Born in a barn – French style

Living in a converted barn is the dream of many a Brit buying in France, and the blank canvas that a barn offers is very enticing. But converting accommodation that formerly housed animals or hay raises some unfamiliar issues.

If you are now the proud owner of a barn in France, with permission to develop, you now have to think carefully about what to do with all that space. Essentially there are two options: boxing out or open-plan.

Jean O’Halleran, a property developer who has renovated eight French barns, says she feels that a person shouldn’t buy a barn unless they like open-plan living. “This is what barns truly lend themselves to,” she says. “No matter what you do with a barn, it does always feel like a barn, not like a house. The sheer amount of space you get is wonderful. ”

Jean’s last conversion, in the Mayenne, was 34 metres long, with seven bedrooms, and she positioned the entrance hall in the middle. This was open right up to the roof, while the 60sqm galleried living room was placed on the first floor to make the most of the spectacular views.

Jean likes to be able to see right from one end of the building to the other in her conversions, and although it may be necessary to install internal walls for the sake of warmth, she prefers to keep internal doors few and far between. However, one thing she always builds in is a closed-off mudroom, sandwiched between a drive-in garage and the kitchen. “The mudroom is great for drying off the dogs, and means you can unload your shopping under cover,” she says. “I usually slot an extra loo and shower in here too.”

One problem that many would-be owners don’t realise is that barns tend to lack architectural features such as interesting fireplaces and windows, so character has to be added by you. “That’s not an insurmountable problem,” says Jean. “I focus on texture, and I source a lot of reclaimed materials such as old bricks and reclaimed timber flooring. I choose textured finishes for the walls, such as rough-plastering, and use paint effects like rag-rolling, while for kitchen tiles, I usually choose something hand-made and a little irregular.”

When Emma and Ken Snelson undertook their barn conversion they decided to box out, as it was always intended to be a gîte and needed a large number of bedrooms, but to make up for the rooms being smaller, they left the original cathedral ceilings on the top storey. What they hadn’t bargained on in their conversion was the clearance work when they first started.

“Farmers tend to leave all their junk when you buy a farm building,” says Emma. “Our stable was full of old tack and had to be dug out before work could begin.” Then, when the Snelsons came to put in the upper floor in the old stable, another issue arose. “There wasn’t enough head height on the top floor if we kept the floor at the existing level,” says Emma, “so we had to lower it and put a new floor in.” However, that left the Snelsons with a lot of old floorboards, so Emma cut them up and used them to make the kitchen units.

The quality of the building materials can also be an issue in barn conversions. When the stone was originally quarried, usually locally, the good blocks were traditionally reserved for the house, with working animals such as horses getting the next-best, then livestock such as cows, pigs and chickens, in descending order. “In the part of our house that used to be the cowshed,” says Emma, “the stones are rough schist and there are no good cornerstones. It had also been slapped up any old how, probably by the farmer himself. We had to rebuild the lot, and then rough-plaster over it to get a decent finish.”

In Ian Hackshall’s 18th century stone gîte, the lowest floor was a cow byre and the top floor was a hayloft, while humans were snugged into the storey in between. “There was 2ft of compacted cowdung in the byre and it all had to be dug out by hand,” he says. Ian went for the open-plan look and the old byre is now just one of five levels Ian has created in the house, connected by a handmade oak staircase that winds its way up the centre of the property. This finishes in a walkway on the top floor which connects two of the bedrooms.

It may be open, but it never feels cold, not just because of the large woodburner in the living room, but owing to the underfloor heating system. “This is a good solution in large spaces,” says Ian. “With underfloor heating you get no convection, and that enables you to keep a barn conversion open-plan, because there are no draughts. Underfloor heating also keeps the walls clear of radiators, which means you can put your furniture anywhere you like.”

Underfloor heating is expensive to install, and some people find the hot feet-cool head feeling a little unnatural to live with, but it is cheap to run, and also offers other advantages, such as safety (there are no hot radiators that might burn small fingers). In Ian’s house the heating cables are laid in a lightweight concrete screed, with ceramic tiles on top, which means that the system can be used even on the upper storeys.

When it comes to decoration, Ian has kept things simple, using natural colours and textures throughout, and plain white walls. The only fabric used is undyed cotton poplin. To make the most of the open-plan feeling, he has used doors only on the bathrooms and elsewhere has hung curtains. He also made a four-poster bed from wood and mild steel, and hung it with the same cotton poplin.

The final issue that concerns barn-dwellers is light. Barns originally have the minimum of windows, with perhaps ‘chattières’ in the roof to allow air to circulate around the hay. That pretty much gives you the choice of where to install your windows, but some owners prefer to simply glaze the openings that already exist. “We are planning to join our two small limestone barns with a glass conservatory,” says Joanne Clarkson in the Haute Vienne. “That means we don’t really mind the rest of the house being darker, so we’re just glazing the existing openings and installing rooflights. The floor will be of polished limestone, though, to reflect as much light as possible.”

Jean O’Halleran, whose conversions have mainly been granite buildings which really need light, prefers to run a row of French windows down the south side of the structure wherever possible. “That means you get lots of light on that side, and you can run all the services down the north side,” she explains. “That makes the plumbing and installing the septic tank, etc, much easier.”

When it comes to rooflights, she says, she feels Veluxes give a better light, but that on the whole she prefers dormers. “Dormers look much nicer,” she says, “and they do give you the head height, which can be important when the roof pitch is low. However, you really need to get a decent builder in, because dormers will leak if they’re not properly installed. I would never advise anyone to install dormers themselves.”

* Before you buy a barn expecting to convert it, it’s crucial that you have a ‘certificat d’urbanisme’ that gives you permission to develop the building in the way you wish. The ‘CU’ is said to be becoming harder to obtain and, in particular, watch out if a barn seems to be going for a bargain price – if it seems to be too good to be true, you might find that a CU has already been applied for and refused.

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