Catherine Heppenstall is a cool negotiator. So when the prospect of a major restoration and conversion project came up, her husband Sam knew the conditions. “We’ve worked on projects before. I knew what we were getting into,” she laughs. “So when I agreed to us buying the farm, the deal was this: an Aga and a baby — and we would have builders as well. And that’s how it worked out: we had the Aga, the baby, and builders — fantastic builders.”
In fact, Catherine had been just as keen as Sam to buy the farmhouse and attached barn which now form their home. It was just a question of timing. For years, she had been well aware of the potential, and tried to persuade the owner to sell. “I used to write to him and ring him up and he was always really lovely and charming,” she explains. “But he didn’t want to sell. It went on for seven years; no one was living in it and the house was falling apart.”
She only backed off when she and Sam managed to buy a property nearby and became so engrossed in their new plans that she was happy to let the farm go. “We had been there six months and the owner rang up and said, ‘Actually, I have decided to sell… would you like to buy it?’” she says. “By then, though, I didn’t want to sell. We had moved and moved, and the place we had was a family house. I knew what we would be taking on.”
But in the end it was too good an opportunity to miss. They asked three local architects to look at their ideas for the site, and as soon as they met Russell Earnshaw and Natalie Garside of A + DP, they knew they had found their team. “They were the most enthusiastic, professional and nicest people,” says Catherine. “That was important: if we were going to work with them, we had to get on.” Their choice of builder, Anthony Dearnley, was equally good. “He is just amazing; he thinks of everything,” she says. “He went out in fields rummaging for lintels that were old enough and weathered enough to match the ones we have got. He went around stonemasons and stone yards, scratching around in corners, trying to find an arched stone to match up with the existing round window.”
They decided to divide the work into two stages. To minimise time in rented accommodation, they opted to convert the barn first and move into it, then begin on the farmhouse, which was to be their permanent home, while they would rent the barn out.
From the beginning the Heppenstalls were resolutely hands-on. Their plans for the design were the starting point and it took just over a year to gain planning permission. Although not listed, the buildings lie in a Conservation Area and there were long debates over which of the two buildings should become the dominant element; the conservation team were arguing for the house, while Sam and Catherine held out for the barn, and Russell Earnshaw sent in a series of diagrams, showing the ways the massing of the buildings could be changed.
“We were very much involved in the design,” says Catherine. “But the levels did dictate how it would work out anyway. The bottom level, where the mistals – the cow sheds – were, is now the kitchen, then the lounge is where the carriages used to be kept, with the main bedroom and en suite above where the hay was stored. It went up to the roof from there, and we have put another floor in to make two more bedrooms and en suites.
“We wanted to keep the barn feel. We didn’t want it to look like all these barn conversions with glazed openings and wood-stained windows, so we made sure that the barn doors were put back on. From the outside it looks like the original barn door, but on the inside it’s all bricked up.”
One key element of the design is the staircase, which winds up through the core of the building. “I think a lot of clients wouldn’t want to make that commitment,” says Russell Earnshaw, who clearly approves of the Heppenstalls’ judgement. “They would want that extra floor space, and wouldn’t be prepared to give it up to create an architectural feature. It goes up in half levels, and what we were looking to do was keep a sense of the barn, to make the building read from one level to another.”
Sam and Catherine were keen to find a way to meet fire regulations, without compromising the sense of space. “We wanted to keep the barn as a barn, even though it is a home,” Catherine points out. “We didn’t `want to have any corridors or closed-in spaces, which could have been a problem in terms of meeting the fire regulations (SEE BELOW), so the architects suggested the option of putting in a domestic sprinkler system. We thought it would be really expensive, but it only added about £3,000 to the cost, and it meant that what we wanted to do was possible.”
By the time they were ready to start work, they had clear ideas on how they would use the space. “We had walked it through in our minds so often and we knew what would work and what wouldn’t,” Catherine explains. “If I was going to give any advice to others, it would be to talk your plans through with everybody you can.”
Work began in October 2005 and the biggest challenge proved to be the weather. “It was an absolute quagmire up here,” she says. “It was so cold they were lighting fires just to melt the surrounding land. If it wasn’t freezing, it was raining, so it was an absolute bog.”
Access was another issue. “It’s up a steep, narrow track, so we would have to explain that nothing could be sent on a long wheelbase and then they would send it anyway, so stuff would have to be brought up and down the track on a trailer, or on the back of the Land Rover. “Anthony [the builder] was brilliant. He went to the building site next to his house, spoke to the guys and they brought their crane up to the back, and craned massive oak beams over the top of the barn and into the house. That was the only way they were going to get them in because they weighed a ton.”
Weather and access aside, the project proved satisfyingly straightforward, and the result is a fresh and light home, which blends perfectly with its setting. The Heppenstalls applied the same attention to detail to the interior finishes. Flagstone and oak flooring, exposed beams and painted shutters set the scene for a modern take on traditional country style. Walls and woodwork are painted in a pared-down palette of neutral shades, and fittings, from kitchen cabinetry to sanitaryware, are all high quality. “We have found in the past that if you do it cheap, you do it twice,” says Catherine.
The promised Aga, though, was reserved for the farmhouse. “Once the building work was finished on the barn, the wet trades went in and the builders moved into the house,” says Catherine. “They were on site for two years. When it was all finished and they went away, it was awful. They had been around for so long and they were great with the children. Suddenly it was so quiet. It was good to have the place to ourselves, but we did miss having them around.
“We absolutely love living here and financially, yes, it was worth it. It has left us with a big mortgage for now. If we sold the barn, we could be mortgage-free, but we are renting it out and looking on it as an investment for the children, for their future.”
Domestic sprinkler systems
In houses with multiple storeys, it is usual to have to provide protected stairways and escape routes which are separated from one another by fire doors. However, this is not always practical and often does not fit in with the design wishes of homeowners looking for a more open plan arrangement. In this case it can be acceptable to install a domestic sprinkler system as a compensatory feature, although this will always need to be approved by Building Control.
Sprinkler systems do not have to be complicated to install, and some models can be connected to the cold water mains (depending on your water pressure). Costs vary, but expect to pay around £1.50/sq ft — which translates to around £2,250 for an average three bedroom house.