21 Apr 2022

From Chick to Chic

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Last month, i-Build’s Editor, Rebecca Kemp, had the pleasure of staying in one of the Wye Valley’s most inspirational properties, The Chickenshed. As the name suggests, the once dilapidated building lived its previous existence as a shed for raising poultry. Fast forward to 2022, however, and the striking property leads a very different life.

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Following some architectural imagination from award-winning practice Hall & Bednarczyk and homeowners Sue and Nick Peacock, The Chickenshed is far from the neglected structure it was when the couple stumbled across the site at an auction back in 2014. Today, daylight floods the open-plan interiors through the floor-to-ceiling glazing, highlighting modern farming notes that root this building to its agricultural past. Together, its design, luxury mod cons, attention to detail and surrounding acreage of woodland all make The Chickenshed the ideal location for a restful holiday home. Here, Sue talks to us about how the property shifted from an old, rickety poultry barn to the ultimate rural retreat.

“We had already undertaken a couple of pretty big restoration projects – one when we lived in London, and the other when we moved out of the city to Monmouthshire in 2007. The renovation of our home, Veddw Farm, introduced us to some amazing local architects (Martin Hall and Kelly Bednarczyk of Hall & Bednarczyk, in Chepstow) and equally impressive local contractors, Rob MacCormac and his son, Rich, in Abergavenny (Manylion Construction).

“The site of The Chickenshed is 15 minutes away from home, on the lane that we drove along four times a day, taking our, then, children to and from school in Monmouth. One day in 2014, there was an auction sign up, so we looked to see what was for sale, and we found the site with the old poultry barn up for auction – with the benefit of planning permission that Hall & Bednarczyk had obtained for the vendors. However, the consent was for the property only to be used as a holiday let because of the amount of reconstruction that was going to be required. This was ideal for us, as we didn’t want a second home, and we wanted to build something that would encourage visitors to Monmouthshire and provide benefits for local businesses.

“We hadn’t known anything about the property before we saw the sign, but we immediately loved the plans and drawings that Martin and Kelly had produced, so we decided to bid at the auction. The auction was a bit fraught (aren’t they always?), but we managed to get the property, albeit for a bit more than we had planned to spend. And once we got it, it was straightforward to have Martin and Kelly as the architects and Rob and Rich as the contractors.

“The first issue that we had to address was that what we were going to build was intentionally only going to be a holiday let, where people might stay for a few days or a week. So, we wanted to maximise the number of guests to eight but make all four bedrooms pretty much the same size: there was no point in having a master bedroom. Equally, queuing to use the bathroom is no fun on a weekend away, so we wanted to make sure there were plenty to go around. We ended up with two en-suites and a large family bathroom shared between the other two bedrooms. And, finally, there was no point in having loads of clothes storage space (wardrobes and chests of drawers), because who brings a huge amount of clothes for a few nights’ stay? The result was hanging rails and underbed drawers in each of the bedrooms.

“Secondly, the overall design language had been pretty much set by the planning application. It was the usual clean design from Martin and Kelly, with lots of glass (which came from Velfac) and a mix of cedar and corrugated cladding (which came from Onduline) that reflected the shed-like quality of the original structure. It was all intended, after a bit of greying and weathering, to disappear into the landscape, which we think it has done very well.

“Thirdly, because this was going to be a holiday let, intended to be as fully occupied as we could make it, it needed to have resilient and easily-maintained finishes. So, we installed a polished concrete floor throughout from Lazenby, the bathrooms were all simply tiled and fitted-out with white Duravit sanitaryware, and the walls are easily touched up or redone with white paint. Similarly, we deliberately kept the kitchen and furniture repairable and straightforward: a sturdy white kitchen from Bulthaup (the same as we have at home), beds, dining table and benches handmade by Rob Barnby (Barnby Design) in Hay on Wye, and sofas and chairs from Hay Design.

“Fourthly, to be brutally honest, the original building was of no architectural merit at all. It was just a softwood poultry barn, probably built by the farmer in the 1950s with a kit of parts or after a trip to the timber merchant. But we had to convert it, rather than replace it according to the planning permission; albeit we were permitted to have a new foundation, concrete block floor, a laminate structure, walls and a roof. And that raised an almost philosophical question about what we were going to retain as part of the conversion, which proved to be an issue later on.

