Wikitionary describes the phrase ‘born in a barn’ as meaning: ‘Engaging in the behaviour of inappropriately, and usually neglectfully, leaving an exterior door or window open, considered ill-mannered.’

But in 2020, the reality of being born in, or living in a barn, actually means you’re likely to be comfortably well-off; you and your (young) family are also likely to be able to work from home in a bucolic area, enjoying superfast broadband and because of your ecological awareness, there’s no chance you’ll wilfully leave the door open, wasting the energy from your air source heat pump. Rather, if you do leave any doors or windows ajar, you’ll use your smartphone to control the heating and slide open bifold doors from the large living space to enjoy your rolling-country views.

In 2020’s rush to leave London (and the South East), many families are looking to move into character properties like former agricultural buildings – but the trend is increasingly for these homes to be modern in finish and full of technological functionality. “There’s been a swing from the traditional to contemporary,” explains Simon Neville-Jones, the manager of Lodestone Property’s Dorset office, “and people – especially the younger generations – are currently looking for spacious homes that they don’t have to alter.” Former modern barns – the large kind that often dominate the rural landscape, rather than tumbledown shepherd’s retreats – tick the boxes for developers who can use these roomy spaces in rural locations (usually on the edge of a villages) to create something new and exciting while referencing the past.

So what changed? “There’s always been a desire to see how people could reuse nice attractive stone barns, the kind you see turning up in estate agent windows with an associated paddock and cracking views” begins John Hammond from Chapman Lily Planning, a Dorset-based planning practise with a wealth of local-authority experience. “But in locational terms, they are often quite isolated. Planning officers see them as being away from facilities and that people need to drive to use them. So councils have often approved their redevelopment as holiday or employment units, but resisted them being used as houses.” Then around 10 years ago, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, oversaw a review of planning laws through the Treasury, resulting in the National Planning Policy Framework. In order to meet a requirement of 300,000 new houses, this looked at how you could convert buildings more easily. “He was probably thinking of big empty office blocks on the way into London, rather than Georgian High Street offices for solicitors,” laughs John, before becoming serious, “but it opened the door to reusing redundant or underused modern agricultural buildings too. Bit by bit, clever architects showed that you can create some very attractive living spaces that don’t have any sort of traditional scale to them and that provide quite an attractive and innovative house.”

Which is exactly the kind of property Nathan Hopkins and his family property development company of 48 years, Hopkins Estates Ltd, have created at Blackford in Somerset, currently under offer with Lodestone Property. Manor Farm Barn was originally an old agricultural building but is now a 356.5m squared, light, spacious and breathtaking family home, with modern features that 21st century families scroll their Insta grid for. It’s highly insulated, with Smart Systems, powder-coated aluminium windows and doors, aluminium bi-fold screen doors, an aluminium and oak glass roof over the sunroom and dining room and electrically-operated Velux conservation windows, with rain-sensor technology. There’s also low energy LED lighting throughout, with an 8KW PV system installed on either side of the roof and a Tesla Power Wall 2 battery storage system fully integrated into the control system. Not forgetting Nu Heat underfloor heating, controlled by app based control technology and a central IT managed system with seamless WI-FI, as well as TV access points and fibre BT broadband. Unsurprisingly, the house sold in super-quick time, with two further prospective buyers asking to be put on a back-up list in case the current sale falls through. Hopkins Estates Ltd recently sold a farm to TV presenter and property expert, Sarah Beenie, nearby.

Property developers and planners all agree that the beauty of a barn conversion, in any style, is that you’ll have something truly unique at the end – something with character; vaulted ceilings and beams perhaps, or just lots of room for open-plan living. So if you find an old barn to buy, or one comes with your next house, it’s a project you could consider taking on. And if you don’t want to live in it yourself, or use it as an office or extra living space, they can also be brilliant revenue generators. Confirms Andy Sturgess from long-established Dorset building firm Sturgess & Sturgess and who has a raft of master craftsman at his disposal and once built a farmhouse for Prince Charles:

“We’ve been doing barn conversions for about the last 20 years, since they have become more fashionable. We recently completed one at a place near Steeple – near Kimmeridge – where we took farm buildings that covered about 2,500 feet and at the end of it, because the quality was outstanding, they were able to rent it out as a long-term let for just under £4,000 a month. But,” he warns, “they can be a money pit if you don’t know what you’re doing, so make sure you get a good team around you before you start.” Which is why sometimes it’s best to leave it to the professionals.

Top three tips for converting a barn

1. Assemble a great team around you.
Listen out for word-of-mouth recommendations and look for professional accreditations. For example, planning companies like Chapman Lily in Wareham are members of their professional body RTPI (Royal Town Planning Institute).

2. Expect to spend more
Budget to spend at least 10-15% over what you would a new build, says Nathan Hopkins of Hopkins Estates Ltd.

3. Do your research
“My advice to anyone wanting to buy a barn to convert is to get advice early [about planning and design] from someone who genuinely knows what they’re doing because you could be sold a bit of a pup and end up struggling to get what you want.” says Andy Sturgess, of Dorset building firm Sturgess & Sturgess. “When the owner has done a lot of research, it helps us a lot”.

Cath Rapley, Lodestone Property

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