A Guide to Barn Conversions and Extensions in the South West

When the aspiration for a life in the countryside meets with the desire to undertake a self-build project, for many this results in taking on a barn conversion. As a practice, we have gained plenty of expertise on such projects, having been involved on a number of conversions and extensions over the years. We continue specialising in barn conversions throughout Devon and Cornwall thanks to our extensive knowledge and understanding of their unique architectural and planning challenges.

Practice Director Ben Huggins, a master-craftsmen turned architect, honed his skills on the construction of a number of such projects earlier in his career. Alongside wife and Director Hannah, these were featured on TV programmes and in the Telegraph Newspaper. These were formative years for the practice, and give us an innate understanding of the challenges and opportunities unlike other architectural practices. Our experience is first and foremost, hands-on.


Given the tight planning policy that restricts new development in open countryside, seeking conversion and extension of existing structures is often the most assured option for planning permission. Making a home from a redundant agricultural building has its challenges, primarily achieving the careful balancing act of a new domestic appearance within an agricultural scale and form. This challenge is often the greatest opportunity too, creating the potential for generous double height living spaces not found in conventional houses. These can be contrasted for example with characterful smaller spaces under exposed roof trusses, which are more typically ‘domestic’.

With our experience of barn conversions and other rural buildings, we have a detailed understanding and appreciation for the vernacular materials and processes that underpin a successful conversion. Often such structures are listed, or within the curtilage of a listed building, and require careful negotiation with the Local Planning Authority and Conservation Officer. If located within a Conservation Area or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), there are further levels of detail that need to be provided.


Our design ethos is not only about careful restoration, but also about reinterpreting the architectural qualities of agricultural and vernacular buildings. We take cues from their wriggly tin cladding, open timber louvres and exposed structural members, to convert and extend structures in such a way that they remain rooted in their rural context and not overly domesticated. We strive to create something of its own architectural merit, allowing the history of the building to be as legible as possible. This ethos runs through all of our projects, including extensions to existing rural houses.


Whilst a more intact structure makes for a more straightforward project, a redundant building can be found in varying states of disrepair. We have successfully gained consent for the conversion of relatively complete structures, through to barns where there is very little that is salvageable. This can significantly impact the planning justification required to the Local Planning Authority, and we are used to working with structural engineers and planning consultants from an early stage to formulate a case for re-use of the building.


It is not only private homes that should be considered for redundant barns in the countryside. Often they can be small storage buildings or livestock shelters that are not large enough for a private home, but can create unique rural retreats. We are currently working on a series of modest stone barns for a farm in Cornwall, which will ultimately provide holiday accommodation for couples and small groups. This follows on from our work at Kudhva, and applies similar principles of ‘small-space’ living.


Whilst it is often justifiable, conversion of existing barns and agricultural buildings is not always assured in planning terms. However, new policy introduced in 2014 known as Class Q development introduced a permitted development right for residential conversion of agricultural buildings, providing a series of requirements are met. Amongst others, key criteria include the need for the building to have been in a use solely for agricultural purposes on or before 20th March 2013, to be enclosed on at least 3 sides, to be structurally suitable without alteration and allows for the creation of up to 5 dwellings. See our Class Q page for an in-depth guide on achieving consent and our project experience.

Given the nature of a permitted development policy that requires a more straightforwards prior approval process rather than the full planning permission process, it is unsurprisingly fairly restrictive in order to control what is created. Though it can produce acceptable architectural results, it is most valuable for establishing the principle of development for a new house in the countryside that wouldn’t otherwise exist. A topical issue is the newly-established ‘betterment’ principle, whereby planning departments should now accept that Class Q consent is a valid ‘fall back’ argument. This means that should the criteria of Class Q policy be met, or better still consented, planning departments should subsequently be receptive to an application for a new proposal that is of greater architectural merit and makes better use of the site. This is also covered in our Class Q guide and Betterment guide.


New British Design are an RIBA Chartered Architectural Practice specialising in barn conversions throughout Devon, Cornwall and further afield. If you’re looking for an architect for a barn conversion or extension, we’d love to hear from you.

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