As the South West Homebuilding & Renovating Show takes place this weekend (November 16 and 17) at the Bath & West Showground we look at a fantastic local barn conversion…

Ex-Duchy of Cornwall barns and courtyard regain rural charm through an extensive conversion project

WHILE searching for a barn conversion project for their next family home, Duncan and Andrea Pyle, architectural designers from O2i Design, came across some dilapidated stone buildings near Taunton, Somerset which used to belong to the Duchy of Cornwall. Unlike others before them, they didn’t shy away from the challenge of repurposing this agricultural site with Grade II listed barns into a residential home to combine rural charm and a contemporary style.

Andrea says, "We left London when we had our two children, Alexander and Oscar, and decided to move to the country. My family is based in Somerset so we started house hunting in the South West area. We were looking for a barn conversion but when we first spoke to local estate agents, they advised us that we would struggle to find what we had in mind. They weren’t too far from the truth as what we now call ‘home’ was the barns of a model farm listed on a local agent’s agricultural website rather than a residential one. There was something special about the location. We decided to drive past one day to see what it really looked like. It was one of the most beautiful spots in a private, secluded position, yet within easy reach of the nearest village. The courtyard extended over 5,000 sq. ft with a surrounding paddock and a natural pond. After our first visit we were certain that this would become our next project."

The purchase of the land was finalised in August 2012. Duncan and Andrea realised from the outset that such a large project needed to be approached in phases, so they began by working their way around the courtyard. The first step was the conversion of the two-storey section into a family home, which started in March 2013. Phase two will involve converting the next section of barns into a further two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a living space, while the final phase is yet to be agreed upon. One of the main reasons for tackling the work in stages is the possibility of dividing the project into financially manageable chunks so the couple can stay on top of their budget. In addition, while working on their own house, they are also handling a dozen or so other projects through their architectural practice, so days can be very long.

Somerset County Gazette: CONVERTED: Andrea and Duncan Pyles’ self-build project. Photos: Neil Rigden CONVERTED: Andrea and Duncan Pyles’ self-build project. Photos: Neil Rigden

Local permission

The barns had several covenants on them, which Duncan and Andrea had to work around. They submitted information and details to clear any planning and Listed Building Conditions to the district council tailoring the structure and future home to their needs.

Knowing the industry regulations also helped them be VAT-savvy. When buying a barn, there can be beneficial tax implications, so they will be able to claim additional VAT back once the project is signed off. Andrea adds, "We also made sure that we had a planting scheme which was submitted with our initial planning permission. This means that a few years down the line we have the beginnings of a garden. Fruit trees do not attract VAT which was a bonus."

Building works

The pair of architectural designers started assessing the state of the barns to establish their priorities. They had fallen into disrepair after the farm had ceased to operate. Once the farm sold they were not maintained. They had been used mainly for livestock and stores. Extensive remedial work had to be undertaken. Water ingress had rotted the roof timbers and the walls were structurally unsound. The whole roof was removed by the contractor and the roof rafters replaced.

All the external walls were tied back with steel rods embedded in the existing masonry. The scheme retained the buildings’ architectural merits, while the interior fittings and finishes were specified to highlight the barns utilitarian past. A palette of white, grey, timber and polished concrete finished off the look.

The timber floors were badly rotten apart from several large original elm beams, which were reused alongside the new green oak exposed joists. They also decided to use pre-painted cement boards instead of inserting a new ceiling between the joists. This helped avoid the cracks in the plaster, tricky painting and was a suitable fire barrier.

The underfloor heating powered by a ground source heat pump in the paddock was covered by polished concrete floors, while shadow gaps were created in place of traditional skirting boards. This allows light to bounce around and is easy to maintain. Having a bright, airy space was key for the Pyles so they created a large open plan room to allow more natural light to enter the living area.

The two-storey section now boasts three bedrooms and three bathrooms with a mix of old and new exposed beams and exposed stone walls.

Somerset County Gazette: CONVERTED: Andrea and Duncan Pyles’ self-build project. Photos: Neil Rigden CONVERTED: Andrea and Duncan Pyles’ self-build project. Photos: Neil Rigden

Sympathetic approach

Duncan and Andrea both agreed on creating a home that would reflect their commitment to sustainability. The barn was designed as a light, contemporary, open-plan house that kept the essential character and charm of the original building. "There was no point in pretending that our barn is anything else, so we kept the design as simple as possible and exposed the original structure," Andrea adds.

