When perseverance pays off: A rural barn conversion
In this inspiring episode, we delve into the remarkable self-build journey of Ade, an architectural designer and large scale project manager, who transformed a dilapidated barn into a dream home for his family in the picturesque Kent countryside.
We discuss his drive to uncover hidden opportunities, his commitment to maintaining the highest standards throughout the conversion process, and the challenges of putting the fate of your future in the hands of the planners.
Amy: Welcome to Stories from Site, the renovation podcast that digs a little deeper. I’m Amy Dohnalek and together with my co-host Jane Middlehurst we peek behind the curtains of those insta-worthy interiors to bring you the real processes people went through to make their dream homes a reality.
In this inspiring episode, we delve into the remarkable self built journey of Adé, an architectural designer and project manager. Who transformed a dilapidated barn into a dream home for his family in the picturesque Kent countryside.
We discuss his drive to uncover hidden opportunities, his commitment to maintaining the highest standards throughout the conversion process, and the challenges of putting the fate of your future in the hands of the planners.
Jane: Thank you so much for being with us today, Ade, and taking the time to talk to us about your project. Can you… briefly explain how your project came about and what is the project?
Ade: Okay. So we, we moved from London to, to Kent a few years back. We’re living in London for 10 years and the kids were growing up and we just thought it’s better we get to, nice school for them. Hence, coming to Kent because of the grammar schools and stuff and we rented out our house in London and we were rented down in, in part of Kent we decided to, to relocate to.
And after six months, it just occurred to us that this is, this is home. You know because one, we’re getting value for money. Can imagine it was a two bedroom in, in London. We’re renting for 950 and down in Kent is a four bedroom house and the, the rent was a thousand. So we’re just practically collecting 950 from London adding 50 pounds to it, you know to give to the landlord.
And yeah, after, after a while, we just thought, you know, what? We’d like it down here let’s let’s, let’s try and see if we could get a land to build. My background is in architecture, so I’ve done design and build in London. So we just thought, you know what, we’ve done it before where we, we sell land, but this time around I want to like, let’s do something for the family.
So we started looking and because of our limited budget, because obviously the, the, The equity in on our London property. We have just a limited budget to, to buy the land and see what we can do with the build. I was being creative about it. So we, we, we probably wrote, we send out over a hundred letters to, to land owners, trying to see, oh, there’s a piece of land, maybe their back garden or a site plot or or maybe a farmland or something, whether they’re interested in selling.
So then over the weekend, we’ll drive around the area, the countryside, try to see if there’s any derelict building around that we could kind of make contact. And we did that for almost over a year, close to one and a half years, trying to identify, a land because obviously the land in the open market, they’re just crazily expensive and we couldn’t afford it, so we wanted something that’s going to be off the market and I mean we after 100 letters some will reply because when we send the letter out we will put the a self address envelope with stamp, you know some will reply and say no and anytime we get the the note in the post.
I’m always happy to say this thing is working. We’re going to keep at it, even though they said no. So there was a day I booked to view a bungalow down, not far from where we’re leaving just to have a look to see whether it’s possible for us to knock it down and rebuild maybe two, two houses or whatever, on my way to the bungalow, I just saw this derelict barn just by the road.
I was like, Oh. What’s happening here? Okay, let me go and do my viewing on my way back, I’m going to stop to just have a look. So did the viewing. That wasn’t viable. So on my way back, just stop in front of the farm just to have a look at it. And it was a derelict barn in, in, in a, in a very quiet farm.
So I just took the picture to say, I’m going to go and investigate it. And to my surprise, when I investigated it on the council website, it had planning permission to convert the existing structure, but they allowed it to expire. So I, I was looking at it in 2016, the planning expired 2015.
I was like, why would they allow the planning to expire? You know, I couldn’t understand it. So we just thought, well, what we could do is just write a letter. So we sent a letter to them and and probably about a month or two later, they replied and said, yes, why not? They gave us the history of the barn and all that.
And and yeah three, four months later we came to see them and yeah, that was it. That was how we, bought a barn, a derelict barn.
Amy: I mean, it is amazing for anyone. I would say head to your Instagram. It’s three acre barns, isn’t it?
Ade: It’s a three acre barn.
Amy: Yes, barn. Sorry. It’s incredible. I mean, when you say derelict barn, seeing what it is now and then the little reel where you show what it is before it is just unbelievable.
