11 Aug 2020

An Homage to a Cornish Hamlet

Tucked away in a secret location seven miles inland from Crantock and Watergate Bay in rural north Cornwall, this luxury self-catering barn – known as The Meadows – is a haven for romantic escapes. With a calming whitewashed aesthetic, hot tub and floating egg bath overlooking the swaying wildflower meadow, this is country living – but on modern terms.

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Owned by Ben and Hannah Haines, The Meadows site has been a family legacy for many years. However, it wasn't until Ben's parents decided to relocate, that the smallholding – comprising a farmhouse, two barns and a few smaller barns – reached its full potential when Ben and Hannah took on an ambitious build project to breathe new life into the site. Here, i-Build Editor, Rebecca Kemp, talks to Ben about his family's journey and the potential he saw in this sentimental, nostalgic site.

RK: What inspired you to take on this project?
BH: It all began five years ago when my parents decided to sell their small farm holding – which consisted of a large farmhouse, 12 acres of lands and a few outbuildings. It was agreed that the holding was to be split. One plot was an old south-facing barn, with two small paddocks. Having grown up playing in the paddocks, I appreciated the unobstructed views it had and the potential it could bring. I also knew this kind of undeveloped building was quite rare, so I decided to speak to my parents and estate agents and eventually matched the highest bidder for the plot.

RK: Had you always wanted to pursue your own project?
BH: Yes and no. I’ve always enjoyed programmes like Grand Designs and thought it would be great to have my own project, but I never envisaged actually taking on such a huge challenge, especially at 28 years old! What’s more, my wife and I were months away from relocating to Hong Kong. However, I’ve often lived by Richard Branson’s quote, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity, but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!” And, that is exactly what I did.

RK: What style and age is the original building?
BH: The barn is part of a small farm holding which belongs to the original farmhouse, which was built around 400 years ago. You could tell the old barn hadn’t stood the test of time as one stone wall had been replaced with breeze blocks and half of the slate roof replaced with corrugated tin.

RK: How did you combine the original building’s style with the new build?
BH: It was essential to me to keep the same old country look as the rest of the Retyn hamlet. It was the chance to do the beautiful and idyllic place where I grew up justice. All stone was from the local quarry, reclaimed timber sourced locally and slate was reused from old local farmhouses.

RK: What was the vision and inspiration behind your new home?
BH: The original barn felt very small. One half had inside walls covered with ivy and was cluttered with fire food and other small farm equipment. The other half was used as makeshift stables and I never actually saw it completely empty. With this in mind, I knew the design had to be very minimalistic, open and light. The other driving factor was the view – I wanted to expose the view as much as possible. I spent hours and hours trawling through Pinterest and magazines to create an ideas board. I also had to factor in my budget and talked with my builder to see what could be achieved. One example is the poured concrete worktops. I’d seen these in the builder’s own home and instantly knew they had to be in the barn as they were very minimalistic, looked and felt great, and were very cost-effective. Unique Home Stays took my ideas board and items which I said had to be included and then designed the interior. They raised the quality of the design to what you see today – the large bath in the bedroom, 4m pocket window (I didn’t even know such a thing existed!), and the double shower.

RK: How did you approach finalising your design brief?
BH: I worked closely with Unique Home Stays to ensure the design was in keeping with their style, was different from their other properties and would hit their target market. I had several discussions with them before building work had begun and discussed what design features could be incorporated; however, the design became ever-evolving throughout the whole project. This was extremely demanding, especially for the builders, having me halfway across the world telling them to change this and change that!

RK: How long did it take to gain planning permission?
BH: In total, 2.5 years. Initially, it was turned down, and multiple changes had to be made. This was through naivety on my part from not knowing what the local council’s rules and vision were on barn conversions.

RK: Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?
BH: Where to start?! At the time of purchasing the barn, I was four months away from relocating to Hong Kong. I was also about to start a three-month placement in London, so between work, selling my property in Bournemouth and dealing with the relocation, there wasn’t much time to spend down in Cornwall planning on what I was going to do with it. Planning, designing and project managing all had to be done whilst living in Hong Kong. No face-to-face meetings ever occurred until two months into the actual conversion when I visited. Constant emails and calls until 2am was the norm. Due to my tight budget, I had to project manage all expenditure and chase up deliveries. As time-consuming as it was, I do enjoy getting a good deal! So searching websites for voucher codes, bargaining for the oak flooring and negotiating for the windows became my full-time hobby. And finally, when we were 90% complete, and the finishing line was in sight, COVID-19 happened. Work completely stopped, and it ended up being a limp over the finishing line. Technically, the build is still not complete as we are still waiting for the house sign to be made, which was ordered five months ago from the local quarry.

