Georgie and Greg are no strangers to overcoming major challenges, having both faced serious health issues. They poured their heart and soul into this self-build barn conversion and the result is amazing.
Georgie and Greg Whitaker have faced more than their fair share of difficulties in life, so embarking on a barn conversion project was a brave move. From health concerns to planning restrictions and financial constraints, a number of obstacles lay in their path.
Georgie, 34, who is an artist, and Greg, 30, a pub landlord, met in 2011 on a sailing trip arranged by a cancer charity. The organisation was close to their hearts as they had both been diagnosed with a brain tumour earlier in their lives and Georgie is still undergoing care and treatment for the long-term effects of cancer.
When the couple married in 2018 and started searching for their first home, they realised they were priced out of the market. ‘The only way to get a foothold was to build something ourselves,’ says Greg. Converting a single-storey barn, built by her grandfather, on Georgie’s family farm was the ideal solution.
By retaining the building’s single-storey layout, timber structure and minimal glazing. Image: Jefferson Smith
An unusual barn
They weren’t deterred by the fact that Greg’s construction experience was limited to a carpentry course and some renovations undertaken at his pub. ‘I’d always dreamed of building my own house,’ Greg explains. ‘After recovering from a brain tumour, I felt I could do anything.’
At just 35 years old, the barn is not old but because it stands in a green belt and a Conservation Area, they weren’t permitted to substantially alter the structure.
They called on architect Mike Kaner from Kaner Olette to draw up some plans. ‘I liked the unusual look of the barn,’ he recalls. ‘The generous overhangs and wooden boarding gave it a slightly Swiss feel, and I worked with that rather than against it.’
His main challenge was how to get light inside without adding expanses of glass, a problem solved with a series of rooflights and unobtrusive slit-shaped windows that frame glimpses of the countryside.
Inside, a steel-framed cube was designed to stand in the centre of the barn to create a second level in the big, high-ceilinged space, with a snug in the lower half. The upper section would become Georgie’s crafting workshop, surrounded on three sides by bedrooms, and on the fourth would be a lofty open-plan living space.
Georgie’s studio sits on the top of the steel cube at the heart of the barn. Image: Jefferson Smith
A green build
Work began in early 2019, but as Greg began to dig out the concrete floor, he hit a major hurdle. ‘The timber frame had no foundations. You can get away with four inches of concrete in a barn, but not in a house,’ he says. Instead of hiring a specialist contractor, Greg devised an ingenious steel post support so that the main frame could stay standing while the foundations were underpinned, and it didn’t cost a penny more than they had budgeted. He tackled all subsequent setbacks in the same resourceful way. ‘I definitely have a logical problem-solving brain,’ he says.
The only insurmountable problem came when the company supplying the solar panels and air-source heat pump went into administration, taking £5,000 of the couple’s money with them. ‘We took a big hit,’ admits Greg. ‘We’ve installed an oil-fired boiler until we can afford to go down the renewables route again, but all the pipework is ready and waiting.’
Plenty more eco-features are already functioning, including a 7,500-litre rainwater harvesting tank, huge amounts of insulation and triple glazing. But perhaps the greenest of all was the careful management of resources. ‘We pride ourselves on not having hired a single skip. The old concrete floor became hardcore for the driveway, we salvaged the scrap metal and sent off all the packaging to be recycled for charity,’ Greg explains.
The ultimate recycling opportunity came when one of the huge oak trees beside the barn had to be felled due to infection with honey fungus. ‘At first we were devastated, but then we decided to turn it into a positive, machining the timber and using it for all the internal carpentry. We saw it as a chance to give the tree a new life,’ says Greg.
Modular seating surrounds the woodburning stove, which has a concrete plinth and backplate made by Greg. Image: Jefferson Smith
Sticking to budget
The project was completed in late 2020, right on budget. ‘A build of this size and quality would usually cost far more, so we have made a huge saving,’ says Greg.
The project took its toll, though, as Greg continued to work evening shifts at the pub and Georgie laboured on site despite periods of exhaustion. ‘I probably did more than was sensible,’ she says, ‘but now it’s done I’m so proud of what we have achieved. We have been on a long journey and have put our hearts and souls into this house.’
The hard work doesn’t stop here, though, as the couple are setting up a business to share their knowledge and experience with future self-builders. They are also turning part of the house into a retreat for anyone recovering from a brain tumour. ‘We want to offer people rest and support when they are at their lowest,’ says Greg. ‘Sharing the house with those in need is a very personal part of this project.’
The dining table was made from the trunk of a storm-damaged oak tree that had succumbed to honey fungus. Image: Jefferson Smith