Oxfordshire barn rescued from its 'suburban nightmare'

A barn conversion lets you glory in space
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Barn conversion in Oxfordshire
The main transformation involved turning the closed-off lounge into a double-height living area, which creates a feeling of space

Park Corner Barn, which stands in Oxfordshire farmland seven miles from Henley-on-Thames, was a working threshing barn until 1986 and was first converted into a house in 1996.

David McLaren and his sonLuke McLaren
David McLaren with his son Luke McLaren who was the architect for the barn conversion
When David McLaren discovered it, the barn came complete with a crazy paved conservatory, an interior of terracotta and puce paintwork, with bright pink carpets and eight cramped bedrooms almost devoid of any natural light. He hated it, of course.

"People used to try to turn barns into ordinary suburban houses, putting in lots of floors and fitting in as much as possible, suffocating the building's history," he says. "Yet the glory of a barn is that you have got this huge space."

However, David could see the potential in turning this "house-like" barn back into something more barn-like. Today the property is an impressive space, where wide oak beams and surfaces in tasteful off-whites and greys abound.

A new statement fireplace is the focal point of a now open-plan living area, which has a calm, Scandinavian feel. A dramatic beamed and pitched roof has been, in part, exposed. And all traces of the suburban have been banished.

David, 68, a businessman, and his wife Maria, 63, had previously owned a Tudor manor house while their four children were at home, and the grand plan, when they sold it to a film producer, was to downsize to somewhere smaller locally and, perhaps, to buy a London flat.

The barn stands in acres of garden
The barn stands in acres of garden
The project was still continuing five years later after David had looked at 120 properties. When he found the brick-and-flint barn it had been on the market for more than a year — with a price tag of £3.5 million.

By the time he began making serious enquiries about it the market had fallen and cash buyers were thin on the ground. He was able to secure it for less than £2 million and took possession at the start of 2009.

He liked the idea that he could rescue the barn from the indignities it had suffered and asked his son, Luke, an architect and co-director of McLaren.Excell (mclarenexcell.com) to take on the job.
The brief was straightforward. David wanted to sweep away the clutter of walls and have fewer, larger rooms, and a space he could use as a library/music room.

Structurally the barn was reasonably sound and, since it is neither listed nor in a conservation area, the internal refurbishment needed no planning permission.

The first task on Luke's plan was to demolish most of the internal walls on the ground floor, carve out a roomy kitchen and install a Shaker-style kitchen in grey, with an L-shaped basalt work surface to divide kitchen and living room, stripping plaster off some walls to reveal the texture of the original brick and stonework.

Oxford barn conversion
Oak shelves in David's music room (above left); Exposed brickwork and a beamed pitched roof lend a Scandinavian feel

When David bought the barn the full height of the building was largely concealed by a first floor. By cutting through a section of the ceiling he created a double-height living room, which reveals the original beams and complex lattice of joists holding up the barn.

The room's focal point was to be the fireplace, built of limestone slabs with recesses for logs to be stored. The flue is hidden by a monumental chimney stack, lime rendered.

The barn is long and slender — 118ft by 22ft — and so, by necessity, the rooms flow into one another. The living room is divided from the entrance lobby by chunky oak sliding doors; leading on from the living room is an en suite guest bedroom in one area, a utility room and David's music room, which is lined with shelves made from the same thick hunks of oak as the doors.

All that remains of the original first floor are two bedrooms at either side of the barn, nestled in the very pitch of the roof.

The first floor is above the kitchen and reached via new black steel steps that have been cleverly built on runners. When the bedroom is in use the staircase is pushed to the centre of the room. When it is not required it can be slid to the side, so that it takes up minimal space. "It is like a giant library ladder," says David.

A second set of stairs — this time a steep, spiralled limestone staircase from the lobby, leads to the master bedroom, an open-plan bathroom with roll-top bath, and a dressing area. Finally, he turned the barn's former grain pit into a wine cellar, accessed by a trap door.

The year-long project was completed last summer and cost about £400,000, working out at £50 a square foot, which included converting a former stable block in the acre of garden into a three bedroom annexe. The property has been valued at £4 million, proving that buying at the bottom of the market and upgrading interiors can pay off.

"I wanted to be able to feel the volume of the building, and for it to feel like a barn," says David. "This project has done that — the barn has been allowed to speak again."

Photographs by John Lawrence

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