RK: Did you work with an architect at any point in the process?
BH: Yes. The first architect wasn’t local and didn’t keep within the local planner’s guidelines. It was a “leave it with me; I know what I’m doing” job which ultimately failed. I then realised that I needed to be more in control and hands-on, and enlisted a local architect who saw me through planning.

RK: How did you approach material and product specification?
BH: Having grown up in the hamlet all my life, I wanted to ensure the build not only fitted in with the rest of the properties but also made the area even more beautiful. Luckily the local builders were experts in Cornish stonework and well versed with working with reclaimed timber and reclaimed slate. As much as I mentioned how tough it was to project manage, all the builders couldn’t have been more helpful and created a finished product beyond what I envisioned.

RK: Are there any particular materials that you would recommend to others looking to renovate or self-build?
BH: Use local and don’t cut costs on the visual aspects. Bend or extend your budget to get the best you can get. Debt is much easier to replace then exterior walls, flooring, roof etc. Poured concrete was used for the worktops and outside paving slabs (with pebble/stone added on top before the concrete set). I’ve had so many compliments on the paving slabs, and they were simply used to save money.

RK: How long did the project take, and was it the timeframe that you originally predicted?
BH: The building timeframe was around eight months. However, the project was ever-evolving and would have been completed by 10 months; but due to COVID-19, it took yet another four to complete.

RK: When it was completed, how long was it before you moved in?
BH: It was completed literally days before the photoshoot took place on 10th June.

RK: Did you remain within the original budget?
BH: Back when I initially took on the project, I spoke with my builder and discussed a budget of ‘X’. With having Unique Home Stays’ input and making sure it was up to their standard, I spent three times ‘X’.

RK: How does the building respond to its surrounding landscape?
BH: It fits in perfectly. When looking at it and comparing it to other buildings in the hamlet, you would think it’s been standing like that for decades.

RK: What does the local community think of the refurbishment?
BH: They love it. I flew back to complete all the garden and planting myself, and during the three weeks, I gave each of my neighbours a tour, and they couldn’t have been more complimentary. I’ve since had them contact me to know where I got the windows from, what material I used for the bathroom, what stones were used between the outside paving and driveway and how the worktops were made.

RK: Is the finished space everything that you hoped it would be?
BH: No, it’s much, much more! It’s hard to envisage the finished product, especially when you’re so far away from it. Having constant pictures of the progress come through on my phone was great but didn’t do it justice. How solid the build looks and feels, the way each room flows together and how the inside merges with outside so well. Also, with all the hours and hours of researching products online, reading reviews of materials etc., my wife moaning at me, “are you still looking at kitchen sinks?!”, It all paid off when looking in person and thinking I wouldn’t change any part.

RK:What do you love most about your new home?
BH: I feel really proud that I did it justice. Knowing that I could have cut some corners or not included some parts, but chose not to. Instead, I have created something that will stand the test of time, and I’ll be proud to show my children and grandchildren one day.

RK: What’s your favourite room and why?
BH: The outside seating area and bedroom for selfish reasons. I can’t take credit for the lovely double shower room or amazing sliding windows in the lounge, but I can take some for the bedroom and outside area. When I visited last summer, most the exterior stonework had been finished. I was so amazed at how it looked, that I decided to have a stone wall inside the bedroom. A couple of months later back in Hong Kong, I phoned up the builders and spoke like Trump, “let’s build a wall! Let’s build a wall, put a fireplace in it, put up some beams, festoon lights and have a cosy seating area”.

RK: Is there anything that you would have done differently?
BH: Maybe waited until I relocated back to UK. And not built at the same time as having a baby, but where’s the fun in that?!

RK: Would you do the whole thing again?
BH: When we completed, I said the exact same thing as I did the day after my wedding, “even though that’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, I don’t think I could plan another one”. Nearly a month gone, I’m waiting to start another project and decided a life of looking at Excel spreadsheets isn’t for me anymore.

RK: What advice would you offer to anyone looking to renovate or self-build?
BH: Research and get as much advice as you can. Work with builders you can trust, are reliable and able to have frank discussions. There are going to be tough times when you don’t see eye-to-eye. Set yourself a clear goal/target/vision and have detailed steps on how to get there. Have a detailed budget and try to stick to it (something which I failed miserably at). Lastly, keep positive. Don’t let people say you can’t do it. If you have a clear vision, ignore the naysayers and go for it!

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