Ade: It is, it is.
Where did you go from there?
Ade: So, we got, we got the dialect ban and the next step is more of speaking to the council. Yes, it’s had planning permission before, but obviously it’s expired and the the design that was approved was not going to be fit for purpose for us as a family. So we just went back to them.
So, okay, this is what we’re thinking. This is based on my, architectural background. This is what we’re thinking we want to do. The council came back and said, yes, you can knock it down and rebuild. However, the moment you do that, you’ll be building on the countryside, which the only planning policy that will allow you to do that was paragraph 55 of the NPPF paragraph 55, then.
Now it’s paragraph 80. So they now said, okay, yes, you can do that, but it’s got to be a different, totally architectural design that have a test. I think about four tests that we’ll have to go through. So when I said, okay, that’s fine. But as we started going back and forth with the council, it really dawned on us that it’s going to be, a marathon rather than a sprint to get the planning off the line. So this was late 2017 because we got the, the place, I think we got the barn February 17. So towards end of 17, it’s now becoming evident to say, you know what, It’s going to be a marathon to get planning. So we, we quickly made a decision to say, you know what, let’s try and move to site and start living on site while we’re working through this.
And that was how we converted two 40 foot shipping container. Bolted it together and we moved to site. So we, we converted into a two bedroom apartment with two teenagers sharing a room and, of course, so we, we live in the container for four years while we’re waiting for planning and building as well.
But I think the good thing was the fact that being able to live on site, it kind of gave us. A feel for what to expect where the, the, the painpoints, would be in terms of the drainage things that we need to work on while we’re building and of course, just to have that feel that yes, we’re onsite and of course that did help us to save as well on rent, you know?
And of course, after a while going back and forth, we had to engage an architect who will specialize on that kind of building in the rural. Yeah. So, and because we’re living on site, it helped us to, to, to save, because the architect fee wasn’t, wasn’t cheap. We spent for the whole process for all the professional fee to get the planning over, over the line was just over 45, 000 pounds.
Ade: only able to do that because we were saving living on site.
Amy: Wow. So, I mean, what a journey. And you’re, you haven’t started on the barn.
Ade: Um, yes, I know.
Amy: Obviously you had a vision for what you wanted to achieve. Do you think that really kind of helped you stay motivated?
Ade: It did get to a point because even when we submitted the planning permission it took, over a year for the planning to come true. So the, the planning was submitted summer 21. The planning came through summer 22. So it did, it took a year and, not only that, it was a very painful year because there are so many things we had to do, we had to go through a design review panel twice, which obviously we have to pay for the panel to sit and discuss the proposal.
And it got to a point that we’re like, you know what maybe we should just count our loss and just move on because we can’t, because we’re just in a limbo, we’re not moving ahead. We don’t know the variables of what will happen, what will not happen, you know there’s somebody is going to make a decision that can change the rest of your life because obviously we’re waiting and we’re on site every, every day we look at we look at the derelict building, but I guess in, in I think looking back, I think what kept us going is the fact that,
this might happen potentially. So let’s, let’s just keep at it. And we just say, you know what, let’s, let’s see what will be the outcome of the planning process. Because initially the planning officer wasn’t keen on the design so we had to rely on the the design review panel.But yes, it was, it was very painful waiting for the planning, but at the end it was worth it, it was worth it.
Jane: Can I just say for the listeners at home, the Paragraph 80 is very famous in the architectural world, mainly because the design has to be of a significant architectural merit. so to, attempt the paragraph 80 and to achieve it is just such a massive achievement and it’s, it’s really not easily done. And I’m just, I’m interested that, you know, your work combined with the architect, like how did you come up with that vision together to, to, to be of a quality that’s good enough to, to reach that high level?
Ade: Absolutely. I mean, you’ve probably seen the, the picture of the derelict band. It’s a very, very humble, very humble barn who I think, based on the neighbor or the farmer we bought the barn from, I think the barn have been there since 18, in the 18th century, late 18th century. And it’s actually have very last legs.
And when the architect came on site just to have a feel and a site survey. The, the roof, even though they are like the the metal roof, that kind of caving in, there’s a kind of, of, of a wavy kind of effect due to the fact that anytime it could collapse. And that was one of the things I just picked up there to say, you know, what we could actually, interpret that, you know, in a contemporary way.
