Inspiration and advice for your building project
Taking a hands-on approach enabled Sharon Li and Jamie Nelmes to convert a listed stone barn into a stunning contemporary home for just £120,000.
Anyone with champagne dreams and a lemonade budget will be cheered by the story of Jamie Nelmes and Sharon Li. They recently converted a listed stone barn near Bristol, incorporating designer concepts such as a home cinema, sleek bespoke kitchen and fabulous helical staircase, on an unbelievably tight budget of just £120,000.
Similar grand designs usually require a dedicated team of expert craftsmen accompanied by a breathtaking price tag, but Sharon and Jamie achieved the same high-quality finish virtually unaided - even shunning an architect in favour of producing the floorplans themselves. Granted, Jamie has some previous experience doing up run-down period properties in his spare time; but before he gave it all up to complete this latest conversion, his full-time profession was in design.
"Converting a barn had been his dream," says Sharon, a website designer, "so when we found Old Court Barn he packed in his job to devote all of his time to the project, and now he's started up a brand new business designing and fitting luxury bathrooms."
Prospective clients are no doubt suitably impressed by Jamie's portfolio pictures of the barn. He has created fantasy interiors within the traditional rectangular building which rely heavily on curves for their impact. The swooping main staircase is undoubtedly his greatest achievement, moulded around a structural steel skeleton frame reminiscent of a fire escape. Four weeks of solid graft transformed the crude original into a glossy and gravity-defying swirl, where sturdy oak treads lead up to the glass balustrades of a mezzanine sitting area.
"Planning the layout of the rooms was fairly easy, because we already had the footprint of the barn as our outline," explains Jamie. "The conservation officer told us that, because its a Grade II listed building, we wouldn't be able to make any major structural changes and needed to work with what was there which was exactly what we wanted anyway. My job allowed us to play around with designs and print off something professional looking for the planning application. It was only when we came to the Building Regulations that we decided to get some outside help."
The huge barn is part of a complex of other agricultural buildings around a shared courtyard, and a previous owner had already succeeded in gaining planning permission, which was fast expiring when Sharon and Jamie heard about the sale through a friendly estate agent. The couple raced straight over and agreed to purchase the derelict structure, selling their new four bedroom house in Bristol and renting a neighbouring farm cottage for the duration of the two-and-a-half-year build.
Waiting for planning approval and listed building consent gave them the breathing space they needed to start landscaping the grounds. "I was responsible for building the low stone garden walls around our barn because Jamie hasn't got much patience," says Sharon. "For the same reason I also tackled re-pointing the barn, using a specific lime mortar recipe which included particles of coal. Pounding and sieving the coal to add to the mix left me looking like a chimney sweep, and was probably the lowest point of the whole build as far as I was concerned."
One section of barn wall was so badly bowed that it had become structurally unsafe, and Jamie and Sharon successfully argued the case with English Heritage to rebuild it. "Once again, I was left with the tedious, fiddly stonework," laughs Sharon. "Jamie's worst job had to be the roofing, though, because its such a long building and we needed to find reclaimed pantiles to match the originals. Luckily we were able to save all of the main oak and elm roof timbers, but we still needed to strip the whole thing back and start from scratch."
Internally, the roof framing has been carefully wirebrushed and oiled left exposed throughout thanks to a full-height vaulted living space with two mezzanine levels at either end. Two of the four bedrooms are located on the ground floor, accessed through doors positioned on either side of the sitting room fireplace. Here, a second staircase leads up to a further guest room on the first floor, which benefits from a private bathroom.
The master bedroom is separately accessed by the main helical stairs, and Jamie and Sharon have cleverly accommodated an existing beam by creating a platform for the low-lying bed, which is reached by steps. Lit from behind by an original window, the effect is reminiscent of a stage. Next door, their well-proportioned master bathroom boasts a free-standing bath, twin-bowl sinks over a vanity unit, and a separate shower with the requisite curved glass enclosure.
These softer lines complement the angular shape of the barn and its structural beams, bringing the finished building bang up to date, while still respecting the simplicity of the original. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the kitchen, where cream units and oak worktops line the walls, and are offset by a spaceage circular island unit which takes centre stage.
"The kitchen was totally Jamie's design," says Sharon. "I tend to do most of the cooking and stipulated that I wanted a range cooker. Other than agreeing that cream would be an appropriate colour for the cabinets, I left everything else up to him. He gets his inspiration from magazines and TV programmes, and we travelled up to London and hung out in a few top-end kitchen showrooms, before sneaking home to copy some of their ideas. I went out one morning and came back to find a great big drum standing in our kitchen!"
In fact, the timber island unit is not completely circular in design - although the oak worktop succeeds in giving this impression. Illuminated curved display shelves are linked by two 600mm units, which serve to house an integrated microwave and refrigerator. With no dining table in the house, the couple tend to eat at the breakfast bar on the island, perched up on two high stools. "We're still quite young and didn't feel the need for a formal dining room," says Jamie.
The kitchen may be well used but, despite the impressive proportions of the main living area, Jamie and Sharon spend more time up on the cosy mezzanine level. They kitted out the high vaulted living space with a home cinema projector and screen, but find they only really use this when they are entertaining, preferring to kick back and watch television upstairs.
Having time to relax is a new-found concept for the couple, who have spent the past few years living and breathing their conversion. "The only subcontractors we employed were plasterers and plumbers. Other than that we did everything ourselves, and didn't have a single argument the whole time," recalls Sharon. "Jamie loves to be busy and there's already talk of another project in the future. The problem is that we like living here too much, so it's really difficult to imagine ever leaving."