At just 150m², Rothwell Barn may be relatively small but it’s certainly perfectly formed. The detached brick building literally bristles with a host of technologies which are more often reserved for big-budget projects, and yet this modest conversion was completed for a realistic and affordable sum of £300,000. Even better, the solar panels, rainwater harvesting and geothermal heat pump which Richard and Carole have installed will all dramatically reduce their home’s running costs in the future.
“We wanted to produce a home from a redundant 1840s brick barn – one of our farm buildings – so that we could still live on site but could sell the rest of the farm and take things a bit easier in our retirement,” Richard explains. “We have four children and seven grandchildren and needed enough space to entertain the family, as well as somewhere which would be comfortable, convenient, secure and cheap to run.”
The Leas intended to create authentic features using natural materials — reclaiming as much as possible from the original barn in order to preserve its character. With plans to spend some of their retirement travelling, they wanted their home to have numerous security devices, which could be operated remotely while they were living abroad. It was also important that the converted barn should cost little to run in terms of energy bills, water and sewerage, using the latest technology for saving both money and energy.
“I spent six months researching the equipment I chose and another nine months managing the installation,” says Richard. “Carole and I drew up our own floorplans before engaging an architect to help us through the planning stages, and we designed a very simple home with a traditional layout. The front door opens directly into the kitchen, doing away with the need for a space-wasting hallway. There’s a central dining area and living room on the ground floor, with four bedrooms, an en suite and bathroom upstairs.”
In fact, the couple would have liked to increase the size of their bedrooms by building across above the attached garage, but were told that planning permission would not be granted for this extension to the original building. They were, therefore, both surprised and pleased when they were allowed to add on a sunroom leading off from the main lounge, which creates an additional reception room on the ground floor.
The Lancashire barn might appear simple from the outside, but its massively insulated shell conceals a host of modern and eco technologies which caused the various subcontractors much head-scratching. “I had two main problems along the way,” explains Richard, who project managed the build himself.
“My groundworks crew were awful and I had to replace them. Then the first plumber I recruited – who I’d used for a number of years – simply wasn’t up to the task, so I had to bring in a more experienced tradesman to deal with the geothermal heat pump, the rainwater harvesting and solar panels. Other than that, installing the equipment has been trouble free and it all works a treat.”
One of the first things that Richard decided to invest in was geothermal underfloor heating. “I spent four months investigating the different options and was still totally confused,” he recalls, “so I decided to go and visit various suppliers, and this led to choosing coils of pipe, laid horizontally in two-metre-deep trenches, which were easy and comparatively cheap to install.”
Instead of also burdening the heat pump with heating their hot water, the Leas decided to install four solar panels, each with ten vacuum tubes (OPC collectors), on both the east- and west-facing roofs, which are supplemented by off-peak electricity immersion heaters in the winter. Bills are further reduced by ensuring that every high user of electrical power in the barn, such as the washing machine, dishwasher and tumble drier, are on an off-peak ‘Economy 10’ tariff, when electricity costs one third of the usual price for ten hours each day.
The performance and reliability of the various eco systems has proved far better than Richard had originally hoped, and the couple expect to save around £2,000 per year on their energy and water bills, as well as adding £35,000 to the overall value of the house, according to estimates by local estate agents.
“Our rainwater harvesting system takes all the water from the roof through five downpipes and 100mm underground pipes. Once filtered, it’s stored in a 4,000- litre underground GRP tank ready for use for toilets, outside taps, the washing machine and fire sprinklers,” explains Richard, who was adamant that he wanted sprinklers throughout the ground floor of the barn, despite the fact that finding a company to install the system using a rain-harvesting supply proved difficult.
When the same problem arose sourcing a professional to fit the centralised ventilation and air conditioning systems, Richard decided to give it a go himself, installing them with the help of some friends.
“It seems to me that, when I was a boy, the outside air quality was appalling and often full of industrial smog,” he says. “Now, our over-heated, well-sealed homes mean that the air quality indoors is much poorer, so I installed a system which changes the air in the house every two hours — taking it from wet areas such as the bathrooms and kitchen, and extracting 80% of the heat to warm fresh filtered air brought in from outside.”
His love of gadgets also led Richard to specify a programmable lighting system that uses mainly lowvoltage lighting through a centralised system of dimmers, which is atmospheric, convenient and eco friendly. A combination of LEDs, low-voltage, fluorescent and sodium lights have been used inside and outside the house, with up to five zones of lighting and eight pre-set scenes in each room or garden area.
This lighting system also controls the electric curtains, electronic gates and garage doors, which may be operated from the car when the Leas return home. Additionally, an away-from-home mode draws and opens curtains and switches lights on and off to simulate occupation.
There’s also an audio/video system which distributes FM radio, music from a media server, Sky+HD, DVD and CCTV images all through the house to in-ceiling hi-fi speakers in eight rooms and plasma screens in six, as well as to a home cinema in the sitting room — where a large pull-down screen, surround-sound speakers and an HD digital projector are fitted.
“It’s taken a great deal of careful research, planning and organisation to prevent a monumental blunder, because some of the products I wanted to use are still relatively new to the UK market,” says Richard. “Although saving energy was important, comfort and convenience were also main objectives — and that’s something which can’t be costed. Now we are in a position to sell the farmhouse and move into Rothwell Barn and, after all the hard work, we really can’t wait. What could be more satisfying than turning on the heating or hot water and knowing that it’s not costing you a penny?