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Barn reborn: 31/44 Architects’ conversion of a Norfolk grain store

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Words:
Isabelle Priest

The Class Q four-bedroom house in the countryside is an inventive mix of materials and spaces, using corrugated sheeting, larch, glass and ply – half water, half home inside

As I pull into 31/44 Architects’ latest completed house, deep in the Norfolk countryside, its co-commissioner and owner Luke Hawes gets a call from someone asking whether he would be interested in another barn plot a nearby farmer is selling. Since his own conversion featured in The Times, he’s had about 12 such projects proposed to him. He and his wife Klara haven’t yet committed to one, but it’s not off the cards – perhaps something smaller to use as a holiday let. 

31/44’s house is an example of a rapidly developing genre in rural locations. In 2016 I wrote about pH+ Architects’ Apple Store in Kent, which was three years ahead of Class Q permitted development changes that allow conversion from agricultural to residential. Now if you want an architecturally designed house in the countryside, this route is fast becoming the main alternative to the notoriously tricky Paragraph 79. Sure, with Class Q there may be limitations to the external ­design, but you can build up to five houses, and the client’s children won’t have grown from toddlers to teenagers by the time the whole thing is realised.  

31/44’s barn is located next to a 1,000-year-old church in a tiny tucked-away hamlet. It occupies a former 1990s grain store. Luke and Klara bought it in October 2016 with planning permission for a basic scheme and change of use. It was the last available plot of a cluster of barns; the others that had already sold were older, mostly brick and easier for people to imagine becoming houses. This one was a 440m2 green painted corrugated metal box, peeling and rough around the edges, with a huge scrubby agricultural concrete junkyard forecourt. They bought it relatively cheaply for £290,000. 

The clients met while working at design firm Priestman Goode, where Luke is a director focusing on transport. Klara now has her own interior design company in Norwich. The idea was to develop the plot into a holiday/weekend home – Luke returning to near where he grew up. The couple wanted it as a place to get out of London, a relaxing antidote to Luke’s hectic schedule of flying around the world to meet clients.  

Initially they hired architect and family friend Michael Loates-Taylor to devise the basic scheme. He came up with the concept of replacing the galvanised shell, which was beyond reuse, with differently paced interspersed larch louvres at first-floor level and solid vertical patterned cladding. At the end of 2017, Loates-Taylor, who was semi-retired, introduced the clients to Will Burges at 31/44.

Planning consent was based on keeping the building looking like a barn. The structure had to be retained, windows had to be big and set back, and the building could not increase in gross internal floor area – they had to stick at 440m2 even if they inserted a first floor. When 31/44 arrived, the exterior scheme was largely there: a closed frontage to the circular sweeping drive which is closed on three sides while the back of the building opens out to the fields and big Norfolk skies.  

 

  • Seen from the back where the lightness of the front elevation recedes but the facade becomes more open and transparent.
    Seen from the back where the lightness of the front elevation recedes but the facade becomes more open and transparent. Credit: Nick Dearden
  • To reduce internal floor area, the building is set back from the original frame.
    To reduce internal floor area, the building is set back from the original frame. Credit: Nick Dearden
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Externally, 31/44 only added the central corrugated drum to the entrance elevation, picking up the colour of the original green cladding in a lighter, mintier shade; the whole thing an imaginative mimicked grain silo device that pushes the narrative of the building’s former life. The floor area issue was resolved by pulling interior elements back into the plan, behind the louvres that hang in front from the underside of the roof like a ghostly veil of the original envelope. This not only reduced the floor area, it created a curious multi-layered effect where glass and solid, reflection and dead darkness tessellate behind. 

This is by no means a minimalist building; many textures, colours and materials contribute to a complex mix. From the front, at ground level, off-white corrugated panels sit along the original building boundary line, while a narrow random vertical pattern of oiled larch cladding occupies the recesses. There is also glazing, horizontal corrugated cladding on the ‘grain silo’ in the middle, and a front door, again of slatted vertical timber but at a uniform wider repeat. Above, the hanging louvres work to a narrower pattern, as they did on the original barn, all between the black-painted steel frame structure.  

To the sides these materials peel away in layers, the louvres continues the full length, the off-white corrugated cladding at ground floor carries just a third of the way along the eastern elevation, but the whole way to the western side. A brushed black steel panel is introduced instead, alongside an altogether more urban industrial aesthetic. As you move around the building, it becomes more transparent and open, with near full glazing to the rear, but its materials are noticeably heavier and darker in feeling, with a deep overhang shading the interior. The relief from the glass, which overall has the effect of a mini version of nearby Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre, is a plywood box that punches through and cantilevers towards the garden off the centreline. As I visit, the plywood is pragmatically being replaced with the same hit and miss larch panels from the front elevation as, only a year in, it hasn’t weathered well. 

