John Christie sits down at the end of another day and takes stock. The floor of his work-in-progress barn conversion in Suffolk is finally taking shape. It's been a two-year labour of love full of trials and tribulations. He's one of a growing number of buyers seeking rural idylls. Last week, Country Life reported that 80 per cent of city dwellers that it had polled want to move to the country. But the DIY route can be a complicated business.
"We looked for an industrial building to convert, but often there was no outside space or the schools weren't right," he says. "So we targeted schools we liked and settled on an area that we knew. Then we found the barn and it seemed like the best of everything: an old structure on a fantastic plot, with the chance to create a modern house."
Twenty years ago, few people would have attempted converting an old, dusty barn into a home. It's more popular now, but still not an option for the fainthearted. The number of barns available for conversion is dwindling. Traditional barns are not being built and landowners are wise to the prices they can get for a glorified shed in a good position.
Jane Constanduros, a sales negotiator at the Midhurst branch of Jackson-Stops, recently sold an unconverted barn for £615,000. It's tucked away up a bridal path with wonderful views of the South Downs, but despite its dilapidated state and eye-popping price, it only had planning permission for a three-bedroom home.
"Barns that special are rare," she says. "Often they don't have much land or are too close to other agricultural buildings or roads. Last July, we sold a stunning Sussex barn with outbuildings – unconverted but with planning for a 4,500sq ft home – for just under £1m. Its private location and proximity to London gained the seller a good return. It's these factors that are still helping derelict barns achieve high prices."
Christie, a film-maker and artist who lives with his family in west London, started by inviting an architects' firm, Modece Architects, to the site. "I liked the work they'd done already," he explains, "and I wanted their opinion before we took the plunge. They were really encouraging and said, 'It's a fabulous building and if you don't buy it, we will.' This was the kind of encouragement we were looking for and I found their experience invaluable through the planning stage."
But such buildings have their own set of problems. For one, it was Grade II-listed, setting up a tricky triangle between him, the conservation officer and the local council planner. It also had several species of wildlife living in it, including barn owls and the rare Natterer's bat. English Nature spent months assessing them. Then the builders found several structural issues, most notably the rotten oak plate that formed the base of the barn's frame. Four hundred years of damp and gnawing rats meant this intricate oak structure had to be jacked up section by section and have its lower timbers and bricks repaired, replaced or underpinned.
But Christie secured a few victories, too. The top of the barn could just be seen from a lane, so no new windows were allowed in the roof. The conservation officer wanted the rusty 60-year-old tin roof replaced with pantiles, a suggestion Christie didn't like. "I was worried about the extra weight and that we'd be altering the look of the façade," he says. "I proposed a new corrugated steel roof that would oxidise quickly, giving the effect of the old roof. They conceded and I sourced a specialist steel roof from a US manufacturer."
It is modern and dramatic, but it also fits in with its surroundings and finds the delicate balance between making a 21st-century statement and embracing its industrial heritage. "We were keen for the barn to remain true to its origins – we were not after a twee house," says Christie. "Even the redundant grain silos adjacent to the barn help to retain the look of the site. We'll find an interesting use for them at some point."
Ralph Carpenter at Modece Architects shared Christie's vision. "A converted barn should be a wonderful place to live, not a saleable commodity," he says. "People contact us about converting barns, and instead of thinking long-term about what's best for the structure, they want a conventional house. It doesn't work. The essence of a barn is that it's a big, open space. They lose courage and wreck the building.
"Another mistake buyers make," he says, "is underestimating the work required, especially on the extra labour required in the double-height spaces. The cost of services, if they aren't already on site, can also be overlooked. Having to install these adds enormous expense. We often suggest 'off-grid' solutions such as reed beds and wind turbines. But the main message is to think long-term and sell on the value of those benefits later."
The project has given Christie immense satisfaction. "If someone doesn't like our alterations in 100 years, they can remove what we've done and still be left with the original structure. The frame is now solid, mended, reconditioned and protected from damp. This big wooden cathedral should now last for another 400 years." But would he do it all again? "No," he says emphatically. "You have to put your life on hold for too long. Recently, I was standing in front of the barn. Nothing was finished and everything else had a problem attached to it. I must have looked miserable, because one of the builders said, 'Why didn't you buy a bungalow? It would be finished by now, and you'd still have loads of money left.' He had a point."
Modece Architects (01284 830 085; www.modece.com)
What's for sale?
Ripe for conversion
Where: Hudswell, Richmond, North Yorkshire
This solid-stone barn can be converted into two dwellings, but could also make a spectacular single home. The finished barn(s) will have a private drive, garden and paddock. There are beautiful views and there is an option to buy a further 16 acres of land.
George F White (01677 425 301; www.georgefwhite.co.uk )
Ready to go
Where: Bolton, Nr Appleby, Cumbria
Unusually set within a village, this five-bedroom barn has been converted to make the most of space and light. A double-height entrance hall sets the scene and leads through to two large reception rooms and a vast farmhouse kitchen that has a Rayburn range. A courtyard, garden and garage complete the package.
Wilkes-Green + Hill Ltd (01768 867 999; www.wilkesgreenhill.co.uk)Reuse content