The normal traditional highbrow window, you know, so it was as if they kind of peel the, the roof, you know, peel it open and it’s looking at it from the south, it’s like a high, you know, it’s, I mean, It says exactly what it is in the tin.
It’s a highbrow window, and that gives us a massive light into the whole entrance hall because you’ve got a double volume. And of course we’re able to step out because it becomes a terrace as well on the upper floor. The, the kitchen and, the living room is on the upper floor. So it kind of give us that view to the countryside, both on the north and on the side.
So those are the two key architectural element that kind of make it to say, yes, it’s still a barn. However, there are few contemporary interpretation, which we’ve done and and of course the, the roof at the back, it’s, it’s it’s a piece of art.
Jane: It really is.
Amy: You’re right. It’s, it’s this lovely interpretation of something traditional in form that has been brought into today. And, and to keep kind of true to, to the fact that there was a barn there, but like the way that you’ve interpreted it and made it modern, it’s just, it’s, it’s so beautiful.
There is a contemporary living kind of style, but it’s still a barn. Even when you come in on the, the vaulted space on the, on the, on the first floor, you will still see, oak beams being exposed, you know, so it’s it’s all those little, little element that’s still dotted around the building.
Amy: Yes. when it came to the planning and, you know, the, the planning officer has said, I don’t like this, basically. How did you feel? Because, I mean, it just becomes so personal, doesn’t it?
Ade: Yeah, you’re right. It seems like a personal attack because it seems as if somebody’s just standing as a block out to your dream.
So the moment we had the support from the design panel, we knew that yes, this is going to be a go ahead. And that was, that was exactly what happened because at the end of the day, the planning officer is just a planning officer, not an architect.
So if other architects and all the professionals in the construction industry are supporting to say this design is innovative, is outstanding, then yes, these are some of the kind of architecture that we should have dotted around our countryside.
Amy: And how did it feel when you
To be honest with you, we were, we were too exhausted to celebrate.
Jane: How long had it taken?
Ade: Just about a year. So we submitted the application August 21. And the planning permission came through July 22. So we were too exhausted to celebrate, but one good thing we did do is
By the following Monday, which is so imagine got the planning permission on Thursday by Monday, we started the construction. Because we were, we were already, we were all, I mean, we’ve set everything in motion or we’re just waiting for is the planning permission. So, yes, we were, we were relieved. There was that sense of relief to say, Okay. Oh, finally, you know, it could have been a shame having spent just about 45, 000 pounds on the process and not get the result that will have been a very big shame because that it’s actually eating into the budget.
We’ve got to actually do the actual build, you know? So yeah, it was, it was a big relief and we just, we just crack on.
I was just thinking with the, you know, obviously with creating such a high caliber of project to receive planning, I guess the onus is then on building a high caliber project.
Jane: Who did you use to, to make the project happen? And how did you achieve that quality that, that you have?
Ade: I think because of my background, it kind of helped because I, I understand the industry, the construction industry a little bit, and we’re keen to get involved. So. I project managed the whole project myself while working. I guess that was one of the silver lining of what happened in the last two, three years where everybody had to stay at home.
So I was working from home, obviously we’ve, We live on site to live in the container. So the construction is happening opposite us. So I can quickly pop in, pop out during lunchtime to see what’s happening if there is any clarification. And of course, the, the system, the construction system we used is ICF.
And one of the main reason we use that was the fact that we can build the, the, the structure ourself. ICF insulated concrete formwork. It’s like a Lego set, but big, big Lego set that you can just stack up, link together and you pour concrete in between them to, to give you your, your frame in terms of your walls whether externally or internally.
So we did, we did 90 percent of the structure ourself. Of course, basically to save, to save on the budget and anything we are able to do ourself, we’re more than happy to because we live on site. So, and of course, during summertime, you, you have a longer day. So you have to work at five, you, you can still do another four hours, you know.
Trying to just put in as much as you can. So yes, I project manager, everything myself. And we had a lot of subcontractors, which are very local who are keen to use local tradesmen.
And we’re really, really blessed with that, that we had a good team working with us because this kind of a project I was really keen and determined to, to deliver within a year, which we kind of did even though, yes like with every other self build It’s never completed, but we did it to a point where we can move in because everybody was getting tired of the container.
They said, Oh, we’re tired. We just want to move out. And of course, having two teenagers in the same room, and they’re a boy and a girl. So it’s not sleeping on a bunk bed. It’s not, it’s not the ideal thing. So they’re just waiting to just move into their space. And you can imagine moving from.
