local vernacular at all … don’t forget to pick your fights wisely …

Snippets on MBC

Rather than my usual wordy ramblings I thought I’d challenge myself to come up with some short gems of (throw-away) advice on how I think you should go about a conversion… Snippets …this is one!