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Barn conversion guide: planning and design ideas

Planning Permission

Converting a barn is at the very top of my bucket list.

I’ve always been a fan of mixing traditional with modern architecture, but there are so many other great aspects of barn conversions.

They offer a very unique space. They’re often found in the countryside. When converting them, you can sidestep a lot of complex planning policies. They also hold their value very well.

Given their recent increase in popularity, our architects have prepared this useful guide.

Topics covered include: how to find a barn, budgeting, planning permission and lots of design ideas.

1. Where can I find a barn to convert?

1.1. Local estate agent

A local estate agent is by far the best option if you know the rough area you’d like your new barn conversion to be in. The reason is simple. Estate agents are usually the first people a prospective seller will call when thinking of selling their property. Your local agent will also have visited all the properties they market. They will have taken lots of photos, so you can get a better idea of the space before arranging a viewing. They might also have a good idea of the seller’s position and let you know how firm the asking price is, and whether there might be an opportunity to buy it a little cheaper.

1.2. Online websites

There are a number of online websites such as and These are fantastic if you’re looking at a relatively wide geographic area. These websites also have lots of information about the existing property such as floor plans and photos. With the use of Google street view, it’s super quick and easy to explore the neighbourhood too.

1.3. Find one you like and ask

I would say this is the most challenging and time-consuming option. However, we have worked with lots of clients who simply saw a house or barn they liked and knocked on the door. Over a coffee with the owners, they agreed to purchase it. This would be far easier with a barn because they don’t tend to be in use. If you meet a farmer with a tired/derelict barn, they might be only too happy to make a bit of money while also making efficient use of the space.

1.4. Commission a building survey before buying a barn conversion

At this stage you have found a barn you like…. great news!

Now come a few technical steps. The first thing you need to find out is… how much will my barn conversion cost?

In order to answer that question, you first need a survey. That’s the only way your architect will know how much work there is involved.

1.5. Structural survey – barn conversion

A structural survey will be carried out by an engineer. Their job is to assess how structurally sound the building is. It’s not uncommon for old barns to have structural problems, but this is the reason for the survey. The engineer will not only identify any issues, but will also suggest ways they can be fixed. Once you know exactly what needs to be done, your architect will have a good idea of the overall project cost.

1.6. Timber survey – barn conversion

Lots of barns are timber framed. When they fall into disrepair, water can enter through gaps in the walls and roof. This can have huge repercussions for the structure in the form of wet or dry rot. Insect infestations such as wood worm can also be found. A timber survey will highlight any issues and recommend the necessary remedial works.

1.7. Cost of a barn conversion survey

Expect to pay approximately £1,500 – £2,400 for a full survey.

2. Budgeting for a barn conversion

It seems counter intuitive, but converting a barn costs more per m2 than building a house from scratch.

This is because conversion projects involve a lot of painstaking work, including stripping back and repairing the existing fabric. All this needs to be done while preserving original features as far as possible.

So, where is the best place to start when trying to budget? There are three main options:

2.1. Architect

An architect should always be your first port of call when budgeting for a barn conversion. This is because an architect will have worked on hundreds of successful barn conversion projects. The chances are, your barn will have similar features or issues to others. They will not only know how to fix them but also how much they will cost to refurbish. Make sure you agree fees with an architect in stages. You don’t want to pay a huge amount of money for a completed design, only to find out that your budget won’t stretch that far. Always start with a feasibility stage.

2.2. Quantity surveyor

One of a quantity surveyor’s main jobs is to estimate and control costs for refurbishment or construction projects. Although they won’t be able to design it, if you show them around your barn and explain all your ideas, they will be able to give you a very accurate idea of exactly how much you should expect to pay.

2.3. Builder

Barn conversions can be quite intricate, so you may need to find a builder with previous experience of working with them. As they will be used to working within a client’s budget, they will be able to give you a very good idea of what your project might cost.

3. Design ideas

3.1. Open plan and zoning spaces

Open-plan designs lend themselves to barn conversions. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Sometimes, due to the sheer size of some barns, the space is too great for simply one open-plan living space.

Consider locating spaces such as a study or downstairs bedroom to one side. The areas that do not need a view looking outside, such as toilets, bathrooms and utility rooms, can be placed against walls.

open plan barn conversion
Look at this spectacular open plan double height living room….wow

3.2. Focus on light

Barns can be very large structures, and often larger than a typical house. To avoid the inside of your new conversion appearing dark or gloomy, it’s important to flood the inside with as much natural light as possible.

There are so many ways this can be achieved: glazed gables, rooflights, a glazed entrance, or large frameless glass panels.