Inside, the building continues the rear’s weightier more industrial look and is pared down to birch ply, concrete grey and those metal brushed black panels downstairs; white painted plasterboard upstairs. The flooring inside and out is Minoli huge-format concrete effect porcelain tiles – chosen for their reliability compared with a poured concrete alternative, which Burges says ‘is always a bit disappointing’. This carries through to the living spaces and into the pool (non-slip variety), which rather impressively greets visitors through a large fixed panel of glass ahead when they enter the hall. The pool was always in the brief but, as so often with these converted barns, answers the question of what to do with all the space. The house is about kicking back with family, hence the pool occupying half of the ground floor footprint while the four bedrooms are modestly sized. There are, of course, a few other materials in between; compressed wool wood panels on the ceiling (a farmyard-like reference) and a little of the oiled larch cladding in the hallway and up the spiralling staircase.  

 

  • View from the kitchen island over the pool table and living room to the big skies.
    View from the kitchen island over the pool table and living room to the big skies. Credit: Nick Dearden
  • The bridge to the master bedroom suite, designed like a leftover silo with an agricultural aesthetic.
    The bridge to the master bedroom suite, designed like a leftover silo with an agricultural aesthetic. Credit: Nick Dearden
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The other half of the ground floor plan is living space, approached via a timber-lined tunnel – the architectural compression before it opens out into a vast 8m-tall open-plan space, separated from the pool only by glass. The sequence of kitchen, island, pool table, living room unfurls beyond, under one side of the pitched roof. Raised up on massive concrete stilts between the pool and this living area, and hanging over both, is another false industrial remnant of the former grain store: an additional silo, this time in ply and linked by a glass bridge, which contains the master bedroom suite. It looks as though it might once have functioned as something more utilitarian. It’s a bit Bernd and Hilla Becher and at the same time behaves like Will Alsop’s curving ply pods at Peckham Library. The dining table with three-sided banquette seating tucks in underneath by the kitchen, a hot tub beyond on the pool side.  

Upstairs there is less to report. Two children’s bedrooms look out between the louvres toward the driveway; a guest bedroom sits on the other side with its own terrace sneaked in between the roof; the master bedroom continues the ply jewel box effect inside and is the only room that projects, with dominating expansive views to the back. It’s all impressive, rather monumental and fantastic in its own right. You can see why, halfway through the process, the owners decided to sell up in the capital and settle here completely – a decision that predated the coronavirus lockdowns but was fully vindicated by them. The house is undoubtedly an easy and aspirational place to live, especially as seen on a bright spring day. 

 

  • Green corrugated metal cladding on the elevation follows through around the stairwell in painted timber.
    Green corrugated metal cladding on the elevation follows through around the stairwell in painted timber. Credit: Nick Dearden
  • The swimming pool occupies as much of the ground floor as the living area.
    The swimming pool occupies as much of the ground floor as the living area. Credit: Nick Dearden
  • The plywood interior of the master bedroom above the pool – the screws that attach the panels are deliberately big and black to look like rivets or stitches.
    The plywood interior of the master bedroom above the pool – the screws that attach the panels are deliberately big and black to look like rivets or stitches. Credit: Nick Dearden
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Architecturally however, the building is not quite as nuanced, delicate and domestic as its front elevation might suggest. From the Mediterranean planting on the white gravel drive, the building with its blend of colours, materials, depths, textures and shapes is a departure from the norm. There are a few tasters of lightness inside, but to the back the building reverts to a tried and tested straight lines industrial/ commercial/ workplace glass boxy typology more easily than the house first intimates – the mix of shapes, textures, colours and depths at the front that felt really new are sadly almost missing. 

It sounds as though there’s an opportunity for another barn though, and I’d like to see how that develops. As Hawes says about the cladding being replaced on the rear: ‘All design is a process.’ And Burges replies: ‘Not all clients understand that.’ 


IN NUMBERS
440mgross internal floor area
12.5m x 3m dimensions of pool

Credits

Client Luke and Klara Hawes
Architect 31/44 Architects
Consulting architect (concept) Michael Loates-Taylor, TaylorMadeSpace
Contractor Draper & Nichols
Services engineer (to RIBA Stage 3) XCO2
Quantity surveyor and project management Andrew Morton Associates
Landscape contractor Roger Gladwell Landscape and design
Building control London Building Control

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