Converting a barn into a guest cottage

Noelle and Tim Thornton transformed a listed derelict barn into a light and airy living space with a courtyard garden. As it is part of the listed property, the couple are unable to sell the newly converted barn seperately, but it makes an ideal second home.

When Noelle and Tim Thornton’s eldest son Alex decided to move back into the family home, the couple agreed that he could have his own space. It would involve converting a dilapidated old barn in the garden.

‘We’d been meaning to renovate the barn for years, so it was the perfect opportunity to actually get on with it,’ Noelle explains. ‘As Alex was going to live there, we said he could come up with his own ideas for the design, as long as there was a big space in the centre for entertaining, which was how the barn had been used in the past and we wanted to retain that element.’

Fact file

The owners: Noelle Thornton, a Marie Curie nurse, and her husband Tim, who is a GP, live in the property with their son Alex, 28. They also have sons Eddie, 26, and Ollie, 23, along with daughters Kristina, 24, and Rachel, 19

With Alex envisaging an open-plan modern space, the Thorntons then approached a highly recommended architect, Ric Blenkharn, to help turn their ideas into an imaginative and workable concep. This included a mezzanine bedroom, a cantilevered staircase and of course a huge open space in the centre of the building, with large glass doors leading out onto a gravelled courtyard garden.

Although the barn is Grade II listed, the architect had a good working relationship with the local conservation officer and knew what work would be permitted – so with no objections to their proposed plans, permission came through without any hitches. Work could then begin and the Thorntons decided to project-manage it all themselves, working with the builders and tradespeople on site.

At the beginning of the project, the building was little more than a stone shell with a wooden platform at one end, where batteries for a generator had been stored. However, acid had leaked from the batteries and caused the wood to rot, so the platform was knocked down before the renovation work could get under way.

The roof was already watertight, so the first jobs were to create a large opening for a roof light and a second opening for a door into an adjoining cow barn, which would eventually be turned into a sitting room. A narrow arrow-slot window was positioned in a central wall to draw the eye from one end of the building to the other. The concrete floors were then dug up, lowered to allow for underfloor heating and levelled. All the internal stonework, particularly where it was to be left exposed, was cleaned by hand. Luckily, the barn already had a water supply, though other basics, like electricity and waste plumbing, had to be connected.

‘We had always wanted to combine the rustic character of the building with a modern interior,’ says Tim. ‘We employed local builders who were used to working with old timbers and limestone mortar. Where any beams needed repairing or replacing, they reproduced the old pegged joints so that everything remained as authentic-looking as possible.’

The biggest challenge, though, was creating the illusion of a ‘floating’ mezzanine-style bedroom, which would involve using a complex steel structure.

Tim takes up the story. ‘The key to this was to make the structure off-centre, so that it would tie in with the uneven appearance of the walls,’ he explains. ‘We then had a winding cantilevered staircase installed that’s supported by an internal steel beam.’

The barn conversion continued with a second bedroom at the other end of the building – also built on a balcony – with a bathroom and third bedroom-cum- study underneath.

As the building is long and narrow, the architect created an illusion of width by fitting huge glass doors and windows in the original barn entrance and laying Yorkshire flagstones both inside and outside.

‘We had cut stone inside for a smooth finish, but left the external ones in the garden rough-edged. Your eye follows naturally from one to the other, making the barn appear wider than it really is,’ says Noelle.

Once the main structural work was finished, Alex and Noelle turned their attention to the interior. They knew that the furniture would have to be in proportion with the large open space and the contemporary designs needed to complement the building’s exposed brickwork and original beams.

They were keen to introduce a bold colour into the scheme to tie the rooms together, which they found in a stylish pistachio-coloured sofa.

‘The moment I saw it I knew it would act as the catalyst, with the rest of the interior evolving from there,’ says Noelle. ‘I tend to buy things from the same places as they often all work well together. However, I’m used to furnishing older houses with antiques and traditional pieces, so this modern scheme was a new experience for me.’

It was of course important that they followed Alex’s concept of a fresh, contemporary design, but it needed to be warm and welcoming too.

‘The way to make it feel homely was with lots of colour, pictures and soft furnishings,’ says Noelle.

The conversion took six months and, with Tim’s eye for structural detail, Alex’s design ideas and Noelle’s instinct for interior décor, the project was certainly a family affair. Not forgetting of course, the pretty gravel garden created by local designer Stephen Bean.

Alex only lived in the barn for a few months before his circumstances changed, however, and he found he was spending less and less time there.

‘Rather than be left with a property that was half lived in, we decided to use it to put up friends and family when there’s no room for them to stay in the main house,’ says Noelle.

The Thorntons also came up with another solution to make the most of their stylish barn conversion. ‘We rent it out as a holiday let,’ says Noelle. ‘We’d had an idea that one day we’d turn it into a holiday cottage. We now have a multi-purpose house and we’re delighted with it.

‘If Alex hadn’t wanted to move back home, we might not have got round to starting the renovation project for years, by which time the barn might have gone to rack and ruin. It’s nice to know that it could still be here in another 300 years time.’


Building work£180,000
Connecting services£1,500
Architect’s fees£4,000
Kitchen, including appliances£5,000