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Barn Conversions: Common Heritage Issues and How to Manage Them

Adapting farm buildings into modern dwellings is becoming an increasingly popular form of re-purposing disused agricultural buildings. From non-designated to listed, managing the heritage issues within the design is vital in order to ensure a successful planning application.

If the site you are wishing to develop has potential heritage complications, whether that be a listed building, non-designated heritage asset, falling within a conservation area, designated landscape, or neighbouring any of the above, then it is worthwhile contacting a heritage consultant. They can provide expert advice to help you develop the best management strategies of your heritage asset in order to reach the best possible outcome for your scheme. Once the significance of your barn or farmstead has been formally assessed, sympathetic design plans can begin to be drawn up and submitted for planning permission, often in conjunction with an accompanying Heritage Impact Assessment.

Despite there being widespread regional variations within the design of farmsteads, there are a number of common shared issues that arise during their plans for conversion.

Key Issues:

Introducing Light

Historically, ventilation was a more substantial requirement than light within the design of most agricultural buildings. Therefore, there is typically a lack of natural light within agricultural buildings, despite many farmsteads being orientated to face east and south east in order to catch as much sunlight as possible. As such, one of the greatest challenges within the design stage of many barn conversions is how to introduce plentiful amounts of daylight without compromising the character and significance of the heritage asset.

At first glance, there can minimal obvious opportunities to insert window openings within these buildings and the wrong approach could jeopardise the success of the planning application. For example, inserting many standard windows that are organised in a symmetrical manner -typically seen within domestic properties- will often detract from the character of the barn, and therefore would detract from the significance of the heritage asset, potentially resulting in a negative heritage impact. Previously, we have managed to help clients overcome this common issue of light; whilst also conserving and enhancing the character, fabric and setting of the heritage asset. Examples of this include: thoughtfully located rooflights, glazing owl holes, hay loft openings, breathers, raggles and existing door openings.

Adapting the Space

Another complex aspect of designing modern farm building conversions is how to manage the existing layout of the building, and managing to create a building suitable to be repurposed as a home. Quite often, there is a desire to: create open plan spaces within subdivided barns, add extensions, insert additional storeys and insert dividing walling to create rooms suitable for its proposed modern function. It is vital that any proposed alteration to the historical layout of the barn will retain the legibility for the original function whilst removing as little historic fabric as possible. For example, combination barns often host impressive proportions within the upper floors of the building, thus creating long-sight lines that form part of the building’s significance.

Should vast proportions of such a space be subdivided by inserted walling, this element of its significance will be lost, thereby having the potential to result in a negative heritage impact. Further, we have often worked on proposed conversions where the small rooms and stalls within former stable buildings form an issue within the proposed adaptation of the building as they do not easily lend themselves into a space for modern day living. We have helped previous clients overcome issues with adapting their space through carefully designed tailored management plans and design advice, some of which have included the following solutions: retaining ‘nib-walls’ to demonstrate the historical legibility, providing clear definitions between modern extensions and the original building and selecting areas within the building to showcase the historical function of the building.

Understanding the Setting

In order to design an appropriate scheme which will result in a neutral, or even, positive outcome to the heritage asset, a sound understanding of the setting of the building as well as its relationship to other surrounding buildings, heritage assets and/or the landscape is vital. By incorporating a design that is sympathetic to the immediate surroundings, the conservation of the significance of the heritage asset will be a by-product of a successful design. Examples of areas for consideration within previous schemes have included: assessing and responding to the overall visual impact, building materials, surfaces, boundary treatment and planting etc.

Minimising Loss

Minimising the loss of historical fabric and significant features within any conversion of a heritage asset is one of the easiest ways to not only safeguard the overall significance of the building, but to also result in a neutral, or even positive heritage impact, which will contribute towards a successful planning application. Historic farm buildings often host a wealth of architectural, archaeological, artistic and historic interest, principally expressed within the design and key features of the building. As such, identifying the key features and the original/historical fabric and incorporating and retaining them within modern designs of the proposed conversion will not only, conserve the appreciation for the historical use and age, but it will also provide character and interest to the new proposed property. Key features within farm buildings which we often come across and aim to preserve include: stable flooring, fireplaces, haylofts, exposed rafters, owl holes, the original fenestration, dove cotes, kilns, ovens, cast iron fixtures and fittings, quoin, coping, kneelers and breathers etc.

By converting historic barns in a mode sympathetic with their significances, any such proposed scheme is more likely to result in a neutral, or even positive impact to the heritage asset, in turn strengthening the whole planning application from a heritage-planning perspective.

It should be noted that the guidance listed above are purely some examples of issues and mitigation strategies that I have come across within my role as a heritage consultant and may not be applicable or guarantee planning permission for your particular scheme as every project offers unique heritage issues and often requires its own tailored advice. If you are seeking to develop your heritage assets and you would like to discuss your project or simply need some impartial, no-obligation advice, then please do not hesitate to contact us at Blue Willow Heritage.


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