Flood your new barn conversion with light by using this huge double height glazed entrance

3.3. Merging historic and modern architecture

Architecture, both new and old, often defines our neighbourhoods and can have a lasting impact on our perceived memory of a place. While historic architecture has its own charm, it’s no secret that, at its best, modern architecture has the ability to be inspiring. When these two worlds of old and new come together, the result can be awe-inspiring.

Modern vs Traditional
Mixing historic and modern architecture can create stunning results

3.4. New floors, mezzanines and bridges

As most barns were previously used for agricultural uses such as stacking hay bales, they are often very tall. To take advantage of this, it’s sometimes possible to create additional mezzanine levels within the existing structure.

Take advantage of your barns tall ceilings by adding a mezzanine level

4. The planning rules for a barn conversion

So, now we get to one of the most important parts of your barn conversion project. Obtaining the relevant permission from your local planning authority.

4.1. Permitted Development

The great news is that you can convert a barn to a house without the need to apply for planning permission. Although it’s a form of permitted development you need to apply for your local authority’s ‘Prior Approval.’ This is essentially a host of technical hoops your architect will need to jump through.

4.2. What is covered?

The prior approval covers not only the barn conversion itself, but the walls, windows, roofs, materials, drainage, services etc. In other words, it covers the work required to convert the building into a house. The good news is that you can also partly demolish your barn if your architect suggests it. This gives them a little more freedom to be creative.

4.3. Capable of functioning as a dwelling

This means the existing barn must be capable of being converted, i.e. if you find a barn with no walls and a rickety metal roof, the works involved to convert it would essentially be considered a new build rather than a conversion. If that is the case, then the conversion would fall outside the scope of the Prior Approval legislation. Unfortunately, there is no clear definition of what works can and can’t be carried out. This will inevitably be a question of fact and degree in each case.

4.4. Agricultural use

The barn must have been in use solely for agricultural purposes on or before 20th March 2013, although it doesn’t physically have to be in use from that date. The legislation means it can’t have been used for anything else apart from agricultural use. This means you can’t build a barn for your farm and then convert to a house under Prior Approval. 

4.5. Restricted areas for a barn conversion

You cannot convert a barn in the following areas:

– Listed buildings (or its curtilage)

– Conservation areas

– Area of outstanding natural beauty 

– National parks

– The broads

– World heritage sites.

4.6. Planning considerations for a barn conversion

The following factors will be considered with your local planning authority.

  • Highway impacts – are you providing enough parking?
  • Noise impacts of the development
  • Contamination risks
  • Flood risk
  • Design or external appearance of the building.

4.7. Location and siting

The main question to consider here is whether it is impractical or undesirable for your barn to change from agricultural use to a house. This is really to avoid barns being converted where there is no access. So, a barn where a 4X4 is required to access it might fail this, or one that is halfway up a mountain.

5. Improve the structural fabric – barn conversion

New internal frame: We love barns because of their aesthetic appeal and traditional look. So, if you’re working on a timber frame barn, you will probably try and retain as many of the original exterior timber features as possible. That being said, depending on your design, it might be that internally, the structure is not sufficiently strong and may need reinforcement. This may require an independent steel or wooden structure to be built below the exterior shell. That way, you retain the traditional look while keeping the barn structurally sound.

New wooden frame barn conversion
This barn needed an entirely new wooden frame but still retained that traditional look

High ceilings: The great advantage of installing a steel structure to support the existing barn roof is that you no longer need any of the internal walls for support. This will give you far more scope to be creative in terms of your internal layout.

6. Roof repair – barn conversion

Remove the roof: In most cases, little maintenance will have been carried out to a barn roof. It is therefore likely that the external covering of the roof would need to be replaced. To conform to current Building Regulations, there will need to be new insulation either between or above the existing rafters.

Salvage materials: The roof covering of the barn will possess a certain vernacular style in context with local buildings (such as limestone, sandstone, local slate, thatch or even local handmade clay). It is an intrinsic part of the barn’s character, so it is important to salvage these materials where possible, sourcing replacements for any missing pieces. 

Keep irregular features: Part of the charm of a barn conversion can be the irregularity of the roof shape. The timbers may have bowed slightly, leaving you with an undulating roof. Although this may need to be repaired, these quirky features add so much character to the finished design we think it’s a great idea to keep them.


Do you dream of converting your own barn?

Have you found a barn you’re thinking of converting?

You’ve come to the right place. Our team of creative architects and planning consultants love to design barn conversions. The part we like most is mixing both traditional and modern architecture.

If you have any questions or need some advice for a barn you’re looking to convert, feel free to arrange a call with a member of our team anytime.

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