To the untrained eye, this dilapidated barn in the Devonshire countryside in southwest England looked like a ruin. First of all, there was no road access—so you had to walk across two fields to even see it. The roof was missing, the stone walls had crumbled in places, and ivy haphazardly covered the structure.
But even in such condition, architects Tom Powell and Sam Nelson of Type could see that the centuries-old building had been constructed with care. "It was just so well built and beautifully made," says Powell. "It didn’t really feel like a typical agricultural building."
Before: South Elevation
"The way the stone was laid was really precise," adds Sam. "It was pretty clear from the outset that working with that character and preserving as much of this historic building as possible would be the main focus of the design." This fit well with the clients’ goals, as they sought not only to rehabilitate the barn into a new home for themselves, but also to recover 25 acres of the surrounding landscape, which had been depleted by farming practices over the years.
After: South Elevation
The owners are an older couple who just needed living space for themselves and the occasional guest, so the architects designed the floor plan with flexibility in mind. The approach, says Powell, was "to fit quite a small house into a big volume, which was great for us as designers, because it gave us a lot to play with."
The first step in the process was to gain approval from the planning board. "We had to demonstrate that the building was important enough, and significant enough, to be worthy of keeping and converting into something new," says Powell.
The team hired an archaeologist, who determined that the structure dated to 1810, and had been part of a wealthy farming estate. The main floor once held cattle (which is why the openings are large enough for cows to pass through), and the upstairs was used for threshing and storing grain.
Keeping in mind that a typical barn would be open plan, and wanting to honor that, the architects "used a very simple device of inserting timber-clad boxes—there’s just two on each floor," says Powell. "They’re somewhat nonstructural, so they can always be adapted."
The ground-level layout is defined by the remnants of seven substantial stone support columns, with the staircase placed to one side of them. The "boxes" house a bedroom and bathroom, which are flanked by a kitchen on one side, and a second bedroom on the end.
The rooms are stacked in a row along the arched openings, so as to benefit from the natural light they provide. In keeping with preservation goals, no new openings were created in the building, and the existing openings were fitted with simple oak and glass pivot doors, so as to keep the views clear and the detailing unfussy.
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Upstairs, the firm capped the volume with exposed Douglas fir trusses. There’s a combined living and dining room at the center, bookended by partition walls at either end, which allow light to flow through and foster flexible use in the future.
"We used robust materials and expressed their use very clearly, while also allowing for flexibility," says Nelson. "The upper floor, for example, is all open plan and can be reconfigured in different ways, which informed the structural design of the roof."
The firm built a "site hut" during construction, and Powell moved in with his partner (also an architect), which enabled the firm to oversee every detail of the build process—from the smallest components, like the metal door hinges and hardware, to the largest, like the heavy timber trusses and the surrounding landscape plan.
Before: North Elevation
After: North Elevation
Taken as a whole, the project has helped to revitalize the landscape while carefully positioning the barn between the past and future. "The same shell that’s always been there is now restored," says Powell. "It could be further adapted, or taken back to its original form."
Masonry Repairs: Torbay Stone Walling
Timber Structure: Carpenter Oak Limited
Steelwork Fabrication: C H Jones & Son
Joinery and Carpentry: Rendle and Elliott / Forman Bespoke Joinery
Staircase Joinery: Maitland Roberts Cabinet Makers
Doors and Windows: Bond Joinery Limited
Concrete: Exeter Floor Restoration Ltd
Blacksmiths: John Churchill Blacksmiths
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