Essex barn conversion Grand Designs Braintree 2011

The ‘timber dinosaur’ barn conversion in Essex

A 500-year-old timber framed barn in Braintree has become a family home

By Luke Tebbutt | 5 February 2021

This Essex barn conversion featured on Grand Designs in 2011, when artists Ben Coode-Adams and Freddie Robins transformed a grade II listed barn into a family home. The timber-framed structure, not far from Colchester, dates back to 1560. It originally belonged to Ben’s parents, who transferred it into Ben’s name a few years previously.

Ben and Freddie were looking for a live/work space in London at the time. But given Ben’s noisy work creating steel sculptures, and London prices, their options were limited. And so, the Grand Designs barn conversion was born. ‘This property’s amazing. It seemed churlish to turn down the opportunity just because I wanted to stay in the city. So we embarked on the project.’ says Freddie.

Inside the Essex barn conversion showing a huge open-plan living-kitchen-diner

Ben and his carpenter built the kitchen. Photo: Rachael Smith

Planning restrictions

Hudson Architects designed the striking mesh roof to deal with a planning restriction banning visible roof lights on the barn. The mesh lights conceal the roof lights beneath it, while still letting in light.

But don’t be fooled by the modern, industrial-style roof on this Essex Grand Designs barn. Inside, it feels more like being swallowed by a giant timber dinosaur – eight and a half metres tall, with all its bones exposed. The side of the building also had to be soundproofed which is just as well, since Ben creates steel sculptures and public installations. It was a gamble, too, due to the couple beginning the conversion with just half of the funds that their quantity surveyor has recommended.

The barn conversion design and planning took one year, from September 2006 to 2007 and building work began in April 2008. Soon after, however they had to let their architect go to save money, with Ben taking over management of the build 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 a barn conversion where every surface and pipe is exposed requires builders to take greater care than normal with the details.

‘Nick and I were three jobs ahead of the builders, so we only started working on things when we 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. Even better, it managed to save them money. For example, a specialist company quoted £35,000 for the concrete floor, which had to be eight inches thick to support scaffolding, in case they need to reach the ceiling), and they knocked off more than a third by cutting out the middle man and hiring people directly.