Barn stormer

In order to build in the Kent green belt, Richard and Susan Skelly had to exactly replicate the dimensions of an old barn they were replacing. Roseanne Field reports on how this constraint has given their home a unique character.

The asymmetrical sloping roof of Richard and Susan Skelly’s home in the village of Knockholt, just outside Sevenoaks in Kent, exactly mimics the roof of the old cattle barn that previously sat on the same spot.

The building had lain unused and dilapidated for a number of years – the dairy farm ceased operating 40 years ago – but nevertheless played an important part in the couple’s journey.

Richard and Susan had lived on the farm for 24 years before the opportunity arose to develop the barn – which was something that Richard had always thought about doing. “When we bought the farm, I’d always said this would make a nice site to build on, it being one and a half acres,” Richard says. Their belief however was that due to its location in the green belt, they would never be granted planning permission.

It was thanks to a change in permitted development rights in England that Richard’s ideas finally looked like they could become reality. This key change made it easier for agricultural buildings to be transformed into residential dwellings.

However, while the permitted development rights amendment meant it was now possible to do something with the footprint of the barn, it also came with some strict requirements. “One of the criteria was that you had to have not used the barn in the last two years,” Richard explains. They were fine on this front, as during their two decades on the farm it had seen no use.

The house also had to sit within a very specific boundary. “The design had to be within the footprint of what the barn was,” says Richard. “We couldn’t go even a centimetre over what was originally here.” The requirement to slope the roof in the same way as the barn meant the house wouldn’t be what Susan had ideally wanted. “I would have liked a more ‘conventional’ house,” she explains. The barn had also featured skylights along the flatter part of the large sloped roof, which also had to be replicated in the new design.

Despite the restrictions, they persevered and made contact with a local architect who drew up plans for the build. Originally the idea of using weatherboarding was posed to them but Susan was concerned it would make the house look inappropriate in its setting, even that “it would make the house too much like a factory”. She adds: “We had to be so careful in terms of how we designed it”.

Getting the ball rolling

The new legislation Richard and Susan were applying for planning under caused some confusion among the architects and the council planners. “When we first spoke to them, Sevenoaks Council were adamant we couldn’t do certain things,” explains Richard. The permitted development rights meant they needed to meet 10 different points in order for the application to be approved – unfortunately their architect also failed to include some of these necessary elements.

Luckily, a good friend of the couple was on hand with the right skill set to help get everything in order. “He does a lot of building, and he pointed out what was missing and came with us to a meeting,” says Susan. They had all the necessary surveys done, went back to the council with revised plans and documents, and it was successful.

The couple then began discussing their build with various potential providers and were invited to attend Build It Live at the Bluewater retail park by one firm, a specialist oak building company. Armed with their plans, they visited the show and located them, however it didn’t turn out as planned. “When we showed them what we were intending to do they didn’t want to get involved,” says Susan. “It was quite surprising.”

Richard had originally dismissed the idea of approaching a kit house builder, assuming the unique shape and design of their house simply wouldn’t be a good fit. However, as they were leaving the show an undeterred Susan spotted Scandia-Hus and decided to talk to them, which proved to be the turning point for the couple. “They really showed us what we could do,” she says.

Making progress

They provided Scandia-Hus with all the plans and drawings they had, along with all the letters and paperwork Sevenoaks Council had sent them detailing the permission granted. “They basically took it over at that point,” says Richard.

Susan and Richard dealt in the main with the company’s managing director, Derek Dawson. He suggested one key change to the existing plans which the pair are now extremely grateful for. Originally, they had planned to include a garage within the build, but he assured them they didn’t need to. “He told us we’d be able to get some form of separate garage once the house was up, so why take away all that space,” Richard explains.

The couple worked collaboratively on the design for their house, which was loosely based on Scandia-Hus’ chalet-style timber framed Adelia design. Derek and his team also helped double-check all of the legal compliance issues.

With work about to begin onsite in February 2016, Richard and Susan encountered another hitch – they weren’t allowed to completely demolish the barn before commencing. “We couldn’t just pull it down – they had to build around it, which was obviously a challenge,” explains Susan. Some parts of the barn were removed as the new building went up, while others had to remain within the new structure, as per the requirements of the permitted development rights.

Despite starting the build in late winter, the weather surprisingly caused no delays. “We had a mild spring and quite a hot summer so they were able to get the footings in quickly,” says Richard. “The team that put up the timber frame were able to get it done within a few weeks. The weather was always good to us!” The frame was manufactured offsite in Scandia-Hus’ West Sussex factory.

