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How to Convert a Barn

converted barn with glazed side doors
(Image credit: Simon Maxwell)

For those who want to convert a barn, there is the undoubted potential to create a unique one-off home that already comes packed with character and available space.

When it comes to converting a barn, if there is only one rule that you follow, it is to be ‘true to the building’. Ignore that rule, and you will lose the wonderful character and form that a barn conversion offers.

Bear this rule in mind across every area of the design, from walls and windows to doors and internal layout, and you’ll not only maintain the integrity of the form, but also please the local authority planners in the process.

Here, we explore how to go about your barn conversion project - from finding and financing the work through to the design solutions that will make the most of the opportunity.

(MORE: Barn Conversion Ideas)

Finding the Opportunity to Convert a Barn

Given the strict planning permission rules limiting the building of new dwellings in the countryside, barn conversions are popular for those looking to move to the country.

The types of barns available will often depend on the area of the country you’re looking to reside in. 

Timber barns, for instance, are predominantly found in the south and east of the country and offer vast volumes of space, while stone barns (which are the most expensive to convert) are more common in the north and west, and tend to feature small openings — as do brick barns.

There are several ways to find a project:

  • Go to the local authority and check for any planning permissions granted or pending for these types of dwellings
  • Look through local papers
  • Make contact with estate agents
  • Research using online services — websites such as barnsetc.co.uk and plotfinder.net are both good starting points.

It can also often be the case that these types of buildings are not currently on the market, so it will be down to you to investigate. Take a tour of the area (either by driving or even making use of the handy Street View tool on Google Maps) and look out for any redundant buildings.

Should you come across any, you can then seek out the owners with whom you can discuss the possibility of selling. However, never buy a building on the assumption that you will be able to gain planning permission to convert it.

This stone barn conversion was carefully restored by its owners to retain its rural charm

This stone barn conversion was carefully restored by its owners to retain its rural charm (Image credit: Nigel Rigden)

Do I Need Planning Permission to Convert a Barn?

Once you have found a barn, you will need to gain detailed planning approval before you can start work. There will be some authorities that will prefer redundant agricultural buildings in the countryside to have any use except domestic, so you will have to work hard to prove that there is no demand for the building to be re-used in a commercial capacity.

In order to gain favour with the planners, carefully read their guidelines in the local authority’s Local Plans, available to view on their website. You should also consider the following:

How Much Does it Cost to Convert a Barn?

Estimating the costs for a conversion project can be difficult given that every project of this nature will be wildly different from the next, and the condition of the building will have a big impact on expenses.

You will also need to factor in how much DIY will be involved as this too will influence the budget. Should the building be of poor condition, you might choose to go down the (albeit, more expensive) route of hiring an architectural firm. Or, you may want to take control of the bulk of the work yourself, but be prepared for the problems thrown up by a building which was not initially built with a residential purpose.

Financing conversion projects is also not as straight-forward as standard renovations. Your best bet might indeed be to target self build mortgage specialists, such as the Ecology Building Society,  who specialise in lending on out-of-the-ordinary projects.

One of the most attractive features of conversions is that like new builds, they are largely free of VAT which you will be able to reclaim under HM Revenue & Customs Notice 431C. This means that if you use a VAT-registered builder, they will invoice their work and materials at the reduced rate of five percent, while any materials you buy yourself will be charged at the standard VAT rate.

open plan, double height interior of barn conversion

The potential to create dramatic double height living spaces like this one with a galleried landing is what draws many to barn conversions (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

Do I Need a Survey?

As with any property, it is important to have the building surveyed before exchanging contracts. While you can use architects or structural engineers to carry out the survey for you, most surveys will be carried out by a building surveyor who is a member of the RICS (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveying).

From this, you will be able to gauge how much work will be involved, the costs and what problems you may face throughout the project. Bear in mind though that until you begin work on the conversion, you cannot be sure of exactly what you will find.

Connecting Services

The chances are that the barn you have found will have been left unused for some time, and given the non-domestic nature of its former purpose, will not be connected to the mains — so getting water and electricity will be a top priority, as will sorting out a sewerage system.

This will all need to be considered in the budget. If the barn is off-mains, this provides the converter with the opportunity to consider adopting a greener approach to energy. Open plan spaces, for instance, are best-served by underfloor heating which works well with heat pumps.

Should you be able to incorporate heavy insulation without disrupting the natural fabric of the building, this will also up the eco-credentials of your conversion.

