Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


The purity and simplicity of barns and farm buildings hold a particular fascination. They have a clear, almost childlike outline and are intimately connected to rural landscapes but also have a dramatic sense of scale and big, open covered spaces. Now that every stray barn is a target for conversion, there is a particular new breed of country houses coming along inspired by the barn look and the idea of living in a small compound of buildings like farmsteads. This was what Tony and Anne Vanderwarker had in mind when they built their new home at Chopping Bottom Farm, near Charlottesville in Virginia.

"We were entranced by that classic image of a pure, barn shape," says Tony Vanderwarker. "There's something very satisfying and simple about the form and it's the only manmade structure that really seems comfortable in the landscape. But our house was also a rebellion against the subdivision look of big brick mansions that are not integrated into the landscape and never will be."

Tony Vanderwarker used to work in advertising in Chicago before moving into design, while Anne has long been an interior designer. After Tony sold up his stake in the agency that he had co-founded, they decided to leave Chicago and considered a number of places before settling on Charlottesville, where Anne grew up. They first bought and renovated an 1820s log cabin before deciding that they wanted to build their own house. They bought a run down farm, coated in brambles and junk, with a ramshackle house, deciding they would build their dream home at Chopping Bottom Farm.

The Vanderwarkers based themselves in the existing house while they decided what to build. They wanted something appropriate to this rolling, rural area but they also wanted a house that was contemporary, informal and unpretentious and which suited the way they wanted to live rather than struggling to conform to a pattern of life set down by a traditional building.

Having been tempted by the idea of a new barn style house, the Vanderwarkers came across a set of plans for a 'Dream House' by architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, published by Life magazine, which drew heavily on the vernacular and the look of farm style buildings. The idea of the Life plans was that they could be bought by anyone and adapted to suit a specific site or amended to create a more individual home. The Vanderwarkers turned to Charlottesville architect Jeff Dreyfus to adapt the plans into a new home which suited all of their needs and was truly bespoke.

"They bought the plans and we sat down and tried to understand what it was that we liked about the design," says Dreyfus. "It was really the simplicity and the straight forwardness of the Life house that they liked so we took that as a point of departure. It helped us really crystallise what we were looking for, which was a stripped down, clean version of a Virginia farmhouse and by adding additional buildings such as the garage/studio and the screen pavilion we were able to create a farm compound with the look of barns and outbuildings and not just a house."

As interior designers themselves the Vanderwarkers are highly design conscious and knew what they wanted out of the building. They were willing not just to collaborate but to experiment and so the evolving design was created around their exact requirements. Being very active in the local community, especially in conservation causes, they often entertain and Anne is an accomplished cook. Therefore they wanted the heart of the house to be open plan with inter related kitchen, dining and living spaces so that Anne and Tony could be with their guests as they prepared a meal, not cordoned off in a separate kitchen.

"Doors are highly overrated," says Tony. "Bathroom and bedroom doors might be useful but the rest just get in the way so we banished them. Everything is open and every time you turn a corner there is something to look at. Because we were able to live in another house out at the front of the property for two years while the new one was built, we were really able to get involved in every step of the process and work through all the details. We could walk through the building and think about where we wanted the light switches and the plug sockets. We were really able to structure the house around the way we want to live – we called it rehearsing for life."

Constructed largely on one level, the building's centre point is the dramatic open living room with a double height, barn-like profile and sheets of glazed sliding doors looking out across a long, slim, unobtrusive swimming pool outside and the pastures beyond. There is a seamless transition to the kitchen and dining area to one side, although a shift in ceiling height creates a more intimate feeling in this part of the house. Going down the hallway, past the main entrance at the rear of the house, takes you to the master bedroom and a striking open plan bathroom, dressing and shower area. Ancillary guest rooms and TV areas lie to the very rear of the house.

"We wanted everything to be surprising and remarkable," says Tony Vanderwarker. "We knew we had achieved that when we had our first party at the house and one lady said, "tell me what room are we in now?" I thought, we've done it, nobody can tell this is the bathroom. The key is getting spaces to be functional but also surprising and interesting to look at."

Throughout, the large sections of glazing create a large degree of transparency offering a fluid relationship between inside and out and enhancing the sense of space. But there are also a number of games played with scale which affect one's perception of the building, making it seem much larger than it really is. The church-like windows in the ceiling of the living are undersized, for instance, but other elements are far larger than standard.

"It's about creating contrasts and playing with scale," says Dreyfus. "Many elements are oversized: we didn't use any standard door heights and went with a ten foot ceiling height throughout the house. It's ennobling if you can give people a sense of height and spaciousness, as well as the views out, even though the rooms in themselves are really not that big. It creates a generosity of space and there's nothing mean about it."

Beyond the confines of the main house, a covered walkway leads you to a separate barn-like building which has a garage downstairs and Anne's studio above. Another, smaller satellite structure, simply 'walled' with screen mesh, is an outdoor dining room while some distance away from the house Tony has his own writing studio which draws on the look of a grain silo. The landscaping restored the pastures and meadows and involved planting new trees.

With the interiors and furnishings, Anne and Tony wanted to experiment with materials, such as the matting in the hall made of conveyor belt links or the plexiglass screen in the bathroom made of industrial Panelite, but also wanted to start afresh. They parted with all of their existing furniture – while holding on to their collection of artwork and photography – and sourced new pieces for every room, enhancing the feel of a fresh and contemporary but relaxed and unprecious environment.

The collaboration between Bushman Dreyfus and the Vanderwarkers – with Hugh Newell Jacobsen the third but silent collaborator – was so successful that they have since worked on a number of commercial and residential projects together for other clients. The house certainly speaks for itself – a modern, bespoke home that is easy to live with and easy on the eye and the landscape, drawing on the ideals of the barn and farm compounds, but translating them into something seductive and new.

Barns: Living in Converted and Reinvented Spaces, by Dominic Bradbury & Mark Luscombe-Whyte, Conran Octopus, 14.99.