14 Oct 2022

The Self-Build Diaries: Tris and Kat Baxter-Smith

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Husband and wife, Tris and Kat Baxter-Smith, lived in a charming cottage in a small village in Northamptonshire, which had been a barn conversion that Tris undertook in 2007. With a long-held passion to live on a farm, Kat and Tris, a farmer working part-time on his family farm, wanted more space for gardening, growing vegetables and, hopefully, in time, a larger family and a few animals.

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Here, Kat talks to i-Build’s Editor, Rebecca Kemp, about reaching the finish line for her and Tris’ Class Q barn conversion and runs through all the hurdles they had to overcome along the way.

RK: Have you always wanted to pursue your own project?
KB-S: Yes, we both like to run our own projects and wanted to make this place our own. We wanted to control all the decisions and make the house exactly how we imagined.

RK: How and why did you choose this property to renovate?
KB-S: We knew we wanted to build on the farm; however, planning restrictions mean you can’t just build a house anywhere, even if you own the land. Our local land agent visited us to discuss options, and he suggested we look into Class Q permissive development. This allows you to convert a farm building into a dwelling with certain restrictions. Luckily, the timing was perfect as Tris needed to build a bigger barn and grain store, and so the current farm barn was no longer needed and had the potential for conversion.

RK: What style and age was the original building?
KB-S: It was a modern farm barn built in the early 2000s. It was primarily used for storing farm machinery. As such, it had large steel beams, wooden/metal cladding and a corrugated metal roof. We wanted to retain this modern, slightly industrial feel into the build, and this fitted in well with the conditions of Class Q permissive development.

RK: How did you combine the original building’s style with the extension?
KB-S: The house was designed by my husband, who then used an architect to put his plans to scale. The core ethos of the build was to retain as much as possible/practical and to acknowledge and respect the original purpose of the building, rather than pretend to be a new build, which would have felt dishonest from a design point of view.

We have kept the original steel beams (now painted in heat-resistant anthracite grey paint), used a similar wood cladding on the external walls and used corrugated metal cladding for the roof and upper part of the house to retain a similar look and feel as the original barn.

One of the elements that we really liked about the original style was the openness that the building provided. Once all of the farm machinery etc. is gone, being presented with this empty box of a building and filling it with rooms can lead to a cluttered and fussy interior layout. This is something my husband was really against.

Inside, we wanted to keep that open feel, whilst ensuring that we have the practicality and storage of a family home. We used modern, concrete-style Karndean flooring to complement the modern decor, with a lot of anthracite grey in the interior design. We kept to a neutral palate in the living areas to retain the modern and open feeling of the original barn. While in the bedrooms, we chose a warmer, more avant-garde palette.

RK: What was the vision and inspiration behind your new home?
KB-S: Our last house was a very ‘cosy farm cottage’ in style, which we loved, but this house was never going to be that. We have seen some modern barn conversions where the exterior is true to form and very contemporary, while the interior is very traditional. Those two things don’t marry up – we didn’t want that. We wanted to move entirely away from that look with a very spacious, modern and striking design. We really liked the idea of that ‘wow factor’ and weren’t going for a traditional farmhouse style.

RK: How did you approach finalising your design brief?
KB-S: Although much of this was done by Tris, who designed the interior, we worked with two architects. My cousin, Fiona Baxter, had just graduated as an architect, so she helped us with the original pre-planning exterior elevations, which we used for our initial planning application. We then recruited a local architect firm, Toby Pateman Architect, to finalise and scale my husband’s drawings. Our builder, Nick Burles of Grassroots Construction, has quite a bit of experience in building barn conversions (he lives in one, too), so he helped us a lot with the final design and thought of several clever ways to make the most of the space we had.

RK: How long did it take to gain planning permission?
KB-S: Just over one year, despite some bumps along the way with the usual ‘quirks’ of the English planning process. Thankfully, it was approved. Nick was a massive help in ensuring we had all the information the committee required and had answers for any questions they had along the way. I would certainly say a lot of preparation and research before going to your local planning department pays off, so don’t submit until you are entirely ready and seek as much help as possible.