  • Where older buildings are concerned, planners don’t like to see significant alterations to the external appearance. This could limit the number of new windows, doors and openings, as well as changes to exterior cladding.
  • Planners may ask for drawings of the internal elevations to assess how modern additions such as insulation can be fitted without harming the building.
  • Try to ensure that the character of the building remains intact while accommodating modern lifestyle demands.
  • Plans are often handed to historic buildings officers for further inspection. This may mean independent structural surveys to prove that the building can be converted without compromising or damaging the original structure.
  • Listed buildings and those in conservation areas may be granted consent for conversion only if you adhere to certain restrictions.
  • Derelict barns will, quite often, be home to various types of wildlife – bats and owls in particular – and so a protected species survey will need to be carried out to ensure that any wildlife is not disturbed.

A Derelict Barn Converted

A listed derelict barn has been converted by the Parsons family into a bright and warm eco home (Image credit: Darren Chung)

Sympathetic Design is Essential When You Convert a Barn

Cantilevered two storey extension

(Image credit: Chris Hill)

A successful conversion will be a sympathetic transformation, reflecting the building’s heritage and former purpose, with the interior offering the perfect mix of dramatic, double-height open plan spaces and cosier areas for much-needed privacy.

Planning the Layout of Your Barn Conversion

The subdivision of the interior space will usually be informed by the limitations of the barn (the positioning of internal structural walls), as well as the opportunities it presents (voluminous double-height spaces).

Barns are usually long and narrow so a central hallway is often the best solution to providing access and circulation, as well as being the ideal place to show off the volume of the space. With a double-height feature in the central hallway, the first floor is best linked across here, with a galleried landing or ‘bridge’ walkway being the ideal solution. This will also help you to avoid cutting across the main barn door opening.

You could alternatively opt for two separate staircases, allowing the bedroom accommodation to be divided into two, with the guest bedroom arrangement to one side (accessed by the main staircase in the hub of the home), with the master bedroom served by a private staircase located at the far end of the barn.

Kitchen of A Converted 300-Year-Old Barn

Lorna and Chris Harrison’s design brief was for a modern home full of contemporary design ideas, which worked sympathetically with the barn’s beautiful rural location (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

You'll Need to Prioritise Bringing in Natural Light

One of the key considerations when converting barns is the use of natural light. Barns are typical for having either small openings for ventilation purposes or enormous cart door openings, so lack of light can be a problem.

On the main elevations, window and door openings will often be restricted to those that already exist. On secondary elevations some additional window openings and doorways may be allowed.

Large internal window in barn conversion

This barn features a large internal window so that the loft space can borrow light from the open plan space below (Image credit: Duncan McNicol & Andrew Pegley)

If a new opening is to be inserted, sympathetic proportions and detailing should be used, following existing patterns on the building, or other similar farm buildings in the area. In some instances, subject to careful design, new openings could be contemporary in style, though different local planning authorities will take different views on this.

For instance, replacing some sections of horizontal timber boarding with clear or translucent Perspex, or glazing part of a gable elevation, in between the timber studs.

Creative solutions to bring in natural light include:

  • adding conservation-style rooflights on less prominent elevations
  • using glass pantiles or discreet ridge glazing
  • glazing entire gable ends
  • applying full-height glazing to cart openings

Using open plan living arrangements will also aid in maximising the amount of light entering the internal space.

Joinery Choices

Windows and doors need to be simple, robust and functional in style. Setting the windows back into the walls also helps to maintain the shadow lines of the original openings and limits reflections.

If there are any original windows left intact, then it is worth considering salvaging and repairing these, or at least using them as a template for replacements. If there are no surviving windows, look at local farm buildings in the vicinity for clues as to the tradition. Off-the-shelf windows are unlikely to be suitable for size or design.

Narrow ventilation slits are common in agricultural buildings in some areas, and these can be glazed with a fixed double-glazed unit. Other openings can also be fitted with fixed glazed units, as these may read as unaltered open voids.

Interior of barn conversion

The roof of this barn was removed and the timbers stripped down, refinished and reused in the construction of the new roof (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

Frameless glazing is an option that can be used to fill even the largest opening and – when set well back into the opening – can be unobtrusive.

Barn doors are usually utilitarian, constructed from vertical planks of timber. Proportions are usually sturdy and the outer frame section wide and solid. New doors should follow this pattern with the same finish used for doors and windows. Door furniture and other ironmongery items such as hinges should also be utilitarian.

Repairing Walls in a Barn Conversion

Should you need to repair any of the existing exterior walls, this should be done on a like-for-like basis. As brick or stone walls tend to be of solid construction, to meet Part L of Building Regulations, insulation will need to be added to the internal face of the external walls.

