News – Converting an 18th century stone barn

Colin and Heather Morgan had lived in the same traditional Oxfordshire house for over 20 years, and were keen to trade their familiar surroundings for a modern, low-maintenance home with a manageable garden. They considered building a new house from scratch, but when a listed stone barn came onto the market they realised that it might be possible to enjoy the best of both worlds by tackling a conversion.

The Morgans spend six months of the year living on a golf complex in Florida, and were about to return to their home in the States when a small advert in the local paper caught their attention and they decided to take a look at the redundant barn.

“After three years of viewing various plots and houses, and a few near misses, we felt that converting a barn would offer the perfect solution,” says Colin. “It took imagination to see past the wobbly stonework, but planning permission had already been granted for a conversion and the building faces south, which was one of our main priorities.”

Surrounded by fields and standing in a group of converted farm buildings, Brotherton Barn is the largest of three barns which form a quadrangle with a listed farmhouse. Originally built in 1756, the former threshing barn was so overgrown that it was virtually impossible to see one half of the exterior. Inside, the structure was empty apart from a motley collection of bins, rubbish and a redundant Aga.

Despite its unprepossessing appearance, Colin and Heather were able to envisage clean lines and sleek, contemporary spaces within the thick stone walls of the dilapidated shell. Following advice from a builder friend the couple made an offer, which was accepted just before their return flight to Florida.

“We’d never tackled such an ambitious project before, and so worked with architectural practice The Anderson Orr Partnership, who shared our vision for the barn,” Heather explains. “Our tastes had changed dramatically over the years, and we didn’t want a traditional interior with exposed stonework and inglenook fireplaces. We’d been inspired by television programmes and magazines, and this was a chance to create the kind of pared down, open plan living spaces we admired.”

The planners were perfectly happy with the proposed juxtaposition of old and new, but working with a Grade II listed building involved liaising with the conservation officer, who was adamant that none of the original elm roof structure should be covered or obscured.

Colin and Heather agreed wholeheartedly with this decision, and the bulk of their living accommodation has been arranged on the ground floor, leaving the open plan kitchen, living and dining areas as doubleheight spaces in order to view the vaulted ceiling in its entirety. Three guest bedrooms have been positioned downstairs, with only the master bedroom suite located on the first floor — left open to the roof to enable uninterrupted views of the original structure.

More than half the building required underpinning, with one-metre-deep excavation to one end creating enough height for two storeys beneath the main roof. A monstrous ivy plant, with a root as thick as a leg, had penetrated the hefty stone walls — destroying and camouflaging an original buttress which needed to be completely rebuilt. “We hadn’t even realised there was a buttress until the builders started to take down the ivy and it was revealed,” says Colin, who employed stonemasons to repair and rebuild the external walls.

Part of the original roof had also rotted and collapsed, and a protective scaffold covering was erected over the barn for seven months while specialist company Carpenter Oak refurbished the existing timbers and spliced in new pieces of oak. The roof was then re-covered with 33,000 clay peg tiles.

“We were out in America for the early stages of the project and employed a full-time site supervisor to oversee the work on our behalf,” Colin explains. “Things didn’t go to plan, and we realised that we couldn’t continue organising things from such a distance. We’d already sold our UK property, so we ended up moving into a one bedroom rented flat for six months and I took over as project manager on site full time.”

Colin discovered first hand that working with an elderly listed building can bring unexpected problems. “The floorplans might look straight, but in practice none of the walls are square,” he says, “and fitting straight-sided rooms inside these walls proved to be a logistical nightmare.”

Additional delays occurred because some of the methods and materials chosen for the conversion were unfamiliar to the local tradesmen. Instead of plasterboard the Morgans lined their walls with a cellulose-based drywall system, which is screwed and glued in place.

“We decided against exposing the stonework inside the barn because we preferred a smooth, modern finish and wanted to reduce the amount of dust that stone tends to generate,” Heather explains. “One of our main objectives was to ensure that the house and garden would virtually take care of themselves.”

Despite starting out with a fixed budget, Colin readily admits that this was disregarded during the later stages of the project, as the couple began to lose track of build costs. These spiralled due to the high-specification finishes, including a sleek graphitecoloured designer kitchen with large sheets of glass mounted above the worktops to form seamless illuminated splashbacks.

Heating and electrical controls for the barn are effectively commercial grade. Touch-screen keypads operate the intelligent lighting system and music server, with a high-definition home cinema and a full TV, satellite, telephone and broadband network for all rooms. “I was the one who pushed for the hi-tech gadgets, and Heather refers to our elaborate plant room as the Starship Enterprise,” says Colin, who also installed a ground-source heat pump which is linked to the underfloor heating.

One gadget which proved spectacularly unsuccessful, however, was the ‘relaxing’ spa bath in the master en suite, with a noisy self-cleaning mechanism which resembled a plane taking off. The bath had been lifted into position through the bedroom window by forklift during the build, but needed to be manhandled over the glass balcony and down the stairs in order to be replaced with a quieter version.

The Morgans wanted to create a focal point in their open plan living space, and the unusual bespoke fireplace is a particular feature. Constructed in plastered blockwork, this free-standing slab contains a flueless LPG fire, with bottled gas piped from an external storage area under the patio and in through a wall.

The simple white structure acts as a room divider between the main sitting room and a smaller, stepped down TV/cinema snug, tucked behind the fireplace — the rear of which has been designed to contain display shelving. A conventional ceiling would have rendered this area dark and enclosed, but the glass landing overhead ensures the space is lit from above.

This incredible glass walkway was dreamed up by Colin and Heather, who saw a similar design in an old issue of H&R. It appears to float above the cinema area, and is accessed by oak treads which cantilever out from the wall. The entire structure was designed by a specialist company, who only just managed to manoeuvre the giant supporting steel frame for the staircase in through the patio doors.

“We’re both fine about walking on the glass floor, but we’ve had visitors who aren’t that comfortable with it,” says Heather. “After so many years spent living in a traditional house, we’ve adapted surprisingly well to life in such a hi-tech, modern home. The build took longer than anticipated, and there were a few dramas, but overall it’s been an exciting experience, and moving here has marked a completely new stage in our lives.”

How to get barns right

We talked to Paul Seamarks at architectural practice The Anderson Orr Partnership about the design. “The brief from our client was to sympathetically integrate a contemporary open design within the envelope of the original Grade II listed barn,” he says. “One of the most successful elements of the conversion is the staircase and gallery. It was our role to design and detail the floating staircase and glazed gallery following an example that our client had seen in a previous issue of H&R. Our aim was to create a connection between the open plan living area and the secluded master bedroom suite, without detracting from the vaulted spaces of the barn.

“The second key element for the barn conversion was how to design the entrance. With most barn conversions you find giving the building its own distinct entrance difficult because you’re working with the original openings and these tend to be large apertures to the sides of the building. Unusually, in this barn a single storey element already existed. Both ourselves and the client felt we could utilise this element for the entrance by opening up the roof with glazing. What has been created now gives the approaching visitor a sense of arrival and an idea of what can be expected inside.”