Georgie & Greg’s barn conversion in Kent
An ambitious single-storey barn conversion on a family farm in Sevenoaks
Grand Designs’ Georgie and Greg Whitaker are no strangers to overcoming major challenges, having both faced serious health issues in their lifetimes. But how did the couple fair with an ambitious barn conversion on their family farm in Sevenoaks?
From health concerns to planning restrictions and financial constraints, a number of obstacles lay in their path. Georgie, an artist, and Greg, a pub landlord, met in 2011 on a sailing trip arranged by the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust. The organisation was close to their hearts, since they had both been diagnosed with brain tumours earlier in life. Georgie has been receiving treatment for cancer for most of her life.
Having married in 2018, they found themselves priced out of the property market. ‘The only way to get a foothold was to build something ourselves,’ says Greg. Converting a single-storey barn, built by Georgie’s grandparents on her family farm, was the ideal solution. One of the main reasons the couple applied for Grand Designs was to raise awareness of the condition and the Trust.
Limited construction experience
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,’ he explains. ‘After recovering from a brain tumour, I felt I could do anything.’
Built 35 years ago, the barn is not old, but because it stands in a greenbelt and conservation area, the couple 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 and Georgie’s craft workshop above. The cube would be surrounded on three sides by bedrooms, and on the fourth would be a lofty open-plan living space.
A major hurdle
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 explains. 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 the subsequent setbacks in the same resourceful way.
‘I definitely have a logical, problem-solving brain,’ he says.
A big hit
The only insurmountable issue came when the company supplying the solar panels and air-source heat pump went into administration. Moreover, 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 of the 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. So, we salvaged the scrap metal and sent off the packaging to be recycled,’ Greg explains.
Another recycling opportunity came when one of the huge oak trees beside the barn had to be felled due to a honey fungus infection. ‘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. Their home 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.
Worth it in the end
The project took its toll, though. 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’ve been on a long journey and have put our hearts and souls into this house.’
The hard work will carry on as the couple have set up a business to share their knowledge and experience with future self-builders. They will also be turning part of the Grand Designs Sevenoaks barn into a retreat for people recovering from brain tumours. ‘We want to offer them rest and support when they are at their lowest,’ Greg tells us. ‘Sharing the house with those in need is a very personal part of this project.’
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