Most of the materials are local and sustainable, and cost-effective green features are incorporated into the project. A ground-source heat pump, ground-mounted solar panels, heavy insulation, energy-efficient hybrid glazing, underfloor heating and a wood burner were incorporated to make the property more energy-efficient.

Andrea says, "As the structure of the barn had to be consolidated and re-roofed, we had the opportunity to really go to town with insulation, which we have put everywhere. Coupled with high performance glazing it means that the house is toasty in winter and our running costs are low."

Somerset County Gazette: CONVERTED: Andrea and Duncan Pyles’ self-build project. Photos: Neil Rigden CONVERTED: Andrea and Duncan Pyles’ self-build project. Photos: Neil Rigden

Design influences

"Duncan and I have been heavily influenced by mid-century design. Our sofa and arm chairs were made by British maker 'Greaves & Thomas’ of Mayfair London in 1960 and are great classic designs, still in their original upholstery fabric. We love them and they came from Duncan’s parents’ house. The rest of the items throughout the house such as some of the paintings and the large Nigerian heads in the dining area were collected over time from our travels and the flea markets in France, where we lived and worked for a while," tells Andrea.

The clean, pared-down approach can also be noticed in the lack of visible wires and pipes, radiators, skirting or architraves.

Somerset County Gazette: CONVERTED: Andrea and Duncan Pyles’ self-build project. Photos: Neil Rigden CONVERTED: Andrea and Duncan Pyles’ self-build project. Photos: Neil Rigden

The on-site adventure

The building work started in March 2013 until December 2013, although much of the finishing touches did not happen until later. Once they had purchased the barns, they lived on site in a large static caravan with their two sons (14 and 10 at the time) and their dog. After 18 months they were ready to move into a rather unfinished house. Their holiday memories from that time include fitting the dishwasher on Christmas Eve and preparing the festive meals in the caravan as the induction cooker they had recently bought required new saucepans.

Andrea recounts, "While we camped we went through possibly the worst winter we’ve had down in the West Country, with plenty of floods and snow. That’s when we discovered that gas bottles can actually freeze! As a result, there were times when the caravan had no heating and no hot water. When times got rough we stayed with friends and family for a few weeks. We realised that our time in the caravan had come to an end when driving in the car with heated seats was more comfortable than living in the caravan."

Despite the challenges, being on site proved to be invaluable for the adventurous family as it enabled them to keep on top of the building works, be on hand for questions and solutions and discuss issues with the contractors and planning and building control officers when needed. In addition, the children enjoyed being out in the open, building dens and playing in the pond.

"We once had 32 kids over for a camp out (with supervision!). We put up a lot of tents, lit a bonfire and allowed them to run around to their hearts content. We also have hosted big parties for us in the barns. There’s nothing that a barn and fairy lights can’t sort out."

Somerset County Gazette: CONVERTED: Andrea and Duncan Pyles’ self-build project. Photos: Neil Rigden CONVERTED: Andrea and Duncan Pyles’ self-build project. Photos: Neil Rigden

Lessons learned

All the lessons the Pyles learned will be applied to the next phases on their project. Here they share a few for those considering kicking off a similar project:

• If you’ve got the time and a good designer, doing a barn conversion is the most exciting prospect. With four walls and a few openings you can design your house the way you want it.

• Take your time. The devil is in the detail. Plan, plan and plan some more.

• Keep it all local. For example, when repointing the stonework we contacted a lime expert based only a few miles away. He was able to advise us on what lime mix to use as he was very familiar with the local stone and aggregates from local quarries.

• Make sure you have a healthy contingency fund, as working on period buildings will invariably throw up unexpected issues. For example, although everything was carefully planned, we still experienced delays due to conservation matters; we had bats on site and needed to put in place a mitigation plan, install bat boxes and roosts and owl boxes as well. Sealing off part of the barn for the bat roost took time and increased our costs by approximately £5,000.

Uncovering history

The site is full of history and details keep resurfacing. In the early days they found beautiful old hinges and door handles which are marked with the three feathers from the Prince of Wales’s estate. They also discovered that the stables had big flagstones on the floor that had been carved to resemble cobbles. These were re-used in other parts of the house.

Last weekend, as they were working around the pond, Andrea and Duncan pulled out of the undergrowth an old enamelled sign from the 1960s. Another discovery they’re excited about is an English Rose kitchen unit (three cabinets and a sink) from the 1950s found in the barn which will be cleaned, sandblasted and resprayed for use in the next phase for the little kitchenette.

Andrea concludes, "We do keep on discovering things which we love. In fact, I have asked for a metal detector for my birthday present!"

• For more information on the South West Homebuilding & Renovating Show visit