How a 500-year-old timber-framed barn was converted into a quirky family home. 

External view of house 

Image: Gaps in the sixteenth-century timber frame have been filled with plywood and strips of alder. Photo: Rachael Smith

Appearing on Grand Designs in 2011, Ben Coode-Adams and Freddie Robins' barn conversion in Essex was defined by their unconventional approach to turning the 500-year-old structure into a unique family home, complete with space for home working.

The barn, which is not far from the town of Braintree gave the couple, who are both artists, the chance to express their creativity.

It originally belonged to Ben's parents, who live next door, and although the couple initially wanted a London base, this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

"It seemed churlish to turn down the opportunity just because I wanted to stay in the city, that would have been crazy. So, we embarked on the project, and that was mad, too!" said Freddie.

Watch the episode: Braintree, 2011

 Living room

Image:  Gutex insulating wood fibreboards are on the walls and a large biomass boiler supplies underfloor heating and hot water. Photo: Rachael Smith

Barn conversion planning

Hudson Architects designed a striking mesh roof to deal with a planning restriction that banned visible roof lights on the barn – the mesh conceals the roof lights beneath it, while still letting in daylight. The sides of the building had to be soundproofed, since Ben uses steelwork for his art, making sculptures and public installations such as arches and gates. The entire project was a gamble, as the couple began the conversion with just half of the funds recommended by their quantity surveyor.

Cutting costs

The design and planning process took a year, with the building work beginning in April 2008. Soon after, to save money, Ben took over the management of the build from the architecture practice, working alongside Nick Spall, a timber-frame expert. 

Between them they had to work out how to translate a pile of drawings into a home, using 3D drawing software, but constructing a home where every surface and pipe would be exposed required the builders to take greater care than normal with the details. ‘Nick and I were three jobs ahead of the contractors, so we only started working on things when they got close to building them. In a normal build, you would have worked that out at the beginning so your contractor could cost it.’ Ben explains. 

Read more: What new planning reform proposals mean for self-builders

Working this way did save money, such as knocking off more than a third of the cost of getting the concrete floor laid, which had to be eight inches thick to support scaffolding, in case they need to reach the ceiling, by hiring people directly


Image:  The barn was probably a threshing barn in it's original statePhoto: Rachael Smith

‘We never had a budget. We had a set amount of money to work with, so we thought let's do it and see what happens.’ Ben explained. ‘We knew we could save on the surveyor's quote which included the builder's profit and risk, but we didn't know how much it would cost to repair the frame.’ 

For others considering a similar project, Ben advises that it's handy to be handy. ‘If you have no building knowledge, you're going to end up spending a shedload for somebody else who does.’ It’s important to spend time looking at the building before making a start.


The family are thrilled with their barn conversion homne. Image: Rachael Smith

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The final details

Ben and Freddie ticked everything they wanted off their list. ‘I love that it doesn't have the trappings of a normal home – they're too comfortable and cloying and claustrophobic. I love the extremity of this.’ Freddie exclaims. Not everyone does though. ‘Quite a lot of people are horrified. It’s against everything they think a home should be,’ says Ben. 

Contrary to opinion though, the internal finishes on the barn are sentimental and cost effective, from old tea chests bought for 50p each covering a wardrobe for their daughter Wilhelmina, to leftover featherboard from the exterior that was washed and sanded for the kitchen cupboards.


Image: Rachael Smith

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