Learning on the job

How a couple of first-time self-builders turned a cowshed into an eco-friendly home

By Paul Oneal | 3 January 2017

Self-build first-timers Ed and Vicky Versluys’ converted cowshed is a sustainable home with clever features and stacks of charm. ‘That bit on Grand Designs where I’m laying the concrete has made me famous! Everyone who saw it has commented on it, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to do concreting in friends’ houses,’ laughs Ed Versluys. Ed is referring to the moment when he took a delivery of 14 tons of concrete to lay a six square-metre subfloor – within half an hour and in a heatwave. A hefty effort for an experienced build team, but for Ed, a first-time self-builder armed with only a wheelbarrow, the task was Herculean. His fearless, gung-ho attitude to this particular job reflects the overall approach to this project, which Ed and wife Vicky embarked upon after setting eyes on a semi-derelict concrete and brick cowshed in Winsham, Somerset.

The interior of the converted cowshed looking across the open-plan kitchen

The open-plan living and dining space faces south. Photo: Matt Chisnall

A chance encounter

The couple, who were living and working in London when they first saw the rural ruin in 2014, hadn’t been planning to move to the country. ‘We weren’t looking to build a house,’ explains Ed. ‘We were thinking more along the lines of buying something together and doing it up, maybe changing a few rooms, a bit of DIY.’ They spotted the site by accident. ‘Vicky and I were on our way to Dartmoor to take a week off from house hunting,’ reveals Ed. ‘We went to my parents in Somerset to break up our journey and set off for a walk with my mum and dad. They remembered this really cool barn in the area. We climbed through the hedge and there it was. So, we decided to contact the farmer even though there was no For Sale sign.’

Looking towards the dining area with a rustic freestanding cupboard in the converted cowshed

The big glazed doors bring ample light to the dining space. Photo: Matt Chisnall

Persevering with planning

The landowner was willing to sell the five-acre plot, although there was no planning permission for the converted cowshed. The couple took a six-month option on the site. ‘It was too good an opportunity to let go, so we persevered,’ explains Ed. A collaborative effort by Ed, Vicky and Ed’s dad was the key. ‘My dad isn’t an architect, but he likes doing the computer drawings. We put together the proposal between us, so there wasn’t a huge cost involved,’ explains Ed. ‘We were fortunate that someone had tried to build a house on the site some years ago. They spent a lot of money on architects, designers and engineers to try to get permission, only to be unsuccessful. But all this information was public. So, we looked at this outcome and designed the house specifically to get approval. ‘We saw everyone in the neighbouring village to discuss our design and 30 to 40 people wrote letters to the planners supporting us. All the way through the authorities were still saying ‘no’ until the last minute when they finally agreed.’

Two comfy sofas and a country-style coffee table in the living area of the converted cowshed

Brick walls add contrast to the white painted surfaces. Photo: Matt Chisnall