The barn door creaked open. As light flooded in from the outside, it revealed time-corroded bones, dust-covered skeletons and blood-encrusted body parts lurking in the timbered shadows.
‘It was the most unusual barn conversion I have ever come across,’ laughs Mark Parkinson, a partner at country relocation agents Middleton Advisors. ‘But it is not as gory as it sounds—the place was used as a store by a props specialist working in the horror film industry.’
This conversion may well stand in an idiosyncratic (and slightly off-putting) league of its own, but it is true that barns in country estates have been put to all sorts of uses, from the obvious (secondary accommodation, home office, indoor pool) to the more creative (music recording studio, classic car garage, equestrian indoor school). Today, planning laws are stricter than before, but there is still scope to turn an unused agricultural building into something that will add enjoyment and possibly value to your property. Here is what you can do, how—and how much it will cost you.
The jury is out among property experts as to what conversion will add the greatest value to your home, but they all agree that a handful of uses are the most likely to bring you a return on your investment. Among them, ancillary accommodation ranks highly. ‘Secondary accommodation or a nanny flat is a useful addition if it is not already there,’ says Mr Parkinson. ‘The American trend of putting your guests up in a separate building is catching on over here. In addition, a good number of buyers will have an eye to housing one or more sets of parents at a later stage.’
A ‘fun’ room is also a good choice—if nothing else because it will make you enjoy your house more. ‘A media, games or party room is becoming increasingly popular,’ says Mr Parkison. Edward Heaton of buying agents Property Vision puts an indoor swimming pool among the top three conversions, although Robin Gould of buying agents Prime Purchase warns that ‘you have to have a very large building in the first place for an indoor pool and will cost you £250,000 minimum, so it is not something you’d do with a view of getting a significant return on your investment.’
On a more practical foot, with telecommuting now firmly established, a home office is always a great way to use a redundant barn. The latter may prove a much easier idea to sell to the planning office than a conversion for residential use. Turning an agricultural building to any non-agricultural use (including, for example, holiday accommodation or stabling for horses) requires planning permission and authorities can be strict on what you can or can’t do.
‘During the late 1980s and early 1990s it was much easier to get permission to convert a barn to a house,’ says Mr Parkinson. ‘The planning laws have been tightened up since then. Broadly speaking, it is easier to get an office or other commercial consent as it satisfies a nationwide policy to create employment in the countryside.’
Mr Heaton explains that ‘planning policy now dictates that all uses which may potentially generate employment must be explored and exhausted before residential permission will be granted. Indeed, planning is more likely to be approved if the project results in the creation of rural workshops, offices, or even holiday letting units.’
After planners started favouring commercial conversions, all sorts of businesses took space in barn-converted offices in estates, according to Prime Purchase’s Gould. ‘It is a political use for redundant farm buildings, which brings a whole raft of benefits while allowing land owners to get income stream from a dead asset. Rents are not huge but it is an income stream.’
However, he says, ‘if your building is in poor state of repair, you have strong economic argument that residential conversion is the only economical use for it—but you have to demonstrate it.’
It helps too if the barn is situated close to a house. ‘If you have a large traditional barn in close proximity to an old house it’s often not appropriate to convert this into something for commercial use, due to the impact it would have on the residential feel of the area,’ says Mr Heaton. ‘In this instance, it is often easier to obtain consent to convert a barn into a games room, swimming pool or squash courts, for example.’
Planners, adds Mr Gould, also ‘love the idea of live and work—in some cases it was crucial in getting consent for conversion that part of the barn would be used as workspace as that was part of the building’s heritage.’
Whether you are planning a residential or a commercial conversion, the best way to proceed is to become familiar with your local authority’s planning guidelines (usually available on their planning website), then seeking quotes and drawings from a number of different architects before appointing the one that inspires you the most (and preferably has good contacts inside the council).
Getting an expert on board can pay good dividends because the planning authorities will most likely want to see projects that respect the barn’s original feel and look, but you will usually need it to have modern comforts, such as heating and plenty of light.
‘I wouldn’t like to see anyone trying and getting consent without help of a specialist,’ says Mr Gould.
Beyond planning, though, a good architect can really help you work around barn-specific conversion problems. Window openings in particular are a big issue, as planners don’t usually like to have new ones made. As a result, says Mr Parkinson, ‘most barns tend to be very light downstairs and a bit dark on the first floor.’ Anything that solves this issue is likely to make your conversion more appealing to you at present and to prospective buyers in the future.
The good news is that ‘people are increasingly finding new ecologically friendly and cost effective ways to heat, light and water converted barns, investing in heat source pumps, solar or water power, borehole and greywater flushing systems,’ says Mr Heaton. And a good architect should be at the cutting edge of all this.
‘The most successful conversions I have seen have a minimum number of partitions and non traditional partitioning such as glass to let light flow,’ says Mr Gould. ‘There’s even one type of glass that becomes opaque, so you can have a see-through glass wall in a room, but when you want privacy you flick a switch and it becomes opaque. There are a lot of modern solutions and clever ideas. For all this, it is best to use an architect.’
When it comes to residential conversions in particular, Mr Parkinson believes that the best ones ‘actually mix some contemporary architecture (glass and chrome, an architect designed staircase or walkway) with the tradition of the barn itself.’
Mr Heaton thinks the best course of action is to keep it simple. ‘For any conversion, try to retain as much of the original barn as is practically possible to main the feel and intrinsic charm of the space,’ he says. ‘Avoid cluttering the interior and concentrate on using light colours and soft furnishings. Additionally, make sure you minimise tall trees or anything else that could impact the light coming in.’
Choosing to preserve the barn’s big open spaces is another option that will pay off aesthetically while earning brownie points with the planners. ‘Some of the very best conversions are all on one floor, with only a very limited first floor, because they are very light whereas if you put a first floor it can feel dark and cramped. Not everybody likes that, but if you want a traditional house then you probably shouldn’t buy a barn.’
Indeed, warns Mr Heaton, above all, you should ‘resist converting the barn into a smaller house. It never works – there’s not the space.’
All this comes with a caveat, though. Because you have to adapt a traditional structure to a different use, ‘it can cost a good deal more to convert a barn to a house from scratch than build a basic new build house, as you usually have to do some deconstruction before the development begins,’ says Mr Parkinson.
Typically, adds Mr Heaton, ‘conversion costs tend to be in the region of £200-300 per square foot at the top end of the market. However if there’s an element of restoration involving a specialist stonemason or joiner, the sky’s the limit!’
John Vaughan, a trustee of his family’s Trawsgoed Estate in Mid-Wales, experienced this first hand. ‘In 2004 we obtained planning permission to convert some 5,500 square feet of redundant farm buildings into holiday letting units, subject to the usual 11-month holiday occupancy conditions,’ he explains. ‘The cost of conversion, even using direct labour, was over £80 per square foot and while we would like to do the work at some time, this is not a priority at present as the return on capital was poor. It also seems that putting up low cost timber housing or lodges would be a cheaper alternative.’
So if safeguarding equity is high on your agenda, you should carefully weigh any increase in value the conversion can bring to your property against the costs of the work. On the other hand, says Mr Gould, ‘if you are looking for a new house in countryside, you have two options: either buy an old building and knock it down or buy a barn and convert it. Barn conversion is not cheapest way to create home in the country but they certainly are stunning!’