Conversions

Instant charm & character

Barns, churches and commercial premises have enormous potential as appealing new homes, but there are some important factors to consider before taking the plunge.

Soaring spaces and large openings are benefits of converting a barn. 

Buildings suitable for conversion in the UK are becoming harder to find, but the general enthusiasm for turning old structures into dwellings shows no sign of abating. Converting a barn, church, school or other building into a home has some obvious attractions, including the reassurance of buying an existing structure, and demand has grown so that almost any redundant building is eagerly eyed up as a possible home, including stores, garages, warehouses and outbuildings.

Old barns can make stunning new homes, providing the design and materials are sympathetic to the original structure.

Conservation bodies would usually prefer to see older buildings survive in their original form, but converting them gives selfbuilders the opportunity to combine the best of traditional and modern construction techniques, and the space created is often more reminiscent of an open-plan urban loft apartment than a traditional home.

In England, the government has introduced additional Permitted Development rights which allow the conversion (change of use) of specific categories of buildings into dwellings. These include those that have been used as agricultural buildings.

Permitted Development rights are subject to specific limitations and exclusions – such as work to buildings in AONBs or to listed buildings – and will still require the prior approval of the local planning authority.

See Guide to Permitted Development »

Choosing a good architect and builder is vitally important: not only will they understand the correct way to repair old buildings, but they will also be able to liaise with the conservation officer. Some techniques used to repair modern buildings can damage historic structures, so it’s important to find professionals and tradespeople who are skilled in traditional building practices.

The local authority might be able to recommend reputable practices and firms, and you can also contact the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (spab.org.uk), which has an advice line and can supply you with a list of companies. The Building Conservation Directory may also be useful, and lists professionals, tradespeople and suppliers.

VAT form 431C How to claim a VAT refund for converting an existing building into a dwelling, explains how you can reclaim VAT on all ordinarily incorporated building materials such as windows and burglar alarms. The structure being converted must usually be a non-residential building, although residential buildings qualify if they haven’t been lived in for at least two years.

You can find a wide variety of buildings for conversion for sale on PlotBrowser.com

Go to PlotBrowser.com Buildings for Conversion »

See water mill conversion Case Study

Agriculture

Changes in farming practices and economic conditions mean that many traditional farm buildings have become redundant – from single barns to complete farmsteads – constructed in such materials as stone, flint, cob, brick, and timber frame. While estate agents may offer the odd redundant agricultural building for sale, one website which is totally dedicated to selling barns in the UK and abroad is barnsetc.co.uk.


Currently, a debate is raging regarding converting existing agricultural buildings into homes. Changes to the planning laws have seen an incredible 230 per cent rise in conversions of barns and farm buildings without the need for planning permission, which many feel is taking its toll on the infrastructure and services in rural towns and villages.

According to the government’s planning portal, figures show the number of agricultural-to-residential conversions in England rose from 226 in 2015/16 to 743 in 2017/18 – mostly in rural areas – under Permitted Development rights that allow developers to bypass the planning system.

Previously, landowners could convert agricultural buildings into three new homes without the need for planning permission, but last year the government extended this to allow conversions of individual agricultural buildings into five new homes.

A successful Class Q application essentially means that agricultural buildings can be converted into homes without the need to secure planning permission.

Before starting work, however, a Prior Notification clause does require the convertor to apply to their local authority to discuss whether prior approval will be needed, and if the building’s location makes conversion a practical option when considering the risk of flood and noise impact, among other things. This clause gives the local authority the right to impose certain conditions. Additionally, if the building is listed or located in a protected setting, such as a Conservation Area, restriction will apply preventing a change of use.

One problem associated with converting barns is bringing enough natural light into the building without introducing too many new window openings. Additional windows and roof lights, although sometimes necessary, should be kept to a minimum and be simple in design. Conservation roof lights are preferable, and dormers should be avoided altogether – although it may be permissible to glaze a section of the original roof structure between the timbers.

Many architects choose to glaze the space where the main barn doors would have been to create a large glass screen, which compensates for smaller windows in other areas. Consider also glazing the gable ends, existing hayloft doors and drying slits, and recess this glazing as far as possible to limit its reflection and the overall impact on the property. Use internal glazing, glass balustrades and double-height spaces to allow light to percolate throughout the house.

See Norfolk barn conversion Case Study

Churches

Each year, a small number of older churches and chapels cease to be used for public worship – usually at the request of the local church community – and a process of consultation takes place which involves the diocese, interested parties and some of the national church heritage bodies, with great efforts made to find suitable uses for these buildings. Only around 10 per cent of them are converted for residential use, however, with restrictive covenants and planning constraints sometimes in place. Many are just too large to make into comfortable individual homes.

Estate agents and specialist groups and societies, including the Church of England hold lists of redundant churches for sale, and the Buildings at Risk register is also a useful source.

Some churches come with covenants, which protect the building from alteration and ensure that it is only used for specific authorised purposes. Some will require the owners to grant visiting rights to relatives should tombstones remain on the site.

One of the main problems concerns the internal layout as, once divided and partitioned, these structures may never be viewed as a whole again. Open-plan layouts are therefore preferable to avoid destroying this volume, and an exposed internal roof structure is an architectural feature which should be retained at all costs.

The most striking feature of good conversions is the feeling of space, and central living rooms are ideal for accommodating open-plan galleried areas, with subsidiary rooms often positioned at one or both ends of the building.

Heating a converted church, or other large building, can prove expensive, especially when double-height spaces are involved. Such large, lofty buildings require a heating system which maintains a relatively low background heat to the whole structure and needs the fabric of the building to be insulated to a high standard to further prevent heat loss.

See church conversion Case Study

Commercial

Commercial buildings such as a hotel, cinema or office block are designed to generate an income. Smaller buildings may be suitable for conversion into single homes.

Estate agents specialising in commercial property by location can be found on Zoopla, and buildings may also be listed at local commercial property auctions. Buying commercial property will not usually involve an ongoing chain and independent mortgage brokers specialising in this sector will be able to advise on funding a project, including the option of a stage payment self-build mortgage or bridging loan.

For leasehold buildings, lenders will require that at least 70 years are remaining on the lease, and the permission of the freeholder will also be required before you can begin any work.

Figures show that the rate of office-to-residential conversions in England went up by nearly 40 per cent between 2016 and 2017, which could be as a result of small businesses closing because of increasing business rates – boosting the number of commercial premises for sale – but temporary Permitted Development rights mean that planning permission is often not required for this type of development.

It is always worth checking with the local authority before work commences to gain prior approval. Restrictions may apply, such as a time limit for completing the work. For more information visit the Planning Portal website: planningportal.co.uk.

Depending on the property type, changes to planning laws mean that Permitted Development rights may now apply to a variety of conversion types, avoiding the need for a full planning application, but this will depend on which ‘use of class’ the building falls into.

Village  post office for conversion.

Class A is for shops and retail premises

Class B is offices, factories, workshops and warehouses

Class C is residential buildings, such as hotels

Class D for non-residential institutions.

These categories are then further subdivided, and as light industrial B1c premises are often found in residential areas they are usually the most popular commercial-to-residential conversions.

Regulations for soundproofing and thermal insulation differ between commercial and residential premises and changes may be required to drainage, water or electrical systems, so – as with all conversions – be prepared for hidden outlay once building work begins.

See Mechanic's Workshop Conversion Case Study 


This Beginner's Guide to Conversions is from the March 2020 issue of SelfBuild & Design magazine.

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