Sue and Derek purchased one half of a derelict granite cattle barn in 2002; the other half was purchased by their new neighbours. The couple wanted to retain the original granite façade on the gable end, while new neighbours Mike and Sarah preferred timber cladding. The couples “compromised” — opting for both.

This is not the first time Derek and Sue Moore have found themselves in HB&R — I originally met the couple as part of ‘Plotfinder Challenge’ in summer 2002. They’d returned from Botswana – where Derek had been on a teaching assignment – with ambitions to undertake a project in Cornwall, close to family. And so I received a letter asking for help finding a plot or development opportunity.

We clicked immediately and spent an enjoyable day looking at various projects. The project they chose was exciting, but certainly not without its fair share of problems. A farm complex had fallen into disuse and the farmer had obtained planning permission to convert a whole series of granite buildings. Most had been snapped up, but units ‘two’ and ‘three’ were still available with consent for conversion into a pair of semi-detached dwellings.

The huge empty space inside the barn had once housed cows. There were massive scissor trusses and a corrugated asbestos roof. Many of the common rafters were missing and there were large gaps in the roof. The walls, though – with the exception of one corner – were sound, constructed in granite at least 450mm thick. To the rear there was a breezeblock extension.

The prospect of two buyers having to cooperate with each other to such an extent necessary for the conversion horrified me. Yet, I had initially envisioned Derek and Sue buying both halves; a prospect that was enhanced by the previous buyer – who’d dropped out – who’d managed to obtain planning permission to create one home. But Sue and Derek decided that they only wanted one half at a cost of £80,000.

The remaining half was sold to their new neighbour, Ian, who was moving from Berkshire, intending to do as much of the work as he could whilst living on site in a caravan. By contrast, Sue and Derek had no such intention and wanted to be as hands-off as possible — so much so that when a work opportunity presented itself in Italy, they jumped at it.

The next three to four months were spent – from a distance – fine-tuning the plans. Upstairs there would be just two bedrooms and a bathroom with the master suite on the ground floor. The couple always knew that the structural elements of the build would have to be completed in concert with their new neighbour. Luckily, Ian was happy to oversee the first stages on their behalf.

The farmer vendor also played his part — introducing Sue, Derek and Ian to Nick, their builder. Nick was happy to take on the job, but on the basis of a verbal quote — he was accustomed to daywork and that was the only way he could estimate jobs. It went against the grain, but there was something about Nick that all parties trusted. The gamble paid off, and daywork would go on to set the pattern for most of the subsequent contracts.

Nick stripped out the old floor and levelled the slopes for the new reinforced concrete floor, laying footings where the main load-bearing walls would stand. So impressed were Sue, Derek and Ian with the work that they decided to stick with him for the internal walls. This was also influenced by Nick’s proclamation that he’d completed the work quicker than anticipated — and that he wouldn’t be charging them as much.

Throughout, communication was key: Derek spoke with Ian twice a week, and Nick called once a week. An architectural technician was also engaged on a watching brief. Yet, in one telephone conversation Nick announced: ‘Either he goes or I do.’ The technician consequently went.

When the walls were finished, Ian dropped a bombshell: ‘I’m putting my half up for auction.’ Returning to the UK for the summer holidays, Derek and Sue’s initial thoughts were: ‘If he gets the £175,000 that’s projected, why don’t we sell as well?’

Before flying back to Italy they left instructions with the agents to put them in touch with the underbidder. Yet, the next call they received was from Mike and Sarah — a couple who’d purchased the other half.

“We chatted to them and got on awfully well,” Mike relates. “At this stage we were pretty fluid, but knew that it’d be better if the roof was on and to do that, we had to liaise with whoever owned next door. That Christmas [2003] we didn’t go home and so we invited the couple out for New Year. We got on like a house on fire. Luckily Mike wanted to do as much as he could, and we still wanted to be as hands-free as possible.”

The neighbours decided to ask Mike’s architect friend to look over the floorplans. The decision proved fruitful as the architect suggested that by lowering one section of the upper floor slightly and altering the stairs, each couple could create three bedrooms upstairs as well as an en suite. Such changes also received the planners’ approval.

The quotes received for the roof were higher than anticipated, so builder Nick returned and completed the work with the help of a fellow tradesman. A crane was hired to lift off the old scissor trusses and introduce new steels. These spanned from hip to ridge, supported on steel uprights set on padstones on the new walls. The roof was made watertight with slates, laid by a local roofer.

At this stage Derek and Sue returned. “In the event we decided that we’d go back and then come home permanently,” Sue confides. “With the shell weathertight we could now go our own ways. A local chippy Stuart completed the studwork with Derek helping. We actually worked on site every day, creating the reveals for the window and door openings and clearing up while the repointing took place.”

A local plumber was employed and another local firm completed the electrics for cash. “Around here a lot’s done that way — even materials,” Derek says conspiratorially. “It’s the Cornish way and we got into that way of doing things. No questions asked. Even the steel staircase, originally quoted at £2,500, came down to £1,390 for cash.”

While Sue and Derek completed the decoration, they hired two locals to build a Cornish hedge outside. “They worked from morning till night and they never stopped talking to each other,” the couple reflect. “‘Pay us cash in three chunks,’ they said. Well we paid them two lots and then they didn’t ask for any more. ‘What about the last bit,’ we asked. ‘Haven’t you paid that?’ they replied!”

The couple have remained friends with most of the tradesmen who helped them build. This included the farmer who’d pop around to see how they were getting on. He even built the exterior steps and the oil tank base for just £160. Sue and Derek have not just gained a beautiful new home through the project, but new friends and good neighbours.

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