RK: Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?
KB-S: As part of the Class Q planning, we had to keep the new build within the exact footprint and confines of the original farm barn, which included the height and pitch of the roof, as well as not being able to dig down into the ground. This meant we were restricted to one floor, so we had to work with the architect to ensure that the dwelling could work within these restrictions, be the size, have the number of rooms we needed and meet Building Regulations.

We also have a few neighbouring properties that share the same residential close from which our driveway connects, and some of them overlook the build itself – albeit at a couple of hundred metres distance. We met with neighbours before submitting planning permission to inform them of our intent and to open the floor for questions, discussion and objections. There were a few initial disapprovals – the driveway, positioning of water pipes etc. Still, mostly, we managed to allay any fears and have not fallen out with anyone so far. We were keen to ensure that our neighbours felt included in the initial process and not locked out. That way, we had the opportunity to confront any potential issues and deal with them in the early stages rather than later down the line.

RK: Are there any materials you would recommend to others?
KB-S: We got the idea to use corrugated metal cladding for the upper part of the house from another barn conversion on Instagram. We are so pleased with the effect. It was also much cheaper than cladding the whole building in wood and will hopefully wear better too!

RK: How long did the project take?
KB-S: We started the build in July 2021 with a goal of one year to finish. Amazingly, we managed to move in during August 2022. We still have quite a bit of landscaping to do, but the house is completely liveable.

RK: Did you remain within the original budget?
KB-S: The original budget was a very optimistic £350k. This didn’t incorporate a lot of ‘extra’ costs, such as decorating, landscaping etc., and included a very modest budget for things like kitchen and flooring, which we did go over quite a bit. Our three-phase electric cable alone came to over 10k. Also, the cost of materials and labour shot up in 2022, so we were struck by that. We have gone over budget by around £100k. It turns out that 2022 was a tricky year to build anything, but sometimes there is no ‘good time’, and you have to get on and make the best of it.

RK: Please provide an overview of the interior and exterior space.
KB-S: The interior is a neutral palate in the kitchen and living areas with greys, woods and subtle pinks. The bedrooms and bathrooms are more colourful with lots of greens, pinks and oranges. There are large floor-to-ceiling double-glazed doors throughout, and the front entrance is all glass. The idea was for a fresh, modern look but in keeping with the farm landscape and barn features.

RK: How does the building respond to its surrounding landscape?
KB-S: We think it fits in really well and looks much nicer than the original barn! We think it’s honest and respects the truth of the original barn construction.

RK: Is the finished space everything that you hoped it would be?
KB-S: Yes, it’s better than we ever imagined. We still can’t believe we get to live here! Because we designed and were part of the whole build, when people compliment it, we can be proud that everything came from us.

RK: What’s your favourite room and why?
KB-S: The kitchen was designed and installed for us by a local company called Moulton Kitchens. It was always going to be the centrepiece of the build, but it is a real showstopper, and somewhere we love to spend all our time. We both love cooking, so it is also incredibly functional. We are glad we blew the budget on this part of the home.

RK: Would you do the whole thing again?
KB-S: I would. Tris isn’t so keen – not for a while, anyway!

RK: What advice would you offer to anyone looking to renovate or self-build?
KB-S: Make sure to do a lot of research beforehand. Get the advice of someone who has done barn conversions before and has been through the planning process. Make sure you answer all possible objections in your proposal so they have no reason to reject it. Be reasonable and assume that not everyone will share your dream, so be prepared to compromise to get what you want.

Expect unexpected costs and be prepared to swallow them. Make sure to appreciate your builders and other tradespeople who work on the site, and go by word of mouth and recommendations. Make sure you are confident to challenge trades on areas you think lack the finish you desire. You must have openness and honesty with your builder; inevitably, there will be disagreements along the way.

Use Instagram as an endless source of inspiration but also help and advice – there are loads of other self-builders on there who are very happy to answer questions and give advice. I used it so much.

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