Grand Designs cowshed, Somerset

A DIY cowshed conversion in Somerset

These first-time self-builders went off-grid by turning an old farm building into a self-sufficient home

By Caroline Ednie |

Self-build first-timers Ed and Vicky Versluys took on a derelict cowshed with fantastic views over the Somerset countryside. Despite a lack of building experience, their Grand Designs barn conversion is impressive.

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.

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

‘We weren’t looking to build a house’

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.’

The open-plan living and dining space of the Grand Designs cowshed in Somerset faces south

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

Planning permission for a converted cowshed

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.

‘We were keen to pursue this option as it was way better than anything we had looked at or could possibly afford. It was too good a site to let go, so we persevered. It was too good an opportunity to let go, so we persevered,’ says 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,’ says Ed. ‘We put together the proposal between us, so there wasn’t a huge cost involved.’

‘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.’

Aluminium bi-folding sliding doors open to the living space

Aluminium bi-folding sliding doors open onto the terrace. Photo: Matt Chisnall

A race against the clock

Ed and Vicky then had to race against the clock to buy the site before their option ran out on the Grand Designs cowshed project. This involved pushing through the sale of Vicky’s London flat to finance the purchase, and exchanging and completing on the land within two days of losing their option.

‘We knew that the plot would be worth a lot more with planning permission and we couldn’t have afforded it with our tiny budget,’ says Ed.

Ed and a labourer friend began clearing the site almost immediately. The build itself was a matter of learning as he went along, with a fair amount of internet searches for answers to construction conundrums – including, ‘how to lay a concrete floor’.

The design of the house takes its cues from the cowshed in terms of orientation and layout. ‘We didn’t want to mess around with the layout and we wanted to keep the original internal brick pillars. Three of the four main walls were still there and we knew what spaces we wanted,’ says Ed.

A structural engineer helped with the roof span calculations. ‘We also had an architect on board to help us with the building regulations; someone to hold my hand when I needed it,’ admits Ed.

Celebrating the original cowshed aesthetic

Inside the Grand Designs cowshed, the open-plan living, dining and kitchen area looks out over the panoramic views of the Somerset hills. While the north-facing side includes Vicky’s Pilates studio plus a cold room and utility.

Two bedrooms and a family bathroom hide behind what looks like a cupboard door in the kitchen. Across the other side of the open-plan living space sits the master bedroom and en suite, behind the timber-frame, straw bale walls that celebrate the original cowshed aesthetic.

‘The walls have this bumpy, knobbly effect that contrasts with the clean lines of the plasterboard and engineered timber beams and floors. It creates the feeling that part of the house has been built into the side of a cliff; it’s cave-like, an effect that we both really like,’ says Ed.

An eco-savvy approach is writ large in this off-grid home, which includes reclaimed timber floors and roof tiles made from recycled plastic bottletops. The building is externally insulated and clad in agricultural timber board, with glulam beams and a weatherproofed laminated timber roof anchoring the house to this exposed site.

A wood-burning stove and connected boiler caters for the heating needs of the 270 square metre building, with 10 photovoltaic roof panels and a wind turbine generating electricity. Following four unsuccessful attempts at drilling a borehole to bring in a water supply, the couple switched to a water harvesting system.

The rustic en suite bathroom with straw bale wall in the Grand Designs cowshed

The rustic en suite bathroom with straw bale and clay wall. Photo: Matt Chisnell

An optimistic build schedule

Ed’s overly optimistic build schedule of five months doubled, mainly due to elements outside his and Vicky’s control, such as the delays with some specialist contractors and delivery of items including the windows.

The delays also pushed up the budget. The plot cost £235,000, and the original build cost was set to be £208,000. It came in at around £238,000.

But despite a bumpy self-build journey that meant Kevin McCloud was unable to return with the camera crew to film the finished home, the pair are thrilled with their new home, moving in just before Christmas 2015.

‘There’s still a lot to be done,’ says Ed. ‘I’d like to build some pigsties, a hobbit house-style studio in the hill, and a traditional Scandinavian wooden sauna. We’ve already planted trees, hedges and an orchard, which will take years to grow, but we’re not going anywhere. I wouldn’t be wasting my time planting them if I was thinking of moving. When we get to our sixties it will be idyllic!’

Vicky and Ed in the handmade kitchen in their Grand Designs cowshed conversion

Vicky and Ed in the handmade kitchen in their cowshed conversion. Photo: Matt Chisnell

Watch the original 2015 Grand Designs Somerset cowshed episode here