Discover the remarkable journey of Chris and Sarah Dale as they breathe new life into a centuries-old barn, turning it into a light-filled haven
TEXT EWEN MACDONALD IMAGES MATTHEW SMITH ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHY
When Chris and Sarah Dale purchased their home in the village of Ugborough, Devon over 15 years ago, it had already undergone a conversion from an agricultural outbuilding to a dark and cramped two-bedroomed home.
Originally built around 1750 as a pig shed, the building, named Lutterburn, featured a hay loft and was surrounded by an ancient orchard. The house was set around a dark hallway with limited views and restricted access to an overgrown garden.
Having lived in the existing house for more than a decade, the couple were clear on what they wanted. Their shopping list for the house had three main components: more space, good natural lighting and better access to the garden.
The couple also sought to bring back some of the building’s agricultural heritage – minus the pigs, of course.
“We always liked Ugborough and loved the external look of the barn and its sizeable garden as well as its location within the village.” It also sits on the edge of a conservation area in South Hams, but very little of the garden and the surrounding views were visible from the house.
This was their first adventure into bespoke building work on this scale. “We’d undertaken full redecoration and converted a downstairs shower room to a utility room – neither of which is in the same ballpark.”
Barn conversions have long been a popular self-build project type. Their configuration allows for high ceilings, open-plan living and haylofts to convert into mezzanine floors for bedrooms. The building style suits large-scale windows to let in plenty of natural light. And there’s the extra factor of location: barns by definition tend to be in unspoilt areas surrounded by countryside offering incomparable views.
If you look online for ‘barn conversions,’ there is a tendency to see a centuries-old building that has been gutted to insert a contemporary home. The level of finish on both the outside and inside can end up making the building look new. But Chris and Sarah wanted to preserve some of its agricultural history through clever design. The couple did endless amounts of homework on what makes a good barn conversion. “We spent months looking around at other barn conversions and farm buildings to ensure we kept an agricultural feel.”
“We wanted a modern twist on a barn extension with an obvious delineation of old and new,” explains Chris. “We needed more space, but also more light, as well as better connection with the garden.”
“When we moved in, there were a lot of things that had been done cheaply,” adds Sarah. Good advice on revamping a home is to live in it for at least a year and learn how you use the spaces before reconfiguring the building. For Chris and Sarah, it became a decade – but that meant they knew in great detail what they needed from their new house.
The project began when the couple first met architect Tim Offer in 2016, with work commencing two years later in September 2018.
Choosing an architect to trust your life savings and design your family home is a challenge in itself. When the couple initially moved in, they met with an architect who drew up plans, but Sarah admits, “we really didn’t like them,” and it put them off the idea for a while.
Fast forward a decade, and they met with Ivybridge-based architect Tim Offer. “We really liked his approach and his ideas,” says Sarah. “He sat and listened to us about how we lived our lives and how we interacted with our home.”
The family moved out of the house for a year while the major work was carried out in stages and there’s still a list for further work. The exterior work took about a year, with another year to complete the interior work. Work continues as budget allows, with plans to install solar panels, as well as landscape the large garden they can now see from the house. “We ran out of budget for solar panels but that is the next thing on our list!”
For the owners and the architect of Lutterburn, sitting on the edge of a conservation area and working with a traditional centuries-old building meant that extensive discussions were required with the planners and neighbours to get support for the project. For the couple, the back and forth between planners meant an opportunity to fine-tune the design – although the lack of feedback from the local planning department was a major headache. “It would have been easier if they had just told us what it was they wanted us to do,” says Sarah.
“At the heart of the brief was the requirement to bring natural light into the property,”says architect Tim. The original property was organised around a hallway and stair in the centre of the plan, the layout was dark and disconnected from its garden.
“The brief called for much-needed additional space and a re-think of the layout to provide improved access and circulation. We needed to connect the house to the garden and create a light and relaxed home.”
With the project now complete, the Dales have almost doubled the size of the old 80-square metre house they bought in 2006.
The project has seen the renovation of the original building while adding an extension which sits at a right angle to the original barn and is around 75% of its size. The new extension, which is clad in zinc and cedar with open gables, increases the number of bedrooms to three.
The zinc roof was Sarah’s idea, and is in keeping with the metal roofs used on farm outbuildings. There is cedar wood cladding to match the traditional wooden construction and the large windows that reflect the large openings that barns traditionally have at their gable ends.
The building also features local stone to fit in with the area. “We wanted to be able to see where the original building was,” explains Chris.
The first thing you notice with the new extension is its open gables that draw light deep into the house. The gabled form of the original barn has been repeated at the rear, building over an existing terrace. New bi-fold doors – which both Chris and Sarah list among their favourite features – bring the outside in, encouraging them to spend more time in
The front door has been moved, with a vaulted entrance connecting all of the rooms of the house. The sense of a central hallway leading off to individual rooms has gone, with a more sociable open plan area.
The front door has been moved to the new building, with a vaulted entrance replacing the dark hallway to connect all of the rooms. The entrance leads through to a new dining room with views right through to a new terrace beyond. Inside, the first impression of the house is glass and wood, slate and stone. The vaulted spaces are lined with ply, and the stonework
has largely been left exposed.
The ply-lined entrance has a feature staircase with a striking wooden balustrade, inspired by a cathedral in Copenhagen.
Sarah wanted to avoid the feeling of being confined in the kitchen, so she designed it as part of a spacious open plan area that incorporates the dining space. However, the family also desired a separate, enclosed sitting room connected to the hall, primarily used for relaxation after dinner.
A doorway halfway up the stairs connects to the garden at a higher level. “I love coming down the stairs in the morning and looking out the door,” says Chris. “It’s the first time you see the outside world.”
On the first floor, there is a new ply-lined vaulted bedroom, while the existing part of the house has been reconfigured to provide two further bedrooms and a bathroom.
Despite the amount of glass used in the home, the project achieved a low U-value, indicating effective insulation. The final transformation only reveals itself as you get near. On the approach to the house from the lane it sits on, only the original barn is in view. It isn’t until turning the corner that the new elements are visible. “It’s a nice surprise to turn the corner and see the contrasting modern extension,” says Chris.
“We have lots of favourite features,” says Chris. “Internally the glass door halfway up the stairs gives a great view of the garden from the landing, the oak staircase, and the beautiful bathroom. During the day, the zinc roof creates a striking contrast with the cedar cladding and original stone. And at dusk, looking towards the house from the garden, when the lights are on, is one of my favourite things to do.”
Chris has plenty of advice for anyone thinking of undertaking a similar project. “Everyone will tell you that projects go over budget so make sure you have a contingency pot. Agree on what you are not willing to compromise on. Go to home build shows to make contact with manufacturers/distributors, and stay in contact and ask for discounts.
“Also, shop around. We tried to buy from local sources/suppliers where possible but for some things especially as the budget is running out spread the net wider,” he says. “Have a conversation with your builder about what you can supply. You will save money and your builder doesn’t have to outlay so much.”
The couple learned a lot along the way, but their top tips are relatively simple. “Keep your architect involved throughout. Build a good relationship with everyone who comes
to work on your house. Be polite, be friendly, be respectful. But be firm about what you want – and pay invoices promptly.” Since completion, their home has gone on to win an award from the Daily Telegraph which named it Homebuilding & Renovating Home of the Year – Best Extension, showing the quality of this build.