Barns are being born again and now they are made to measure. As rural gems ripe for conversion become harder and ever more expensive to find, the other option for those drawn by the look and open spaces of barn houses is to build from scratch. The neo-barn is a strange but often beautiful architectural hybrid of bespoke country house and barn conversion styling and one that's increasingly in vogue. Architects, developers and rural escapees are all being tempted by the idea of the barn house with fewer of the potentially back breaking demands and drawbacks of traditional conversions.
Top of the scale has to be architect James Gorst's award-winning Whithurst Park Lodge in Sussex. Gorst has long been fascinated by the simplicity and allure of the barn aesthetic, and the way they sit so naturally in the landscape. When he was commissioned by entrepreneur Richard Taylor and his partner Rick Englert to build a new house in a sumptuous rural setting, with meadows on one side and woodland to the other, drawing on the idea of the barn seemed a natural solution. The result was a subtle neo-barn with its back to the trees and front opening out onto the meadows, a house that was stunning but also unobtrusive, a quiet guest lodge companion to the large classically-inspired main house Gorst's clients were building on the crest of a nearby hill.
'We didn't really want it to look like a house at all,' says Gorst, 'or to suburbanise or domesticate its surroundings. I wanted to play up the agricultural side of it and barns are very pure and natural structures. I suppose what appeals to architects about them is that simplicity and purity. As a child, my first architectural epiphany was standing on my own in a neighbouring farmer's enormous 16th century thatched barn and sun coming in through a hole in the roof and slanting down and all the particles of dust being caught in this beam. Maybe that was my first moment of wonder.'
Planning Whithurst from scratch meant that there were none of the major structural problems to contend with that most conversions will throw at you. It has the pure shape and open plan, contemporary layout of a modern barn house but its oak skin is complemented by a wrap around glazing on the ground floor that allows the landscape to flood in and out and a 'cracked roof' skylight which brings sunshine into the bedrooms beneath via a stairwell and internal windows.
It's the difficulty of getting sunshine into a barn conversion that puts many people off in the first place. It's one of the biggest headaches that a barn can give you – and one that sets planning authorities into a spin – as well as the limitations imposed by an existing timber frame or stone outline. Added to that barns for conversion are just getting harder and harder to find. Every farmer has long wised up to the golden potential of his derelict nest egg and speculators have their eyes and claws at the ready. In East Anglia, for instance, a well scaled barn with planning permission for conversion can cost around £200,000. That's before dealing with any structural problems or restrictions that might be imposed on development if the building is listed. And they are such rare and tempting beasts, full of character and the charm of rural living, that fools will rush in thoughtlessly and then find their barn is also a minefield.
No wonder neo-barns are looking a neat alternative, if you can lay your hands on a good site and planning permission. The Americans have long been playing this game, with respected architects like Hugh Newell Jacobsen and Bushman Dreyfus exploring the form at one end of the spectrum and off the peg companies like Yankee Barn Homes at the other. Folks like Yankee Barn will deliver a timber framed neo-barn dream, moulded to your spec and desires, at the drop of a hat, presenting you with a nicely packaged design guide and catalogue to choose from. Admittedly much of this prepackaged fare tends towards the chintz and cartwheel market, splicing the barn look with a clapboard New England aesthetic.
Here, we like to think we are a little more discerning. Devonshire based architect Roderick James, who works out of one of his own new-build barns, on the edge of a winding West Country creek, started out thirty years ago converting barns for himself and clients. Then, in conjunction with his construction company Carpenter Oak, he started getting more adventurous designing new barn homes for the UK and beyond. These are one off, bespoke houses, which have been becoming increasingly sophisticated as James explores new glazing techniques allied to ever more adventurous timber frame technology. These are houses which have a barn feel and sit well in the landscape, but have the bespoke spec, technology and layout of the most up to the minute designer home.
