How to tackle a barn, school or church conversion

Converting a disused building, such as a barn, school or church, takes careful planning, flexible budgeting and good design. Get it right, however, and the result will be a home that’s entirely unique

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Barn, school and church conversions are a popular option for renovators seeking a unique space to call home. While these projects require careful planning, flexible budgeting, good design and plenty of patience, the results are more than worth the investment, both time and money wise. 

Our guide to tackling barn, school or church conversions is the perfect accompaniment to your renovation project, guiding you through every stage of the process.

Finding a building to convert

If conversations with estate agents and your local council have proven fruitless, Plotfinder is a great place to find potential projects.

Spotted a potential conversion project? Contact your local planning department to see if approval for ‘change of use’ is likely to be given. Bear in mind that you won’t be able to apply for outline planning permission because the council will want to look at a full planning application in great detail.

Check whether the building is listed, in which case you need listed buildings consent, and find out if the building is in a conservation area, which will further restrict what changes can be made. Finally, if it is a church, you will need permission from the church authorities.

Planners will be more likely to approve applications that are sympathetic to the original building’s external appearance, which will mean restoring windows and doors, and using reclaimed or like-for-like materials. You may find that the alterations you are allowed to make inside are limited, or have to be reversible, too.

Read our guide to planning permission for more information.

This Grade II-listed stone barn in south Warwickshire was designed by architect Ben Parsons

This Grade II-listed stone barn in south Warwickshire was designed by architect Ben Parsons

Details to consider

  • For best effect, use materials that are core to the original building’s character. Inside or out, it should still obviously be a barn – a conversion where the original architecture is hidden won’t be as successful.
  • Since you cannot usually add extra openings, install glazing into existing ones to make the most of the views. Where permitted, use the largest skylights – this works really well in double-height spaces.
  • Make a feature of the staircase by using materials that contrast with the barn, such as steel and glass, or which complement it, such as timber.
  • Plan your layout carefully so the rooms without much natural light are those that don’t need it: a cloakroom, utility, larder, media room or snug.
  • Joining two barns together? See if the planners will agree to a sleek, glazed passageway. ‘I like to make the new work contemporary,’ says architect Ben Parsons. ‘This normally means glazed elevations and a lighter-looking structure, acting as a counterpoint to the (typically) heavy original building.’

Budgeting for a barn, school or church conversion

Before you make an offer, ask several local estate agents what the building might be worth if you were to convert it, taking note of any advice they might offer to maximise value.

Ask a building surveyor – try Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors – or structural engineer to survey the building to highlight any structural problems and to give you rough costings. If you have an architect in mind, it will also be worth asking for a site visit to talk through ideas and costs, too.

‘Planning and project management is key,’ says Luke Winham, who is director of Vision Residences and has 20 years’ experience of property development. ‘Whilst developing old buildings can be rewarding, it can be timely and expensive. Keep your eye on your budget as old buildings can sometimes unearth extra development costs which you may not have accounted for and can very easily cost a lot more than you initially thought.’

How much do barn, school and church conversions cost?

Overall, you will probably end up spending more on your conversion as a rate per sq metre than you would if you were building from new.

‘Whereas your new house might have cost you £1,700 sq metre, rising to £2,500 sq metre for high spec, a barn conversion, for example, could be up to £3,000 sq metre for the same spec,’ says Oxford-based project manager and chartered quantity surveyor Jon Darnell.

  • Underpinning can cost from £3,500 to £3,800 per metre, depending on the level of access available and the stability of the existing structure.
  • Disposing of asbestos costs from £250 to £350 per tonne, which might be the equivalent of 25sq metres.
  • Stone repointing, which makes a huge difference to the appearance of the building, might be between £25 and £30sq metre for cement lime mortar and another £20sq metre on top for pure lime mortar.
  • Spraying timbers to protect them from damp is worthwhile once the source of dampness has been eliminated – expect to pay around £1,000 to £1,500 for a 2,000sq foot barn.

Potential problems when converting a barn, school or church

‘Barn conversions can be expensive if the building’s condition is worse than appears on the surface,’ advises archtiect Ben Parsons. ‘They weren’t always built for longevity – very shallow foundations that will require underpinning are not an uncommon discovery.

‘Other structural defects, such as cracks in walls, rot that requires replacement timbers, failed roof structures that cause further stress on the rest of the property, and contamination within the building and around the site, all add to costs.’

‘Generations of farmers may have tried to keep their low-value barn safe and waterproof, but making it look pretty was not a priority,’ says project manager and chartered quantity surveyor Jon Darnell. ‘I have come across traditional oak roofs that have been replaced by corrugated steel or asbestos sheet.

‘Other patch-ups you might have to undo are blockwork sections instead of good stone repairs, and hard grey mortar used in an ugly attempt to stop stone erosion.’

Reclaiming VAT on a barn, school or church conversion

As a DIY-er, you can reclaim the VAT paid for labour and materials on a conversion project without needing to register. When work is complete, all relevant receipts must be submitted with the paperwork to the central VAT offices, and a refund cheque will be sent.

If your builder is VAT-registered, they should invoice their labour and materials at a reduced rate of 5 per cent.

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