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From pigsties to prime locations

The Economist February 2017

HIDDEN behind farmhouses and tucked into the corners of fields, bold architectural experiments are under way in the English countryside. A recent change in planning regulations has simplified the development process, allowing landowners to give derelict post-war farm buildings new purposes and, sometimes, exotic makeovers.

In the two years following the change in the law, the figure more than doubled.
A fashion for rural living caught on in the 1980s, causing a boom in residential conversions of pre-industrial and Victorian farm buildings. By the early 21st century the supply of property suitable for conversion was almost exhausted. But in 2014 planning rules were altered to allow a greater range of agricultural structures to be developed with the need for only “prior approval” from the local council, rather than full planning permission. Post-war cowsheds and dairies with portal steel and pre-cast concrete frames, previously off-limits, became available for conversion.

This new supply of large, steel- and concrete framed structures demands a new architectural approach. And so the urban fashion for exposed concrete is reaching out to the country. Concrete mezzanines, rough timber cladding and new quarry tiles are being installed in super-shed makeovers; some avant-garde farmers are planning brutalist barn conversions.

In the village of High Halden, Kent, a ramshackle 800-square-metre (8,600-square-foot) cowshed has prior approval to be turned into a single-storey timber-clad home with ceiling-high windows. In nearby Biddenden a corrugated-iron shed which used to function as a shop for farm-picked asparagus is to get a new glass façade; where vegetables were once weighed, a breakfast bar will stand.

The new rules have extended development rights over some older properties, too. In Sissinghurst a set of early-20th-century hop-pickers’ huts, where gangs of seasonal workers from London used to sleep on straw, will be converted into a slender, timber-clad two-bedroom chalet. The property includes bucolic grounds of fields and lakes, in which the hop-pickers once worked in conditions of near-slavery. The legislation also provides for changes to different commercial uses. On a farm near Wincanton in Somerset, a charitable foundation operates from a former pigsty, the crumbling stone walls of which are little more than a nest for a timber building. Hens have been known to interrupt the work of the charity’s staff. A nearby grain silo will soon be converted into a library.

Farmers, many of whom have plenty of assets but little capital, are seizing the chance to give their old outbuildings new leases of life. This has contributed to a big increase in the number of home conversions. Between March 2010 and March 2012, 25,300 non-residential buildings in England were converted for domestic use. In the two years following the change in the law, the figure more than doubled, to 51,250. Where there’s muck, there’s brass.