'The early conversions that we did formed the blueprint for barn houses where you can keep the sense of space and openness of a barn by being able to design from scratch,' says James. 'With barn conversions the excitement really is in the roof and the sense of height and space but then people will leave one little space open up to the roof in the hall and the rest of it is generally used as bedrooms with gloomy living rooms below. Instead of taking hold of an original barn and carving it up into rooms, with a new build we can put the accommodation wherever we want within a more contemporary version of a barn house. Most have semi-open plan space and we often glaze much of the ground level to make the rooms feel bigger. But we have a broad palette of ideas and can interpret what people want to make the best building for them.'
In Wiltshire, architects Hans and Paula Klaentschi have created a neo-barn for themselves in the small village of Berwick Saint James. Their Long Barn is both family home and office, with a highly contemporary and idiosyncratic look plus the timber frame, barn outline and a familiar balance between open and private space. Swiss born Hans Klaentshchi has always loved timber buildings, barns and agricultural sheds but wasn't that fond of barn conversions. Despite the fact that the new generation of conversions are being called the lofts of the countryside, with all their possibilities for informal, modern, open plan living, he wanted to start on his own home from scratch.
The Klaentschis knocked down on an ugly bungalow with permission to replace it with their Long Barn. With its use of cheap timber and panelling, it was a relatively cheap build which explored Hans' fascination with unusual, mass produced building materials used in unusual and innovative ways. One part of the building was left roofed but open sided, creating a kind of verandah or summer room which can be filled in with offices as their business demands. Living space is at one end, with offices towards the other and utility spaces like bathrooms and kitchen in between. It's a highly flexible and adaptable space, like any good barn style home should be.
'As a generic type the barn is a very beautiful thing,' says Klaentschi. 'The desire to live in barns and new barn house is partly to do with the fact that are not like everyday houses. They have a promise of scale and space far beyond an idiotic terraced house. Most people have that left over memory from childhood that there are big, bold spaces in the world. When you are small even being under a table looks big and a living room is gigantic. That love of space is in everybody's heads and that's why we want to live among the big open spaces that barn houses give you.'
Given all the problems and obstacles that contemporary country folk still face in trying to secure planning permission for one off, modern new builds in rural areas, the neo-barn might just offer a little more hope. The new barn look still draws on the vernacular and traditional materials, on the outside at least, within a familiar and reassuring shape that might please the planners rather more than a glass or concrete box. But the issue of planning permission could be where the original barn conversion has the edge. At least the building exists and it's a little easier to persuade authorities that you are doing them a service by saving it. Although you could try, like Klaentschi, replacing something ugly and crumbly with your state of the art neo-barn.
Yet one way and another, barn houses are getting built and are more and more in demand, with developers and house builders catching on fast, hoping to lure those disappointed or defeated by the premium prices now being paid for a successfully converted, family sized barn conversion. Architects such as James Gorst and Hans Klaentschi are at the sharp end of a growing movement.
'I do think it's important that we do come up with new architectural forms for the countryside,' says Gorst. 'We need to come up with houses which are sustainable, low energy, which respect the landscape and where you can recycle and source your building materials locally. All of those are ways in which you can legitimise having a big house in a lot of space.'
James Gorst Architects – 020 7336 7140
Roderick James Architects – 01803 722474
Klaentschi & Klaentschi Architects – 01722 790070
Barns: Living in Converted and Reinvented Spaces, by Dominic Bradbury & Mark Luscombe-Whyte is published by Conran Octopus on the 15th of June, £25.
BARN CONVERSIONS VERSUS THE NEO-BARN
Offers the character and charm of a period building.
Well settled and placed within the landscape and setting.
Provides a structural shell to work with in creating a new home.
Often easier to get planning permission to convert an existing building.
Possibility of moulding the interior space to suit the way you want to live.
Limitations imposed by the existing structure and planning restrictions, especially listed status.
High cost of buying barns with planning permission to convert.
Difficulty of getting light and suitable living accommodation into limited space.
Drawbacks of sites close to working farms and farm tracks.
Starting from scratch means you can build exactly the house you want.
Possibility of moulding the interior space to suit the way you want to live.
Easier to introduce a good quality of light into a new build.
Often cheaper to build from scratch than convert a period barn.
May be more difficult to get planning permission.
House may lack some of character of a period timber frame or structure.
Gardens and landscaping may need more time to settle
You need more imagination.