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The Art of Designing Barn Conversions

Charlie is a regular columnist for Homebuilding & Renovating, which is one of Britain’s most successful self-build magazines.  In the September issue read Charlie’s Design Masterclass on the secret to a successful barn conversion.

The secret to a successful conversion is working with the existing building, rather than shoehorning in ‘traditional’ domestic features, says designer Charlie Luxton.

With a practice in rural north Oxfordshire I’ve been lucky enough to work on lots of barn conversions and I love designing them. I relish the challenge of creating a functional, dramatic home while maintaining the core ‘barn-y-ness’ of the building. For me, the Litmus test for the success of any conversion is that, if led blindfolded into one and then unmasked, you should immediately know what kind of building you’re in. Too often conversions obliterate and obscure a barn’s origins so that it looks and feels like an ordinary but oddly proportioned house, and not a celebration of the utilitarian beauty of the existing building.

In many ways, barns are a bit like relationships — if you hope to take one on because you want to change it, then don’t. If you can love it for what it is, quirks and all, then a barn’s life is for you.

 

Embrace the Functional Beauty

The recent changes to planning rules have opened up the possibility of residential conversion for many agricultural structures previously considered not worthy. Dutch barns (opposite, left), corrugated metal barns and pole barns are supremely functional. Embracing the ‘barn-y-ness’ of these buildings is even more important in getting the best out of this latest crop of agricultural buildings ripe for conversion. I find real beauty in their pragmatic simplicity, but you do have to work with their core character and make the structure, form and materials work for you rather than force them to be what they are not.

The barn form lends itself to so much of what we want in a modern home — space, height and massive openings for walls of glass. They allow for experimentation in affordable, interesting materials, too. Metal, timber, fibreboard, rubber, you name it, pretty much anything goes with these buildings — except trying to make them what they are not. They are not constructed from traditional house materials, for instance, so trying to reclad them in slate, tile, brick or stone will more than likely end up looking wrong. Nor are they ‘polite’, with regularly spaced portrait windows which conform to the Golden Ratio. They shouldn’t have porches, dormers, brick chimneys or fiddly domestic details. If you do want these features, go and buy a house! If you want to go on an adventure into design and a home full of architectural interest, barns are a good bet.

 

Getting the Interior Spaces Right

Another challenge with barns is fitting in all the rooms and functions necessary in a modern home without subdividing the space too much; again, think back to the blindfold test. I also always try and make a ‘moment’ in a barn conversion when you can understand the entire height, width and length of the original space; a memory of the raw, untamed building. Architecture needs drama and barns can provide this through wonderful uncluttered space — keeping this alive as you transform your barn is key to success.

The blindfold test should also apply to the interior design and fit-out. The interior and exterior should chime. This could be through simple, rustic, agricultural-inspired construction using traditional materials, or contrasting super-sleek modern minimalism (the Kitchen Architecture Bulthaup kitchen, above, being a prime example). It is not for me to say how it should be or look, but it must communicate and be in dialogue with the buildings roots.

 

Introducing Light

When built, barns were not conceived for human habitation. As such, they usually have very few openings, but those openings which they do possess tend to be either massive – designed for loading and unloading industrial-scale machines and/or animals – or very small, for purposes of cross ventilation. Getting light into all the rooms without punching the building with too many new openings, is one of the single biggest challenges facing converters.

There are no hard and fast rules but I tend to start with the light and view, locating the principal habitable rooms where the main openings are, while accepting that some parts of the building will, most likely, be dark. Utility, plant rooms and WCs may only have borrowed light but if handled well and contrasted against spacious, light-filled living and circulation areas, they can be an interesting counter note in the wider composition of the design. Dark, cosier spaces may well lend themselves to snugs and living rooms used in the evening.

Do all you can to avoid new openings. Where they are absolutely crucial, consider them in the same vein as the existing structure. Fewer larger openings are nearly always better than multiple smaller ones. Single openings that span between floors or rooms so that externally they appear as one opening rather than two, can help maintain a building’s integrity. Barns were not generally designed with polite symmetry in mind, they are often a bit random and asymmetric, so try and continue that in your alterations. Most barns are a simple rectangular shape, so rooflights are key to getting light into the middle of the building while maintaining the monolithic integrity of the walls. Here too anything domestic is the enemy so think large single rooflights rather than multiple small ones.

  • 170222_Link with solar shading2 12/05/2017Planning Permission We have just gained planning approval on a project in Oxfordshire where our clients wanted to extend and improve this barn that had originally been converted in the 1990s. The proposal catches the original barn between two related single storey
  • GDL17 28/04/2017Grand Designs Live Grand Designs Live returns to the ExCel centre in east London next week. Offering a wide range of exhibitors to give ideas and inspiration for your own Grand Design! Charlie will be speaking in the Grand Theatre on Monday 1st
  • IMG_3806 12/04/2017Works starts on site The builders have started building work on this barn conversion in Oxfordshire. Exciting times as they begin the transformation of this amazing space – the existing purlins and trusses will be retained and expressed in the final design. First things first
  • 172_Stream View SML 31/03/2017Another Planning Permission! We are very pleased to have received planning permission for this exciting new project in North Oxfordshire. Tucked in to the hillside this family home will incorporate all the features you would expect from a Charlie Luxton Design! Highly insulated,
  • HBR2017 23/03/2017Homebuilding & Renovating Show The Homebuilding & Renovating Show is back on the road and Charlie will be speaking at its NEC venue this coming Saturday. Find him in the Self Build Theatre offering advice on building a low energy home and tips on designing your
  • MetroLogo 21/03/2017Charlie in Metro! Charlie’s home features in London’s Metro Property paper today. Pick it up and have a look if you’re in London, if not click here for a look at the online version.
  • OLB10 20/03/2017Windows go in at Greyfell The windows are now in at Greyfell! (formerly Old Lodge Barn).  The earlier design time spent positioning windows has really paid off now that the framed views across the countryside have been realised. Externally, the well crafted (and almost complete)
  • HBTM S2 TX card 13/03/2017Homes by the Med, Series 2! Homes by the Med is back on our screens on More4. The six episode series starts tomorrow night at 9pm.
  • IMG_3353 07/03/2017A Grand Design One of our recently completed projects, The Sheepfold, is appearing in April’s issue of Grand Designs Magazine – on the shelves now!
  • CarouselPerspSketch 28/02/2017Interesting New Project Design is underway for an exciting new house in Gloucestershire. Cut into the side of a steep slope and over-looking a spectacular valley, the house is split over levels which sit as terraces in the landscape. Topped with grass and
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