Barn conversion and conservation
The word ‘barn’ has its derivation in the old English words bere, which means barley, and ern, which means house. This etymology sums up one of the main functions of the farm barn since earliest times, in fact since as long as man has been cultivating the land, the barn has been a processing unit and storehouse for man’s hard won crop.
The historic barn, whether it stands unused within a modern working farm or derelict and forgotten in an isolated field, is redolent of a bygone age of agrarian life and evokes in us nostalgic images of bucolic harmony when man was far closer to the land and to nature than he is now. Of course, the medieval peasant spending his days with eyes fixed on the swaying backsides of a team of oxen pulling a plough through cold, wet, claggy earth, may have found such an idealised picture somewhat bewildering.
A desirable place to live or work in
Farming in the past, especially before the advent of mechanisation, was hard, physically and mentally demanding if not downright brutal.
Nevertheless, our collective nostalgia, no matter how misplaced, has served to counteract the redundancy of the historic barn as a functioning building and has led to its re-emergence as a desirable place to live or work.
Architects and owners alike have generally respected the historic look and layout of the barns they are converting not simply because large numbers of them are listed but because preserving the traditional look is the desired outcome.
Historic barns show great variety in their date, in the way they were built and in the way they were used. For example, the great medieval Tithe barns with their soaring, cathedral-like aisled interiors were the repositories of the tithe or tenth of the produce of the land handed over as an ecclesiastical tax, probably reluctantly, by parishioners for the support of the parish priest. Such Tithe barns are rare now but where they are still standing are considered of great historic and architectural significance.
More commonly surviving is the 19th century threshing barn characterised by large opposing doorways big enough to allow a cart loaded with corn sheaves to be drawn inside for unloading and to provide a through draught over the threshing floor for the threshing and winnowing processes, carried out manually with flails by farm labourers day by day during the winter months.
Another example is the combination barn which was multi-functional and served for the storage and processing of crops and fodder, the housing of livestock and of equipment.
Historic barns are also built of a variety of materials this being dictated by the availability of natural building resources in the locality of the barn whether stone, brick, cob or flint for walls and thatch, clay tiles or slate for the roofs. Similarly, their structural form and plan form can vary from aisled to cruck-framed to box-framed and from L-shaped to rectilinear to cruciform respectively. It is the regional and/or architectural variety of historic barns which makes them such an attractive prospect for modern-day conversions.
In the modern period however, whatever their original function historic barns are generally unsuitable to today’s agricultural needs and if they have not been allowed to fall into sad disrepair are often used as little more than convenient storage areas. The heyday of the barn as the busy hub of the historic farmstead is well and truly over.
Resurrection as historic buildings
However, whilst the demise of historic barns in terms of their original purpose is a fact they continue to enjoy a welcome resurrection as historic buildings which are worthy of conservation and re-use. Whatever role they now fulfil, whether as homes, workshops, offices, shops or local museums, their sympathetic conversion is a great benefit not just on a local level but on a national level too.
So why do historic barns lend themselves so well to conversion?
- There are a number of factors:
- they are often large enough to accommodate alternative modern day uses
- they are usually of robust construction even when suffering from neglect
- historically they have had a variety of functions so can be adapted in a number of ways
- very often they are in attractive rural surroundings or within villages
- regional and local variety in their structure and fabric contribute to local distinctiveness and character and
- their re-use can meet the twin planning targets of conservation and sustainable development.
There are a number of articles produced by Historic England on conservation in general and on historic farm buildings and their conversion: