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Architecture: Church Hill Barn by David Nossiter Architects

The scale of this historically important barn in Essex offered a great opportunity for architect David Nossiter to explore and express new ideas.

November 2017
Even by the voluminous standard of barn structures, the scale of Church Hill Barn is striking. David Nossiter describes his first site visit as ‘awe-inspiring’, and its size was one of the elements that made this a dream project for him. “Because of the larger scale of the space, we were able to develop our language more. We had a clean slate to do what we could, and working with a really good client helped a lot of course. They were behind us all the way.”

This building is historically significant in terms of English agriculture, because its innovative design intended to house a variety of agricultural functions under one roof. Dating back to the first half of the 19th century, it was formerly part of the Assington Hall Estate. Sir John Gurdon, the estate’s original owner, created a cooperative farm there and is considered one of the pioneers of the model farm movement.

Looking back at the project, Nossiter considers the programme as its ‘most challenging’ aspect. It took the architect about a year to design the scheme, providing information to the council and the client as he went along to keep up the build’s momentum.

The barn was purchased with permission to be converted into a dwelling, but it was in a very poor condition. “The structure was, unusually, mostly brick – almost the reverse of a typical barn construction – but there was a lot of rotten timber and the roof had started to go, exacerbating the rot,” Nossiter explains.

A large component of the renovation work was given over to refurbishing the roof. In order to allow the existing structure to be viewed internally while still conforming to modern standards of thermal performance, the roof was lifted slightly to keep the beams exposed. Heating the spaces was a challenge. Underfloor heating warms the polished concrete floors and heated air rising to the roof is collected and reused. The team were also careful to recycle slates from the original roof, as well as repurposing slates from other buildings demolished on the site. Two three-metre square roof lights were also inserted to bring more light into the spaces below.

Talking about how the was the barn was zoned, Nossiter explains: “The space was carved up into little rooms and there were leaded glass windows. We knew we didn’t want that – we wanted a contemporary scheme that retained the sense of scale, and the plywood ‘pods’ evolved from that. Keeping costs down was important and we tried to use the existing walls to divide the spaces.” Freestanding partitions and screens were constructed from birch faced plywood sheets. These helped organise the spaces, providing privacy for bathrooms and sleeping areas.

Among the details Nossiter chose to devote budget to were the polished concrete floors and large glazed openings, but he was also committed to using local materials, including timber and wool, and local craftsmen skilled in traditional methods were used where possible. (This project was recently named Restoration of the Year in the 2017 Sunday Times British Homes Awards.)

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