Less than a 50 square meters, a square meter space into close to 300 square meter space. So everybody’s just spoiled for space, you know? Yeah, so it was, um,it was a very, very hard rewarding process to go through.
Amy: So you were essentially the main contractor in the sense that
you were organizing all the trades separately
Amy: and you were doing that whilst doing a full time job and family life and just like managing, you know, living in the container. I mean. I guess what was my question? I, I guess more just like, wow,
Ade: During that time there is nothing like family life. Like, with every construction, self build, or even a house renovation, it just consume you. You know, it’s just, it’s just. It consumed everything. I mean, while that was going, we didn’t, we’re not able to go on any holiday.
I mean we go on holiday twice a year. We couldn’t do that for four years. You know, it’s just, it’s just consuming, you know, after the, the site when it’s time to sleep, you don’t, there’s nothing else to talk about, but the, the project, because you’re, you need to be about 10 steps ahead of what is happening on site.
And I think that period of waiting for the planning and stuff really helped us because we were kind of. Preparing and making decision even before we got planning. So for all the interior stuff, we know exactly what we want to do, the kind of tiles we want, the finishing we want. We’ve kind of listed everything now.
And because we had the time, we’re able to, to look around, see what will work, what would not work. Yeah, it’s Yeah,
Amy: But even that must have been, it’s, it’s such a A massive task like that’s a lot of work there and you were doing it almost in faith that you were going to get planning not knowing if it’s going to go ahead or not. I mean, that’s, that’s incredible.
Ade: absolutely. And there’s so many commitment we did even before we got planning for the ICF the, the ICF the Lego set, we pay for it before we got planning because it’s coming from, from Canada. So they needed to bring it. If we waited for, for planning to pay for it, then it’s going to have a knock effect on when and how we can start the build.
The kitchen, we paid a deposit for the kitchen before we got the planning. So there are so many things we had to do. Just taking that leap of faith to say, let’s go for it. You know,
Amy: I mean, was that driven by just the, the pressures internally, like, from everybody wanting to get out of the container?
Ade: Partly that, but partly when we have the support of the design panel, design review panel, we know that there is 60, 70 percent chance that we can get the planning. So, based on that, we said we need to start making arrangements, you know, otherwise we’re not, we won’t be able to start the.
project immediately. And we didn’t, we didn’t want to lose that summer. And ideally for me, the, I tell people the best time to start a, a building project is by spring. So that by winter, you’ve got your roof on, you are inside, you know? And so we’re like, okay, the, the. The planning can come through any time we’re like, Oh, it will come through in May.
We’ll come through in June when it was in June, the planning officer requested for another four weeks, you know, for him to be able to do some other things. I was like, Oh, what was he talking about? You know, so we had to, we wasted another four weeks, you know, until the end of July. We’re like, we need to maximize the summer, you know?
And that was why that was the driving force to say, look, let’s, let’s just keep going. You know?
Jane: That’s amazing. I’m just on the edge of my seat listening to every word that you’re saying. It’s such an amazing,
amazing journey that you’ve been on.
Amy: It really is because I was scrolling through your Instagram this morning just thinking Oh how lovely and just like, you know, you enjoyed the interiors and what you’ve achieved aesthetically, but just hearing the journey just makes it even more incredible.
Jane: To complete the construction in such a tight time frame really, for a project like that. I guess you’re saying that you have really experienced people, but, you know, just looking at the roof and how that is, you know, you’re having to get those trades people on board with, you know, maybe an unusual construction method and, some, some different details that they’re not used to.
How, how did you manage that?
Ade: Yeah. I mean, to be honest with, there’s nothing usual with the, with the, with this project. Everything is different. I mean, the, the building techniques is different. The roof is different. We don’t have any heating system, you know, and I think one of the good thing that we, Okay.