“As we’ve said, we used local architects and contractors, who did a great job. Unfortunately, when we bought at auction, we hadn’t known that one local parish councillor was very much against planning permission being given. And, even though it had been granted, and even though it hadn’t been given to us, he dogged the whole construction project, regularly taking pictures of what was being done and making complaints to the Monmouthshire planning department. At one stage, we were told by Monmouthshire that, because we had demolished too much of the original structure, we no longer had any planning permission at all. That was a worrying time when we thought we might have spent a lot for a field. Fortunately, we believe that in the end, the planning officers and the county councillors understood and appreciated what we were trying to do. After making a new planning application, everything was put to rights on the condition that the roof trusses from the old poultry shed be included as part of the structure of the new building, and they are the green painted trusses that you see in the photographs.

“Of the construction materials we used, we are great fans of cedar cladding; we have it at home as well as at The Chickenshed, and it has weathered to a lovely grey finish. No maintenance is required, and the wasps love it for nest building (which means we have to keep an eye out for those). The Velfac windows (which we also have at home) are great too; double-glazed, powder-coated aluminium in whatever RAL colour you fancy, no maintenance, and available in any number of combinations of windows/doors. The only issue we’ve had is that the sliding doors onto the terrace have a little hidden catch, so we send guests a very short video showing them how to find it and open them without a struggle. And the Onduline cladding was perfect as it came in a dark grey colour (which we wanted) and is much quieter than tin when it rains; there’s nothing worse than being kept awake by a noisy corrugated tin roof.

“The actual build didn’t take much longer than the original contract period, just extended a little due to having to deal with the planning issues. And, because everything was so carefully considered and drawn by Hall & Bednarczyk before construction started, the costs were pretty much in line with the original contract price. Obviously, there was a bit of additional expenditure, but it was mainly on great ideas that came up during the build process, such as the wooden window shutters in the snug and the green and blue bedrooms.

“Whilst the exterior was intended to be very much resonant of the old poultry shed, we wanted the interior to be clean and simple – almost Scandi. I think many of us would love to live a more simple, clutter-free life, but it’s virtually impossible with a family home; there’s always stuff. But when you go away, you can leave that stuff behind and, hopefully, enjoy a property where the space doesn’t intrude on what you are doing (such as enjoying time with family and friends) or on what you are seeing (such as the lovely views across to the Black Mountains). Indeed, we felt that was appreciated by the judges when the building was awarded the RIBA Wales Small Project Award in 2017.

“We don’t get to ‘visit’ The Chickenshed all that often, as it’s pretty busy with guests, but very occasionally we have stayed for a night and (I know we would say this, wouldn’t we?) we have really loved it. Obviously, we find little things that need doing. Overall, we really like the space and how it can be used by groups of family and friends. In the summer, it’s just lovely to have the doors open onto the terrace from the living room and enjoy the evening light and sunset to the west.

“Also, we’ve never had anyone local (other than the errant parish councillor) say a bad word about The Chickenshed. I think people like its design, and also like what we were trying to do by bringing a bit more ‘high-end’ self-catering accommodation to Monmouthshire. Remember that back in 2014, there were still lots of places with granny’s old sofa covered with a throw. Now, with Canopy & Stars and Sawdays and other travel agencies, there is a super choice of excellent, architecturally-interesting places to stay nationwide. And we think that is a good thing. Why should people have to travel to Germany or Italy to stay in buildings that are intended to have some architectural merit? And, why should exciting places in the UK be limited to ‘Grand Designs’, where huge amounts of money get spent on what are often vanity projects?

“The actual build process was perfectly manageable and pretty stress-free. If we do another project (and my husband, Nick, is always on the lookout for one), then I think we would research more carefully what objections had been raised in the planning process; it only takes one motivated objector to make life pretty tricky. That said, I think we would do another project. The real difficulty nowadays is finding one.

“The best guidance for other renovators and self-builders is to get good advice from architects and contractors who you trust and get on with. A building project takes a long time, from planning to completion, so it’s vital to have good relationships. Yes, there can be a few tense meetings when something goes wrong, but with goodwill, everything gets worked out in the end.”

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