It all started when Ben’s parents bought a piece of land to extend their garden. As it happened, Feeringbury Farm Barn, a timber-framed 16th-century barn, was part of the sale and so they gave it to Ben and Freddie as a gift.
‘Despite initial misgivings on my part, the prospect of living in the country seemed like a sensible thing to do,’ says Freddie. ‘We’d been living in London for 17 years and we’d just had our daughter, Willa, so it seemed churlish to turn down the opportunity just because I wanted to stay in the city.’
At seven times the size of a three-bedroom house, it was a gargantuan task. It wasn’t just how to configure the 325m² site that proved a challenge, but how to get around the many limitations imposed by the building’s listed status. ‘There was a lot we couldn’t do as we had to maintain the barn’s agricultural features,’ says Ben, who managed the project and also did a lot of the physical work involved in the restoration.
Their architect, Anthony Hudson of Hudson Architects, rose to the challenges imposed by the building’s listed status and delivered incredible design work that laid the foundation for what was to come. Ben and Freddie were particularly impressed with Anthony’s serene and unflappable disposition, as well as his smart ideas for updating the barn while working within the many conservation regulations.
Unfortunately, soon after work began they couldn’t afford to pay his fees and they had to let Anthony go, forcing Ben to rely heavily on his own skill set. ‘In a sense, the work is not dissimilar to what he does as a sculptor and artist’, says Freddie, who is in awe of his abilities and unsurprised that he excelled in a hands-on capacity. Ben attributes the success to the knowledge and skills of ‘building genius’ Nick Spall, a restoration specialist to the building today. ‘Together we had to work out how to translate a pile of drawings into a home. I couldn’t have done it without him.’
A major challenge was how to tackle the roof because the original thatch had long been replaced by corrugated sheeting. Conservation’s insistence on no visible evidence of windows or interior roof lights didn’t help matters either. Anthony’s answer to the problem was to construct a unique multi-walled, corrugated-steel roof covered with perforated steel mesh to conceal the large bay roof lights, while letting in lots of diffused natural light. ‘The lights were specially designed for a high-ceiling space and, in fact, they are the first dimmable, high-bay lights in Europe, probably the world,’ says Ben.
With its vast concrete floor and exposed timber frame some 8.5 metres high, the house is physically enormous. Unlike most barn conversions, no attempt has been made to hide the agricultural heritage of the place. In fact, the barn’s history and character are laid bare in accordance with conservation regulations. Here, every surface and pipe is exposed and you’ll find no plasterboard, paper or paint in sight – just the magnificent raw structure.
Another regulation called for no subdivision of the interior of the barn, which was problematic for Ben and Freddie who wanted to create a family environment within the large space. Once again Anthony decided to give the private spaces a playful and contemporary edge by bringing two existing grain silos indoors to separate the bedrooms from the living spaces. One houses an oak spiral staircase leading to a mezzanine bedroom while the other is home to bathrooms that serve the ground floor and mezzanine bedrooms.
‘I love the extremity of the house,’ says Freddie. Not everyone does though. ‘A lot of people are quite horrified as it’s against everything they think a home should be,’ laughs Ben. But, for the couple, the trappings of a normal home would just be too comfortable and cloying and claustrophobic. blackwaterpolytechnic.com; freddierobins.com; rca.ac.uk;hudsonarchitects.co.uk; nsrestorations.co.uk
Originally published in HL September 2016.