Seven years ago architect Nicolas Tye, 42, was living in Clerkenwell. But having been brought up in Hertfordshire he longed to be back in some big, open space. Not being able to afford to buy there, he searched Bedfordshire instead and found a 150-year-old barn near the village of Maulden on a 2.5-acre plot that cost £245,000, just within his £250,000 budget.
Tye knew he did not want to create a clichéd barn conversion. The result: a home with a glazed gable wall and two floating mezzanine floors flanking a double-height entrance hall, a showstopper of a design that has succeeded in doubling his initial investment.
The now-defunct Mid Beds district council was against the demolition of historic agricultural buildings so the 1860s brick barn had to stay. Tye was not too unhappy as barn conversions attract the significantly reduced VAT rate of five per cent.
Planning consent was granted in 2005 for a scheme that involved excavating up to 3.5 metres within the former grain store to earn enough space to create two floors — a slightly lowered ground floor and an upper floor set on two floating mezzanines.
For privacy's sake the rear wall, which stands close to the original farmhouse, is entirely without windows, as is one gable end. But the other gable is entirely glazed to give a view of open farmland.
Between the two mezzanines, at the heart of the building, is another "cathedral like" double-height space that makes for a dramatic glazed entrance lobby. There is also an open-plan living space divided into kitchen, snug and living room, and a separate office/guest room.
The bedrooms are on the pitched upper mezzanine level, where the original timber barn roof has been sand-blasted and looks as good as new. A gallery overlooks the main living room.
Negotiating the planning process was relatively simple but the build could not have been less so. The barn is on waterlogged ground, and as fast as the foundations were dug they filled with water. "It was like a swimming pool and had to be pumped out," says Tye.
But before the foundations were even complete, the contractor went bust. Tye had left his London job to set up his own practice (nicolastyearchitects.com) and was forced to take an unpaid "year off" to oversee the build. He recruited three Bulgarian builders, former employees of the original contractor, who lived in a caravan on site while Tye lived out. "I lived on beans and water for a while, and became hands-on," he says.
By the end of 2006 the barn was complete. Two years later Tye bought another four acres of land around it for £24,000. He has spent about £30,000 on improvements, repairs and refinements in the past five years, and his home is now estimated at £1.2 million.
He has created a wildflower meadow surrounding the barn, dug a pond, started a vegetable garden and added a suite of offices for his expanding practice.
The use of materials in the project reflects the need to save money. Around the house is a punctuated wall — somewhat controversially clad in pebbledash, which was chosen on the basis that white render was too "sharp" for the country location and natural stone too expensive. The stairs are made of panels of industrial mild steel that has been sand-blasted and left to rust then sealed in linseed oil, creating a fine patina.
A central stone fireplace is made from piles of Northamptonshire stone set on a concrete base, while the kitchen units have shells from Ikea with doors of inexpensive Far East plywood. Some of the units, and the window-frames, are the same wood stained a darker shade. Rather than throw away the offcuts he asked his carpenter to use them to build the table and benches.
Three huge dandelion-like light fittings in the entrance space are from Ikea, while the 22-metre light fitting along the barn's upper floor is from the more designer-friendly Modular Lighting Instruments (modular-lighting.co.uk). Green features include a rainwater harvesting system and a wind turbine which generates about 10 per cent of the building's electricity needs.
"It should pay for itself in eight to 10 years," says Tye. "In this elevated position we get plenty of wind."