An alternative to this could be adding new partition walls built in matching brick or stone, or to achieve a seamless blend between originals and repairs, it may even be possible to repoint the whole wall — using lime mortar to retain breathability, ensuring that the removal of any original mortar is kept to a minimum.

Insulating timber frame barns is less of a problem for converters as the existing cladding can often be removed and a layer of insulation added in between the frame. Again, make up any repairs by matching materials and where possible, re-use the original cladding.

open plan living space with exposed brick wall in converted barn

Judith and Chris Brook have managed to create open plan living spaces around the stunning exposed brick walls (Image credit: Jeremy Phillips)

Adding Floors to a Barn Conversion

If the barn is of particularly great volume, it may be possible to take advantage of this by creating additional storeys. You may be restricted by the slope of the roof or the collars on roof trusses, but it may be possible to alter the trusses to create access to first floor rooms.

Excavating the existing floor will usually be necessary in order to lay a new floor structure and it may even be possible to use the existing brick or stone walls to help support new floor structures. Should there be the need for underpinning, a steel or timber frame could be employed.

Repairing the Roof 

In most cases, the existing roof covering will need to be removed to allow for any repair work to be carried out, as well as the addition of insulation and a membrane installed to improve airtightness and weatherproofing. Be aware that should you insulate between or over the rafters, this will raise the height of the roof.

The roof covering of the barn will also possess a certain vernacular style in context with local buildings (such as limestone, sandstone, local slate, thatch or even local handmade clay). It is an intrinsic part of the barn’s character, so it is important to salvage these materials where possible — sourcing replacements for any missing pieces. Like-for-like replacements will often be required if the barn is listed, however planners may be more flexible if the barn has no restrictions in place and if the replacements are used on a less prominent elevation.

Part of the charm of a barn conversion can be the irregularity of the roof shape where the original timbers may have bowed, twisted and warped over time. Although evening out the roof will help the roof covering sit flush and weathertight, a completely symmetrical new roof, laid with replacement tiles, can lack character. With care, the roof can be repaired but the undulations carefully maintained.

converted barn exterior

(Image credit: getty images)

Vernacular roofing, such as limestone or sandstone tiles, local slate, thatch or local handmade clay tiles, is often an intrinsic part of the character of a barn. It is, therefore, worth salvaging as much as possible of this material and sourcing replacements to make up for any shortfall.

Where new and original roof coverings are mixed together, the original material can be used on the main ‘public’ elevations and the new material on less prominent, minor roof planes, or alternatively on outbuildings. Like-for-like replacement will often be a requirement on a listed building, but for less sensitive situations planners may be more flexible, especially where the material is very expensive or unavailable.

Can I Extend While I Convert a Barn?

Large additions to a barn are unlikely to be acceptable to the planners in most instances, but smaller subordinate additions may be, especially to the minor elevations.

A good justification for such an addition is that it will house facilities like a cloakroom, utility room, boiler room or other ancillary rooms, and thereby prevent too much subdivision of the main space, avoiding the subsequent loss of character this would entail.

  • Lean-to-style additions with a simple monopitch roof, designed to look like an existing addition to the barn, can be a good option
  • Extensions that link barns and other outbuildings may also be acceptable if designed appropriately: infilling is unlikely to be acceptable, but as with a listed building, a frameless glass link would be difficult for planners to object to
  • Additions such as porches, conventional conservatories or attached garages are not likely to be appropriate. A modest extension using green oak framing may be more acceptable. It may also be easier to gain consent for an extension at a later date, once the initial conversion has been completed
  • Garaging is best provided through the conversion of outbuildings, or the construction of new, sympathetically designed outbuildings. These could be styled to look like shelters, open cart sheds, stables or other agricultural buildings

Essential Design Pointers to Follow When You Convert a Barn

  • Preserve the building’s original form and character
  • Apply a light touch
  • Reuse materials wherever possible
  • Use like-for-like materials and traditional techniques
  • Minimise the subdivision of internal space to preserve openness
  • Keep the roof structure open and visible
  • Use existing openings and minimise the formation of new ones
  • Avoid ‘domestic-style’ windows and ‘off-the-peg’ joinery
  • Minimise the addition of rooflights and use conservation models
  • Avoid creating a suburban garden — keep appropriate boundary treatments
  • Keep any new additions sensitive in scale and style
  • Avoid infilling — keep any links transparent using frameless glazing
  • Avoid inserting floors that cut across window openings
  • Keep flues and soil vent pipes hidden or on minor elevations