Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


The county of Norfolk exerts a particular hold over its own. So many of those who drift away for study or work get drawn back in the end, unable to resist its countless charms and the big, open skies. That’s particularly true of North Norfolk, which has always been so rich in natural beauty and rural delight. For Emily Erlam, who grew up here, the attraction has remained strong and when a chance came up to create a new family home in North Norfolk, Emily and her husband, Sean Perkins, could not resist the temptation.

Yet it wasn’t just the location that was tempting. The building in question is also a treasure in itself: a large tithe barn on a quiet country lane, surrounded by farmland. Built with brick and flint, the barn had also served time as a school at one point in its history, but was being sold by the local diocese – along with a former piggery alongside - as surplus to requirements.

‘It’s on the edge of a village that I know well, as I grew up five miles away and my parents are still in the same spot,’ says Erlam, a landscape designer, who works both in London and further afield. ‘I spent my first twenty years in Norfolk and went to school a few miles from here. But the barn is actually off the beaten track so it’s something that I never really knew even existed. It is very hidden away.’

After finding out that the barn was up for sale, Erlam and Perkins went to take a look and were instantly taken by the setting, scale and character of the building. They put in a sealed bid and were delighted when they found that they had won out, immediately turning their thoughts to architect Niall Maxwell, who they had known for many years, to help them turn the buildings into a home. Maxwell had been the project architect on an earlier barn conversion that Perkins had commissioned in Essex, designed by John Pawson. Perkins’ love for the special power of agricultural buildings was still alive and well, along with his respect for Maxwell’s work.

‘Having renovated and lived in a barn for so many years, you do become addicted to the space,’ says Perkins, a graphic designer with his own design studio, North. ‘No two barns are the same so each is individual and it is inspiring to have the sense of space to play with. But they can also be quite cold and austere so we wanted to create a space that would be warm, soft and homely, which makes for a happier and more relaxed environment.’

At first, Erlam and Perkins thought that they might tackle the entire project in one go. But then the reality of dealing with a vast, triple height space as well as the adjoining piggery began to make itself apparent; Maxwell encouraged them to think about tackling the project in two distinct phases.

‘My initial reaction to the barn was how fragile it was and how vulnerable,’ says Maxwell, who has his own practice based in the Welsh countryside, Rural Office for Architecture. ‘Inside, the whole floor of the tithe barn was covered in owl pellets and once, when I was up there on my own, I startled the owl and it swooped down past me, very, very close. It was a lovely, ghostly kind of place and it was really a case of thinking about what we could do with this huge hulk of a building and then this smaller piggery on the outside. So we began exploring ideas, looking at how we could maximize the potential and anlaysing the path of the sun, the sunsets, the prevailing winds and particular views so we could really understand how the different spaces could work.’

Together, architect and clients agreed to put the conversion of the main barn on hold for the moment and to concentrate on the piggery. This single storey brick structure offered a more intimate space and a more affordable first phase. Maxwell designed a new extension to the piggery that would ultimately allow for a direct link with the tithe barn, with the buildings forming a slightly irregular L-shaped formation when seen together.

The roof height of the original piggery was raised to create a more practical space, devoted to the main entrance and three bedrooms, with high clerestory windows at either end of the run. The new addition, also single storey, was designed as an open plan living zone, devoted to a sitting area arranged around a fireplace, a dining area and a kitchen at the far end. Timber panelling was used in the bedrooms to bring a crucial sense of warmth to the interiors, as well as serving for the custom made doors. These include the sliding, barn-style doors that partition the central bedroom, which belongs to Erlam and Perkins’ two young sons, Josh and Leo. These sliding partitions allow their room to read as part of the overall living space or to be easily drawn closed, creating a good deal of flexibility for the family.

Another key decision was to introduce brick floors throughout the home, which is infused with Shaker and Scandinavian modern influences, as well as some other key points of inspiration. ‘We were looking for a floor that felt slightly lived in, with a real patina to it, but that was also cost effective,’ says Erlam. ‘We started off with the idea of poured concrete but then one day we were looking through a magazine and saw this wonderful 1950s house by Marcel Breuer with a brick floor. Instantly, Sean and I knew that it was just what we wanted.’

Another key ambition for the new addition was to forge a strong indoor-outdoor relationship with the two courtyard gardens to either side, with landscape design and planting by Erlam herself. A sequence of French doors helps create a strong sense of connection, as does a sheltered verandah, while another set of high clerestory windows helps add another source of natural light.

Furniture and lighting, selected by Erlam and Perkins, reinforces the warm, organic character of the interiors, with Mid-Century pieces by Hans Wegner and Poul Henningsen complemented by bespoke creations, such as the dining table and the kitchen itself. The atmosphere is calm and soothing, helped by the connections with the courtyard gardens and the meadow beyond.

‘Because of the way the sun moves round the barn the two courtyards are very different,’ Erlam says. ‘The east courtyard benefits from a lot of south facing sunshine so we have planted quite a vibrant bed that comes right up to the building. When you sleep at night with the doors open you have plants right outside the door.’

As for phase two and the tithe barn, plans are still evolving. Erlam would like a work studio to be part of the next phase, along with an indoor garden at the centre of the triple height space. But Erlam and Perkins have plenty of time in hand to think about it. For now they are more than content with the Norfolk home that they have already created. And so is their architect.

‘Sometimes when you go and visit a house there is just this feeling that it’s right,’ says Maxwell. ‘And when I arrive at Sean and Emily’s house there is this real familiarity and warmth to it and I do feel really content with the outcome. There is a real sense of peace. It feels as though it has always been here.’


Rural Office for Architecture –
Emily Erlam Landscapes s –

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