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07 Apr 2021

Picture-perfect Pastures at the Plantation

‘The Plantation’ is a modern home with pitched ceilings, a floating staircase and enormous windows looking out onto rural north Devon from serene bedrooms. Outside, the wood-clad exterior fuses modern architecture with the natural world. A formal pond mirrors the lap pool through the glass, and 400 newly-planted trees form the beginnings of a fledgeling woodland.

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Located in Chulmleigh, Devon, this sleek and modern barn conversion is surrounded by blissful, rural landscapes.

With one acre of verdurous gardens and six acres of fields to play with, along with clean lines and a swimming pool inside, it’s a regular location for styled photoshoots.

With bright, spacious interiors and floor-to-ceiling windows flooding the open-plan living area and bedrooms, the Plantation is the epitome of luxury. However, the build wasn’t always steeped in luxury. It took five years of hard work, careful planning and dedication to bring the barn to life, and it’s thanks to Alison Mabon that we can appreciate its beauty today. Here, i-Build’s Editor, Rebecca Kemp, sits down with Alison to find out how she restored the Plantation.

RK: What inspired you to take on this project?
AM: We have always been interested in properties and have completed relatively small renovation projects over the years. We are also avid watchers of Grand Designs, which added fuel to the desire to take on an extensive and exciting project at some stage. We moved to Devon from the Cotswolds 15 years ago, and we absolutely love living here. When planning introduced Class Q, we realised that we could apply for one of our barns in our field. It would tick two boxes for us – the desire to continue living in the area we’d come to love and also the opportunity to take on an exciting conversion project.

We already owned the seven-acre field and four large barns within it. The main farmhouse that we were living in has some beautiful thatched traditional barns and outbuildings next to it, but we preferred the idea of the modern barns a little further away, in the next field. Where our house now stands, there was a farmyard and four large modern, steel-framed barns – these were 12 years old and had been used for machinery and grain storage.

We had always wanted to pursue our own project but have been too busy with careers and bringing up children – until the last five years. In hindsight, we now realise that waiting was the right decision. We wanted to be very involved with the project – it’s been pretty full-on!

RK: What was the vision and inspiration behind your new home?
AM: Grand Designs and thousands of hours on Pinterest! We have always lived in period properties. In fact, the farmhouse we have recently moved out of is a Medieval property and is packed full of original features. We felt inspired to create something very different to our previous houses. This wasn’t because we didn’t like this style anymore; instead, we felt ‘change was as good as a rest’, and it seemed to make the project more exciting. We really had to think outside the box and not just go with what we had always chosen.

RK: How did you approach finalising your design brief?
AM: We worked out which rooms we wanted in the conversion, their sizes and the rough layout. We then approached an architect who worked with us to combine his ideas with ours, finalise everything and draw up the plans.

RK: How long did it take to gain planning permission?
AM: Two years in total. We failed to get approval on the first barn, so we chose a different barn on the same site. Altogether, it took five years from first having the idea to eventually moving in.

RK: Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?
AM: There is a lot of glass, which proved to be a challenge to get right. Some measuring errors and warping meant some replacement panes were necessary. Also, COVID-19 had a significant impact on the timescales, cost and availability of materials. We went from having eight to 10 people on site most days to one inside and another outside.

RK: Did you project manage the build yourself?
AM: No. Our Builder, Graham Cannon from Cannon Construction, did the project management for the actual build. But, we were on site every day too. We managed the lighting, kitchen, bathrooms, heating and landscaping ourselves.

RK: Did you work with an architect at any point in the process?
AM: Yes, we worked with our Architect, Peter Brodbelt from Roderick James, at the design stage. We also employed Landscape Designer, Duncan Rice, for the outside areas surrounding the house as well as the gardens, driveway and planting.

RK: How did you approach material and product specification?
AM: Peter, our Architect, recommended materials for the actual structure, and we sourced the aspects that were also important aesthetically – such as the wood and stone cladding, floorings, roofing etc.

RK: Are there any particular materials that you would recommend to others looking to renovate or self-build?
AM: We are particularly pleased with the heat-treated poplar wood cladding on the outside of the house. Poplar is a fast-growing, cost-effective wood. Heat treatment helps it overcome its two main problems – instability and the tendency to rot outside. For us, it has the added benefit of being a dark brown colour and having a smooth appearance.

RK: When was it completed?
AM: We completed the build during lockdown last year, and we moved in straight away. We were only moving in from next door, and there were still COVID-related restrictions in place, so we transferred the essentials ourselves using a telehandler bucket!

RK: Did you remain within the original budget?
AM: Having planned everything meticulously and not adjusting any plans along the way, we really thought that we would nail the budget, but, unfortunately, we did go over what was predicted by the quantity surveyor. COVID and the resulting inefficiencies was one reason. We had considerably underestimated the cost of fitting the wood cladding to the building. In the end, we decided to screw the cladding into place rather than use nails, which will mean it stays in good condition for a lot longer, so it will pay dividends in the long term. Extra costs that we couldn’t have predicted also arose, such as the borehole where we found our water to need more treatment than presumed.

RK: How does the building respond to its surrounding landscape?
AM: The landscaping and planting are still ongoing. The building is tucked down into an open dip within a field, so it is not visible from the lane. We have built the land levels up around the driveway, so it runs along the bottom of a small open ‘V’. This, combined with the fact that we have also planted mixed woodland trees along the driveway, means it blends into the landscape. What’s more, the wood cladding looks at home in this rural location.

RK: What does the local community think of the refurbishment?
AM: The property is very rural and sits on seven acres of its own land, so the local community can barely see it. Those who have visited the house, however, have commented very positively about the conversion. The other three large barns that were on the site have been removed, and 400 new trees have been planted ,so the project has added a lot to the landscape.

RK: What do you love most about the property?
AM: The glass. We are in the perfect location – nobody can see inside, but we can view the beautiful countryside and wildlife around us from every room in the house. My favourite room is the 9X9m kitchen/dining room/snug. We also love the vast Stûv wood-burning stove, which we light regularly. The room just works with the different areas; it’s where we all live most of the time. The hallway comes in as a close second as we love the cantilever staircase!

RK: Is there anything that you would have done differently?
AM: We would have made the living room a little larger. We underestimated the space taken by the fireplace and the 2m-wide pocket door, so we specified the room a little smaller than we should have done.

RK: Would you do the whole thing again?
AM: It’s been a fantastic experience, and we’ve learned a lot and ended up with a dream house. However, we wouldn’t do it again at the moment – it’s all-consuming and pretty stressful.

RK: What advice would you offer to anyone looking to renovate or self-build?
AM: Spend as much time planning the build as you can and avoid decisions on the hoof as much as possible.

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