The major construction work didn’t take too long, despite having to build around the pre- existing barn. “The biggest phase really was the inside,” explains Richard. In particular, laying the pipework for the underfloor heating – of which there’s 2.5 km – the tiling and the carpentry for the flooring, internal doors and skirting boards were the biggest and most time-consuming jobs. “I think the tiler spent almost four months here!” Richard says.

One of the elements they found most frustrating was ‘plugging in’ the services – they had to have electricity and water connected, a process they found to be drawn out and expensive. “We had to have the road closed for a week to get the electricity onsite,” says Susan. “The pipe for the water runs down the road, and we took the new pipe to it, but to get the two connected was £2,000,” adds Richard. “You have no choice, you have to do it.” The couple decided against connecting to the mains drainage and installed a Klargester septic tank system.

Although they found the build took longer than they originally anticipated, they admit they were in no hurry. In fact, when the build began they didn’t necessarily plan to move into it themselves. “It wasn’t always our intention,” says Susan. “We just thought we’d do it, and then we saw how nice it was!” As they still had their farmhouse next door – which they still own and are currently letting – how long it took wasn’t a huge concern.

The final major piece of construction work was creating a separate entrance to the house from the road – something Richard and Susan were surprised see the council recommending. “We though it might be quite difficult, but they said the other entrance had poor sitelines,” Susan says. “Overall the site really did lend itself to a separate dwelling.”

Although Scandia-Hus managed the project, the couple kept themselves as involved as possible. “We would come down everyday and see the progress,” says Susan. They were also responsible for ordering in key fixtures such as the sanitaryware. “We had to keep on top of it, otherwise it would hold everything up,” Susan explains. “You can’t afford to make a mistake because that costs everyone time, and also costs us money.”

The finished product

The 4,500 ft2 house boasts a double-height hallway, with an open timber staircase curving up to the first floor which is situated on the right of the house, due to the sloped roof. Susan confesses she’s still taken aback by its size: “I still find it impossible to believe this was a barn. It didn’t seem this big!”

Upstairs are three of the five bedrooms, each with their own ensuite, including the master, which features a west-facing balcony to make the most of the views across the fields at the back. Due to following the line of the original barn, the roof has two different gradients, giving an unusual variation to the front facade. Beyond the junction where the roof begins its shallower gradient the space is not habitable but is ideal for storage, and has walk-in wardrobes leading through to smaller storage areas – one of which Susan has put to use as a home office.

The front bedroom benefits from floor to ceiling windows, which make it a bright, sunny room. Originally the two wardrobes in the master bedroom were going to be bigger, but Richard decided they were unnecessarily large so requested they were made smaller, which caused a slight construction headache. “They had to knock the walls down and move them,” he explains.

Downstairs, the other two bedrooms and their ensuites sit on one side of the hall, while a snug and WC are on the other. At the back of the hall a door on the left leads through to the large dining/living/kitchen area and separate utility and boot rooms. Two different coloured cabinets feature in the kitchen, which the couple chose in order to break to space up, but the standout feature is the curved breakfast bar, which is covered by one large piece of quartz. “It took five men to bring it in!” recalls Richard.

The living room, which features a modern woodburning stove, can be reached from either the kitchen/dining space or a door at the back of the hall. It was intentionally kept separate: “We wanted the doors to cut off the lounge so we can make it a cosy room on its own,” says Richard.

The house also incorporates some exposed timber beams and is contemporarily decorated and furnished. Susan took on the substantial task of the interior design and decorating, of which one of the most crucial jobs was choosing the tiles for each bathroom. “I made one mistake with some tiles,” she admits. “They’d been put up and I just didn’t like them, so he had to take them all up!”

The house is encircled by grass, which under the planning conditions the couple must leave untouched. “We can’t treat the land as a garden, we can’t plant anything,” says Richard. Various sliding doors across the back of the house open out onto this land.

The underfloor heating which warms the home works off an oil boiler, which also heats the hot water. They did consider both ground and air source, but the cost was “substantially more” and Richard was advised that the technology in this area is moving at such a pace it can be hard to keep up. However, should they want to switch further down the line their system can be easily connected.

After nearly two years of work, and just as Richard and Susan thought they were finally going to be able to move in, a particularly heavy bout of rain caused the ground floor to flood. “They put the water pipe through a protective sleeve – some water got into it and therefore into the house,” explains Richard. “We mopped it all up but the grouting got quite badly stained so it had to be redone.”

Despite this last minute drama, in January this year the couple finally moved in, and they are very happy with the house – as are most of the locals. “Even the people that were against it now say it’s so much nicer to have an attractive home rather than a dilapidated barn,” says Richard. “I’m pleased with everything,” Susan adds. “It’s been superb!”

The final validation for the couple of their house’s quality is the fact it has been nominated for a regional LABC Building Excellence award, which is the icing on the cake for their highly successful project.