We, we really keen on was people who are, who have open mind to say, look, they’ve got the transferable skills to be able to do this. I mean, the roof as lovely as it is, took us four months. To, to finish, you know,
we’re not fully watertight until end of April, but because the the main, builder by background, he was originally was a carpenter. So things that, I mean, I can’t remember whether I posted some of the videos, how we’re able to curve a normal six by two timber, you know, just to make it curvey, because I mean, in the, the high brow, we’ve got to, create the frame, you know, and he was really enjoying himself. It was as if it was in his element and it was, he was up for the challenge. And I think that was, that was the, the mentality we had with everyone coming in here to say, look, it’s it’s not your normal, average project, but if we are able to work together,
I mean, I’ve never done, anything in this scale before, but what I was relying on is my project management skills. And of course, being able to be able to coordinate people being 10 steps ahead of what’s happening on site to be sure that you’re you’re not waiting to say we need this, you’re not going to get it before they say they need it. You’re, you’re all over it. You know, and yes, and yeah, we’re, we’re really glad and pleased that we’re able to pull this off.
Amy: Yeah, how does it feel now? do you feel kind of burnt out from the process, or do you feel relieved it’s over, or is there just joy?
Ade: Um, I guess I’m one of those go-getter. I think I had to consciously live in the moment now to say, look, you’ve done it. Even though yes, there’s still so many things we still need to do. We’ve not done the external works. There’s still bits here and there that needed doing like , like you do with self-build.
But I guess it’s just more of, you don’t necessarily know or appreciate what you’ve achieved until sometimes people make comments or people come into the house and And because we live in here, we see it every day, we don’t know the extent of what we’ve done or what we’ve achieved, but hearing people make comment about it, just make us pause a little bit to say, you know what?
I think we should give ourselves some credit. We’ve done really well. And I think that’s, that, that has actually kind of been the message to say, look, don’t be hard on yourself. Don’t look at things that are still things that still need fixing, or the drive needs doing just.
Celebrate what you’ve done. And I think that’s the message I’m giving myself to say, look, yes, don’t worry about all that, but just appreciate yourself for what you’ve done.
Jane: Yeah, you really should. Yeah, and how are your family, you as a family transitioning from this quite intense period to getting back into family life again? How has that been?
Ade: It’s been, it’s been interesting and it’s been really good. We’re not on top of each other anymore. I think everyone has got their space. I mean, just like last Christmas we had over 20 people come into the house and Family friends come, and uh, there is space for everyone, you know, there is, there is space for everyone.
And it’s just a shame my, my daughter’s going to uni this, this coming weekend. And it’s, she’s barely enjoyed the house for a year and that she was like, nobody should go into my room or anything while I’m away.
We’re like, we’re going to rent your room out. Yeah.
Jane: She’s gonna be racing back to have some quality time at home, which is, which is nice for you, right?
Amy: Wow. What a journey. Thank you so much for being with us today and just being so open about the process and the highs and lows. Anyone starting off on a self build journeywhat would be your main, piece of advice?
Ade: My advice would be just try and get the right team. If you have the right team working with you, the process it’s always going to be painful, but it will be less painful. You know, and I mean, I’m involved with project management, and the truth is, even a well planned, thought of plan, you will still encounter things that you didn’t account for.
Every day you will have decisions, problem to solve on site and having the right team will make it less stressful. It is stressful. It is very painful.
Sometimesif your relationship can survive a renovation, a build process, then the truth is you’re going to come out on the other side, becoming a better person. And in this process, I mean, there are so many things about myself that.
It’s been revealed to me to say, look, there is, maybe there are some strengths. I didn’t actually know that I have that I I’m always kind of pulling to it. Things that kind of reveal the process will reveal more and it kind of make us become a better person. And I guess the benefit there is. You know, you’re doing the project to improve your lifestyle, to improve the quality of, your lifestyle.
Your home is meant to be your, your, your fortress, your, where you come to. And the best you could do is, you know, make it. That when you come in, you have that sense of peace. You’re happy. And that’s intangible.
You can’t pay for that, you know, and having that at the back of your mind that, you know, what we’re breaking walls now, it doesn’t look good, but I just have that vision that it’s gonna, it’s gonna improve the quality of your life at the end of the day.
Amy: Wow, I feel quite emotional, I have to say.
Jane: We’re simultaneously
on a massive high, but also like I might just cry because it’s so emotional we’re a mess. Thank you so
If you would like to see before and after pictures of Ade’s barn then head to our website at homenotes.co/storiesfromsite and do check out @threeacrebarn on Instagram, because there’s some great reels there about the build and the process. We’ll be back next week with our final episode for this season. So see you then.
Our closing thoughts:
I’m not sure if we have been on such an emotional rollercoaster as the one Ade took us on in this episode.
The bravery, and pure pluck to persevere against all odds, under so much pressure from all sides is just remarkable!
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