It’s hard not to admire Niall and Helen Maxwell’s ambition and stamina – their decade-long project (still underway) is gradually transforming a rundown farmstead into what can perhaps be described as a paragon for 21st-century sustainable, rural living – and a live/work unit in every sense of the term.

At the centre of their plans is a Passivhaus family home, which will replace the ailing Victorian farmhouse where the Maxwells ‘camped out’ for six years.

The remaining two key components of this cohesive scheme – which are now both complete – include an office for architect Niall’s flourishing practice, Rural Office for Architecture, and this building — a 75m² ‘barn’ which currently provides the couple and their two boys, Finnian and Corin, with a comfortable home.

Project Notes

  • Name: Niall and Helen Maxwell
  • Build cost: £80,000 (£1,066/m²)
  • Build time: 3 years 10 months
  • Location: North Carmarthenshire
  • Niall and Helen Maxwell have created a building with flexibility to fulfil many a function — from office and artist studio to holiday let. It’s currently used as the couple’s home while the construction of their adjacent Passivhaus farmhouse gets underway
  • Materials ordinarily considered as ‘construction’ materials to be covered up, such as the Parallam engineered timber beams, have been exposed to stunning effect throughout the interiors
  • The build cost was £80,000, and the Maxwells were keen to use local materials and labour where possible

A Move to the Countryside

Prior to buying the wooded, hillside farm, nestled in the North Carmarthenshire countryside in south-west Wales, Niall and Helen were living in London. In fact, the couple had not long finished their first self build project in the city at the time. But, following a commission for a client in this rural area, the opportunity to raise a family in a secluded spot sparked the Maxwell’s search for a project.

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New Barn is built on the site of an agricultural building, and has become a temporary home for Niall and Helen Maxwell as they knock down the adjacent farmhouse and replace it with a Passivhaus home

“We were looking for something with a couple of acres,” smiles Helen, “but it was hard to find somewhere with so little land in this part of the country.” They consequently made an offer on a farmstead complete with a handful of agricultural buildings and 35 acres of land, located at the end of a long unmade track. It was apparent from the outset, however, that the farmhouse was beyond repair. “The condensation was literally running down the walls,” says Helen, who points out watermarks on furniture during HB&R’s visit — a reminder of the years spent in the property, while plans for the redevelopment of the farmstead took shape.

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Fermacell dry-lining board has been used as a wall finish to striking effect. The material was chosen for its superior strength – it’s often used by art galleries, but has become increasingly popular with self builders in recent years – and will enable New Barn to be transformed into an exhibition space for artist Helen, if so needed in the future

A Flexible New Building

New Barn was the first major building project to be set in motion on site. Despite being subsidiary to the main house – a project underway at present – this is no ordinary building. The timber clad exterior, corrugated metal roof and simple rectangular form reference local agricultural buildings.

However, meticulous planning and consideration has led to the creation of a building which could fulfil a number of different functions with relative ease in the future — it has already been a temporary office, and now serves as a home. And once the family finally move into their new farmhouse, New Barn could become a studio and exhibition space for artist Helen (the interior walls will facilitate this, but more on this later), or an enviable hideaway for the boys as they enter their teenage years. Alternatively, it could even provide the couple with another source of income as a holiday let. There are numerous possibilities.

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Storage space has been given careful thought in the kitchen, which features an IKEA worktop and appliances housed in purpose-made birch plywood units

It all comes back to the floorplan, which is deceptively simple and undeniably clever. Niall has designed the building in five bays. The central bay plays a vital role: it houses the entrance space and is home to all the services. This bay is plumbed to work as a wetroom, disabled WC or kitchen, meaning the building can be transformed for different purposes with relative ease. There’s exposed conduit ducting too. “This provides future flexibility for rewiring to different layouts and uses,” adds Niall.

Two bays have been combined either side of this to provide two large flexible spaces. At present they’re being utilised as an open plan living and dining space to one side, with a separate playroom and the bedroom quarters to the other.

Heating provision has again been chosen to ensure future flexibility. For a site surrounded by woodland, wood was a natural choice, and as such, two Tigchelaar Dutch tile stoves have been installed either side of the service area. Typically requiring lighting twice a day in the colder months – a process which takes just a few minutes – they radiate a constant, pleasing heat. Combined with high levels of insulation, the space has remained cosy throughout the handful of winters – which are perhaps more acutely felt in this rural part of the country – which the family has spent in New Barn.

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Materials typically covered by ‘finishing’ layers of paint and plaster – including the Parallam PSL engineered timber beams and Fermacell dry-lining boards on the walls – have been exposed here to striking effect

Material Choices

The Maxwells had a number of priorities when it came to specifying materials for New Barn. They needed a construction system which wouldn’t require bulky material deliveries or large-scale machinery, and which would allow the build to be undertaken with relative ease. In fact, two junior members of the Rural Office for Architecture team were encouraged to get involved in the build as a means of learning new skills and gaining a deeper understanding of how buildings are put together. (In Greek, ‘architect’ derives from the term ‘master builder’, and so too does the Welsh word, ‘pensaer’. It’s a notion which Niall embraces — a working knowledge of construction informs an architect’s role as designer.)

The building would also become a sounding board for a construction system rarely used for domestic projects here in the UK. Parallam is a parallel strand lumber (PSL) produced by US company Weyerhaeuser. The strong, stable and lightweight engineered timber product is manufactured by gluing waste softwood strands together at high pressure. “It’s a North American system which I had come across through work and really wanted to trial it out,” says architect Niall.

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The build is illustrative that new builds do not require layers of plaster and paint to be beautiful

Where possible, the couple also used local materials and trades to complete the build. And so, once delivered from North America, a local carpenter was commissioned to template and machine the Parallam beams and produce the timber panels which encase it, with a local joiner also crafting the large windows and front door.

So is it a system which Niall would use again in this capacity? “Probably not in our damp climate,” he says. When it came to installing the roof, the Parallam beams, exposed to the elements for a short period, had begun to swell, making tolerances between the different materials (the beams sit within steel plate feet, bolted into the concrete slab) somewhat painstaking to achieve.

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The central bay of the building has been designed as a dedicated service area — with the floors tanked and wiring provisions made in order to allow this space to be adapted with some ease to fulfil a number of different functions (two wetrooms, a large kitchen, etc.). At present, however, this space has been divided up into an entrance, a kitchen and a bathroom (above)

Exposing ‘Construction’ Materials

Sticking to their budget of £80,000 was a further priority. “The material palette is one of practical economy,” says Niall. To this end, construction materials ordinarily boxed in or buried beneath layers of plaster and paint, have been exposed to striking effect. This provided a number of benefits. It firstly meant doing away with traditional wet trades (with the exception of the wall and floor tiling in the bathroom), and the associated labour costs.

The concrete floor, for example, has been left exposed and has been given a power floated finish (the central bay excluded). The result is a low-maintenance, hard-wearing surface. Meanwhile, Fermacell boards line the walls. This strong dry-lining product can readily take weights such as kitchen cabinets, radiators and importantly artwork — so New Barn can readily be transformed into an exhibition space. “It’s frequently used for art galleries,” says Helen.

The exposed materials bring a pleasing aesthetic and instant character to this small build. The ceilings, in particular, lined with plywood stained and lacquered in a soft muddy neutral, help soften the interiors. Adorned with the Maxwells’ handsome collection of belongings and lit by diffused natural light filtering through the translucent windows, this home feels anything but temporary.

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