On living in barns

by Barendina Smedley

Dogma is the enemy of useful discovery. This is the phrase I repeat to myself, mantra-like, hoping that someday I shall even come to believe it, as I watch friends exclaim in delight over that dismal, popular, incomprehensible thing, the Barn Conversion.

‘But it’s so light, so airy, so full of character!’ they exclaim. ‘And there’s so much space!’

What I have to stifle, repeating my mantra silently, is this: ‘But that space ought to be full of corn, agricultural machinery, or perhaps even livestock. Because it’s a barn. It isn’t a house. It’s a barn.’

Not everyone, though, is troubled by this. Just as lots of people apparently enjoy the sight of cut-crystal chandeliers presiding over some kitchen ‘island’, seeing nothing jarring in the juxaposition between a signifier and impractical luxury and a service appliance that would, were it ever actually used, spew grease everywhere, lots of people think a barn-type ambience is best complimented with fitted cream-coloured carpet, spot-lighting and built-in ‘entertainment centres’ — ‘entertainment’ in this context being construed as sitting in a darkened room watching images of other people doing things, which clearly entertains some people, if not me.

Indeed, the most widely-praised features of the barn conversion are in fact those disconnect it most aggressively from its agrarian origins.

Take, for instance, the point about light. Anyone who has ever entered an old barn will remember one thing above all others about it — the rich, chthonic, infinitely nuanced darkness. Where the sagging slate roof has sprung a leak, a thin spear of light may edge down into the dark, illuminating on its way the odd mote of dust, the ghost of chaff long blown away on some ancient breeze to songs no longer sung, the tiny insect questing in vain for dumb beasts long departed. In the dark, one might discover, stepping gingerly into the cold damp mustiness, the softness of rotted straw underfoot, the old cobweb, the pile of used timbers secreted away for some purpose now forgotten.

There was a time when the darkness of these barns would have been variously practical, or at least acceptable most of the time, or simply accepted because there was no good alternative. Modern agricultural barns are as light as shopping mall concourses, which is probably no bad thing. The transformation of an old barn into a new house is something else altogether, though. Darkness is a sort of memory — the barn conversion, with its blandly flawless brightness, is wilful oblivion, in which the existing structure is enjoined to deny everything it used to be or to mean.

Barns, when one stops to think of it, are really very unlike houses. Their design has nothing to do with fitting them for human habitation.

Barns are mostly about keeping out most light, which is why they rarely have much in the way of windows. Barns are not built to be heated. Barns are not good places for storing delicate things like veneered furniture, fine fabrics or electrical goods. Barns do not offer a great deal in terms of private space, which is why they often look so marvellously airy and open. Nor, finally, are barns designed to be particularly comfortable, suitable or indeed healthy for human habitation. So in order to convert a barn to a house, it becomes necessary to undo pretty much everything that is barn-like about it.

I find it amusing, in a slightly awful way, that some of the main arguments against barn conversions are these: that they are often located very close to actual farms, with all the really shocking things this entails in terms of farm-type noises and smells, proximity to livestock or farm vehicles passing by in the course of farm-type errands. They are, in other words, still too much like barns.

One can, of course, go too far in sneering at barn conversions. As Matthew Rice points out in his Building Norfolk, it is the most natural thing in the world for the function of agricultural buildings to change in keeping with changes in the world around them.

Our own big barn illustrates this point neatly. Built in the late sixteenth century as a standard-issue tithe barn, its two great doors facing east-west to allow for threshing, it was at once a totally functional space and a monument to the wealth and security of a thriving East Anglian sea-port. In 1836, however, the Commutation of Tithe Act spelled the end of tithes in kind — a development still legible, at least with the eye of faith, in the handsome segmental arched doorway inserted to reduce the size of that great east door. As old photographs and the odd faded playbill reveal, a mere century later, the big barn had reinvented itself yet again — this time, as a sort of improvised village hall, community theatre and venue for improving lectures. The Second World War saw the installation of a sprung dance-floor, over which dashing young airmen presumably flirted the night away before a day that might bring glory or sudden death, or maybe both.

More recently, the barn was used for housing far too many pet geese, and as the venue for a glamorous wedding reception which apparently involved cleaning up quite a lot of goose-droppings. By 2010, developers had been given full planning permission to convert the barn into a six-bedroom luxury home. But then we bought the barn, along with the house. At present it serves as a combination furniture store, builders’ supply depot and the occasional haunt of a mopey yet beautiful singleton rock dove. As for my development plans for the barn, I am thinking of getting the old owl windows opened up, to see whether any of our local barn owls might want to settle down and raise a family there.

It might reasonably be argued, at this point, that in our local human community there are also plenty of young couples who would love the chance to settle down and raise a family — but not enough appropriate nesting-places for them, either. And it’s true. Our area, like many rural areas, needs more affordable housing. Barn conversions, though, always turn out to be ‘luxury’ homes, possibly because the expense of converting them is so formidable — or because they are simply so large, costly to heat and so inefficient when it comes to the use of space.

Some people love living in barns, and I wish them well. We should, obviously, be grateful to them. There are agricultural barns which are still standing today — most of their stonework intact, under water-tight roofs, retaining their historic position in the landscape — purely because someone has taken the trouble to turn them into domestic buildings. I cannot help but think, though, that the day will come when the barn conversion is seen to be one of the rather touching curiosities of our present age, rather like people living in cellars and Tube stations during the Blitz. I also think that the day will come when at least a few of those barns return to agricultural use. Change, after all, doesn’t only go one way.