Barn conversions can usually be divided into two distinct categories: there’s the traditional rustic version (all brick inglenook fireplaces and exposed structural timbers) and then there’s the more recent phenomenon of strictly contemporary interiors, with smooth white walls and open plan minimalism.
From the outside, most would assume that John and Anne Oates had taken the established and time-honoured route — for their long, low Essex barn is clad in black weatherboarding and roofed in handmade clay tiles. Barely a window is visible from the road, giving the impression that the interiors are relatively dark; but walk around to the entrance and expectations of weathered oak beams are replaced by a vision of light, open plan spaces and a truly modern design lit by large sections of glazing on the south side of the building.
“Instead of timber beams, we have solid concrete,” says Anne of the unusual farm structure. “The building was a replacement for a thatched oak barn, which burnt down in 1938, and it was designed to imitate the original – including the main beams – but was built in reinforced concrete, which was cast on site in homemade shuttering made from planks. I guess the farmer wasn’t going to take any more chances!”
Anne and her husband, John, were extremely familiar with the concrete barn, which had previously belonged to Anne’s brother — who used it as a factory for his furniture business. When the company relocated abroad, the building duly became vacant, and presented the opportunity to undertake a truly unusual conversion just one mile from the Essex village where the couple had lived for almost 35 years.
“Instead of animal stalls and straw we were left with masses of wiring, dust-extraction machinery and ducting,” says John, who helped to clear the barn — a process which took two months. “At first we seriously doubted whether we could make a practical home from such a huge, low building, but after some careful measuring we found that we would just about be able to add a first floor without the need for digging down.”
Anne’s brother had already obtained Outline Planning Permission to convert the barn to a dwelling, and the Oateses then appointed a local architect to work with them on their own detailed plans.
“We chose someone enthusiastic who had access to a 3D computer tool, because the lack of headroom inside the building made it quite a complex design,” says John. “The planners liked the hand-drawn plans which had been submitted for the Outline Planning application, but when they later saw the computer-drawn version, they expressed concern that it was too straight and modern looking. We had to explain that, actually, they were exactly the same as the originals!”
Structurally, the concrete edifice appeared extremely sound – although it was roofed in white corrugated asbestos cement sheeting – but a survey revealed that some of the reinforcing bars had rusted and blown the concrete, requiring a specialist company to make repairs.
Additionally, both ends of the building needed to be taken down and rebuilt in steelwork, devised by the family’s structural engineer — who ultimately produced hundreds of pages of calculations and, with the architect, assisted the Oateses through the process of gaining Building Regulations consent.
“We were living in a 15th century cottage, which needed constant attention,” says Anne, “but we’d never tackled any large-scale building work before. Fortunately, our son Philip is a builder, and he moved into a mobile home on site and acted as our site foreman and main contractor — employing just two other people to work alongside him, plus others on an occasional basis. John acted as project manager and helped out where he could; I spent ages researching materials and our other children also lent a hand — so it turned into a real family affair.”
Like the planners, the Oateses were determined that, externally at least, the rendered and timber-clad barn would suit its rural setting – which stands within the curtilage of a listed building – but they also had a very clear vision for the interiors, which was altogether more contemporary.
The concrete construction suggested a streamlined, modern approach, and John and Anne aimed to keep as much space as possible open to the roof. The concrete beams – now plastered over – look clean and majestic, and the couple were able to incorporate a surprising number of windows, rooflights and light tubes into the conversion, resulting in extremely bright and airy rooms.
“We cut out pictures from magazines and visited several self build shows, which really helped with the interior design,” says Anne. “At 550m2 it’s a huge place, but fortunately the bays of the barn create more intimate areas within the open plan ground floor, so it makes a really comfortable living space.”
Determined to include some eco features in their new home, the family have incorporated rainwater harvesting, which captures water from the huge roof of the barn and stores it in underground tanks for irrigating the garden and serving WCs. A ventilation and heat-recovery system avoided the need for unappealing trickle vents in the oak windows, and underfloor heating has been laid throughout beneath engineered oak flooring.
A particular feature is the oak-clad staircase, with its vertebrae design and clear glass balustrades supported between oak newel posts — inspired by a similar staircase seen in a shop in Venice. “We wanted glass to play a major part in the design, but it does mean that the Windolene is permanently out — especially when our grandchildren come to visit,” laughs Anne.
The couple also chose glass doors for their kitchen cabinets, which reflect the numerous lights in this area, and have been fitted with rich solid walnut countertops. At the opposite end of the main living space the chimney breast wall forms a partial partition between the living room and the neighbouring library/snug, whilst upstairs a bridge-like seating area presides — looking out through a wall of oak framed glazing.
“The conversion has been very challenging,” says John, an IT consultant, “and the amount of time taken to research and source materials and equipment surprised us, as did the number of decisions which needed to be made on a daily basis. Working with the visible concrete beams also added a huge amount of work, and probably doubled the time for second fix in areas such as the plastering.”
Decorating the vast building also proved a challenging task, and Anne was able to help by spending endless days wielding an extendable roller. “Compared to all the work the others have done, my input was fairly minor,” she says, “but we got through 380 litres of emulsion, and I was only too glad we’d opted for oak skirting boards and architrave, as painted ones would have given us so much more to do.”
The couple recently moved out of the rented cottage and into their new home, and are still in the honeymoon phase of living in the property, enjoying the reaction of visiting friends and family, who all comment on how light and bright the interiors feel.
“The house was designed so that we could live entirely on the ground floor should we need to in the future, so we hope to stay here for many years to come,” says John. “Despite the open plan layout downstairs, there are plenty of private areas too, which makes it perfect for a large family. In fact, two of our four grown-up children like it so much here that they’ve moved back to live with us — so we’re very glad to have so much extra space!”