Ugly old cow barns became our modern home

Undaunted by the size of a derelict Suffolk agricultural site beside the River Stour, designers Suzanne and John Fell-Clark turned it into homes for themselves and their family says Marion Welham
Portrait of John and Suzanne Fell-Clark
John and Suzanne wanted a modern home in a country setting. An abandoned dairy and cow barn had instant appeal
When Suzanne and John Fell-Clark told estate agents in Suffolk that they were looking for an industrial-sized barn ripe for conversion and overlooking the River Stour, they were told that, probably, no such building existed.

But this was a couple who had already made a home out of a 19th century Martello tower, which they were continuing to save from the ravages of coastal erosion - so they were unlikely to give up their search very easily.

"We were living in London and had the tower in Suffolk as a weekend place but it was too small to live in permanently and we didn't want to go to and fro all the time," says Swiss-born Suzanne. "And we certainly didn't want to buy a rectory or anything formal like that.

"Then John spotted a postage stamp-sized photo of what looked like chicken barns in a local paper and decided to have a look on his way back to London at the end of a weekend break in Suffolk. The next thing I knew, John was on the phone urging me to go and have a look," Suzanne says. "It was simply mind-blowing, both the staggering size and the wide river views. There was no question that we had to do something about it."

Sadly, others had similar ideas and the former dairy farm went out to tender. In the agonising month that followed, the couple consoled themselves with the thought that most people would find the barns "too ugly" to be turned into a beautiful home.

'A master stroke was to put the main bedroom into a "hut" in the rafters with a glazed front offering spectacular river views'



John Fell-Clark - dining room
The long teak dining table is supported by concrete drainpipes
"Conversely, we always thought they were very beautiful because of their immaculate 1930s proportions," says Suzanne. "They had everything we wanted, including planning permission to convert them to a residence." Suzanne, who combines her formidable interior design skills with her career as a psychotherapist, reckons the only thing that frightened them when they finally secured the buildings was the sheer size of them. "But we got used to that by just focusing on one thing at a time," she says.

As an architectural designer with many prestigious house projects to his name, John knew from the start what he wanted to achieve. "The whole thing revolved around an architectural concept rather than lots of details," he explains. "We wanted to retain evidence of the industrial property, therefore any conversion would mean slotting our living spaces into the large volume without losing the integrity of the original use."

Essentially they ended up with two cow barns with 2ft-thick walls almost as sturdy as those of their Martello tower, together with outbuildings. One barn was sold on before conversion, while the commodious cart horses' quarters on the other side were transformed into a stylish home for their daughter and her family.

John Fell-Clark - bedroom
The monotony of the vast roof space was relieved by the installation of a "hut" housing the main bedroom and bathroom
The Fell-Clarks' own barn space is now a vast, double-height living area with dramatic views over the River Stour, the former dairy behind it transformed into John's roomy office, a utility space and a loo, all leading off a large hallway. On the first floor, where the cow feed would have been stored, is Suzanne's studio, a guest bedroom and bathroom, while at the very top John's "museum" has replaced pulleys and water tanks.

The conundrum of where to put the main bedroom was solved by a master stroke by John who designed a "hut" to sit in the rafters of the main barn with a glazed front offering the same spectacular river views and an en-suite bathroom behind it. "We decided to keep the palette of materials as small as possible so that we didn't have too many different things going on," says John. "We used steel, concrete, pine boards for the ceiling and teak for the work surfaces." An occasional room divider of shuttered concrete has been installed to give a degree of separation for the kitchen at the centre of the barn and for a small sitting area opposite the staircase.

"You have to fasten the shuttering boards together very securely before pouring the concrete in," John adds. "The exciting bit comes 48 hours later when you remove the boards because you are never quite sure what the concrete will look like." Daunting as it may seem to create dedicated living areas out of such a large space, Suzanne simply explains that "having done a lot of conversions you have a basic framework into which you fit things". A similarly relaxed attitude was applied to her choice of furniture.

"The concept was that if you have more or less a white box then the eye is drawn to the items you put into that box rather than the eye being drawn to the structure itself," she says. "So it lends itself to quite colourful items to put into the box." The iconic 20th century furniture they both love would at first seem to have been deliberately chosen for the barn, yet Suzanne jokes that their brown Le Bambole sofa by Marion Bellini was actually bought back in 1972 at the Milan Furniture Fair and has been everywhere with them "like an old dog". The red chairs are a modern version. "Such a good design we have used it again," says John.

Arco floor lamp
A classic 1960s Arco floor lamp arches elegantly over red Le Bamboli chairs
For two talented people each with strong ideas, one wonders how they manage to arrive at their decisions and "yes, it can get heated", Suzanne admits. "But it is very much an executive decision that comes out at the end."

Get the look


* Alison Calvesbert produces the artwork above the Italian trolley (alison-calvesbert.com; 01449 613077.
* Marmorit UK GmbH of Avonmouth, Bristol, supplied the render for all the walls. Visit marmorit.co.uk, or call 0800 731 3076.
* Le Bamboli chairs from B&B Italia, 250 Brompton Road, SW3. (020 7591 8111, or visit london.bebitalia.com).
* The classic Arco floor lamp with a marble base came from Espacio, 276 King's Road, SW3 (020 7376 5088; espacio.co.uk); currently on sale at £1,371.33.
* The Gunta Stolzl rug is from Christopher Farr, 6 Burnsall Street, SW3 (020 7349 0888; christopherfarr.com).
* Miniature Landi stacking chairs, designed by Hans Cory, are available from Sheffield based firm Nest (0114 266 6900; nest.co.uk) where they are currently priced at £133.44 or can be bought in bulk from the Swiss maker (landistuhl.com).
* The Karuselli armchair that Suzanne is sitting in (pictured, top right) is by Yrjo Kukkapuro and is available from The Conran Shop, Fulham Road, SW3 (020 7589 7401), or at 55 Marylebone High Street, W1 (020 7723 2223), and online at conranshop.co.uk, where it is priced at £3,468.


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