David Kohn Architects' exemplary reuse and enhancement of the existing agricultural structure makes Cowshed a home 'full of meaning and joy'
David Kohn Architects for Peter Redstone & Suzanne Blank Redstone
Contract value: Confidential
GIA: 296 m2
Over 15 years Suzanne and Peter Redstone have worked with former House of the Year Award-winner David Kohn Architects to convert agricultural buildings on their dairy farm to residential use. The fifth and final piece of the new community is their own home, office and artist’s studio, created from a barn built by the couple in 1979. DKA set out to retain as much of the existing building as possible, both for economic and environmental reasons, and to help secure planning consent. Original concrete columns and timber trusses are visible in the double-height studio around which the house is planned.
New work uses sympathetically simple and robust materials. Highly insulated external walls are clad in Devon cedar, while internal partitions are in exposed Cornish blockwork, which makes a rugged backdrop for numerous paintings and sculptures and which is elevated by subtleties in the detailing; a change in the bond marks the moment when construction resumed after a lockdown-enforced hiatus.
Living accommodation wraps around the workspace, whose glazed elevation onto the farmyard is inset to form a sheltered veranda and outdoor workshop. Lower roof heights give these areas a more intimate character. Some bedrooms are on the step-free ground floor to ensure that the house can support all stages of life. Playful details include a lunette window onto the yard. Suzanne’s artwork is referenced in the bright colours of bathroom tiles and the reveals of windows, including a large oculus in the roof, that fill the barn with daylight.
‘Cowshed is both pragmatic and has a multitude of references to high culture,’ reported the visiting House of the Year jury. ‘Perfunctory concrete blockwork walls, remnants from the original cowshed, are pulled into the overall composition to read in places like the walls of an art gallery.’ In the reworked agricultural shed they saw hints of a Roman villa, and enjoyed the “painterly aesthetic” of coloured light that washes rough internal surfaces. Above all, it is an affordable, practical and accessible place, designed around its occupants’ needs and personalities. ‘It is the antithesis of the house where the architect feels that their vision is diminished once the client moves in with their belongings,’ said juror Bev Dockray. ‘The everyday stuff of living, creating and working combines symbiotically with the architecture to create a home full of meaning and joy.’
Three questions for David Kohn, founding director, David Kohn Architects
What is your favourite feature of the house?
When we were designing the project, Peter suggested adding the high-level internal balcony that overlooks Suzanne’s art studio, but I argued that it might diminish the drama of an almost 7m-tall lift of blockwork that encloses the space. I relented and of course it has turned out to be a lovely moment. I particularly enjoy it too because it is a clear example of when we listened to our clients and the design was better for it.
What was the greatest challenge of the project?
Arguably that was building through the Covid pandemic. We were unable to travel to site as often as we would have liked and building materials started to dry up. For example, the interiors were being built using blockwork to match the existing walls of the cow shed. However, local block production stopped and we had no way of knowing what the quality or finish of any future supply might be. So we decided to try and make something of a virtue of the situation. We calculated how high a wall could be built throughout the house using the number of remaining blocks. We made a soldier course of vertical blocks at that datum so that any future change in colour or texture would feel deliberate. A pleasing consequence of this decision is that there is now a ‘Covid line’ running through the house. Because the wall did eventually keep rising, the line symbolises overcoming what seemed like very challenging circumstances at the time.
What lessons from the project could be applied elsewhere?
Cowshed is an exemplar of reuse. It was originally built by our clients in the late 1970s to house their dairy herd. It was the cheapest most expedient agricultural structure available at the time. It used concrete posts to support timber trusses and an asbestos roof with concrete block walls. Other than replacing the asbestos, we reused every aspect of the existing structure. Not only that, the posts and trusses have been left exposed internally and are even more on display than in the 1970s. They are a large part of the identity of the new house today, and the large spans and open floors have made it possible to create excellent artist studio, work and living spaces. It sends a positive message to our industry that something considered so lowly and non-domestic 50 years ago has been transformed into a progressive home to last another 50 years.
Contractor Marks Building Services
Structural engineer Structure Workshop
Environmental / M&E engineer P3r Engineers
Quantity surveyor / cost consultant WT Hills
Ecologist George Bemment Associates
Drainage engineer Genever and Partners
Planning consultant Steve Anderson Planning and Development