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Samy Barn

by Dominic Bradbury, Mark Luscombe-Whyte

'Barns', Conran Octopus, 2004

Cover image shows 'Samy Barn'

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'Catherine and Richard Samy's conversion of an arresting, triple-height sixteenth-century framed barn was a game of two halves. With a small but convenient flat in central London, where they work and where their two daughters go to school, the Samys had long been renting a house in Suffolk, by the coast, where they like to spend the rest of their time. They finally decided they wanted a place of their own and - having realized that getting permission for a rural new-build by the coast was near-impossible - started looking for a barn to convert.

'"We used to drive along a nearby road and see this huge tinny-topped barn in the distance, across the fields," says Catherine Samy. "I used to say to Richard that it looked like such a nice barn, but we assumed it belonged to the house next door. Then we were in the local town one day and Richard went into the estate agent and asked if they had any agricultural buildings. He came running out and down the street waving his this piece of paper and saying 'You won't believe it!'".

'"We'd driven along this road so many times, noticing this huge barn in the distance across the fields," Catherine explains. "It was perfect but we assumed it belonged to the house next door to it. One day Richard went into an estate agents and asked if they had any agricultural buildings. Two minutes later he ran out waving this piece of paper and saying, 'You won't believe it!'"

'They went to take a look at the barn, which belonged to the local estate and had most recently seen use as a base for a pony club, and found a very bedraggled-looking building with a rusting corrugated-iron roof, timbers hanging off and trees growing out of it. "I imagine people took one look and said they wouldn't touch it with a bargepole," says Samy. "But when you went in through the old cart doors and looked up it was like this huge upturned ship. It was just beautiful."

'Structurally the extraordinary listed frame was in good condition and the Samy's surveyors also found that the barn was sitting on solid, tudor brick footings, which suggested that a manor house might once have stood on this site but when it was rebuilt near by the brick pad was used to support the barn. The building itself has mostly been used for storing crops, with two giant sets of doors to either side of the barn to allow carts to pass right through as they dropped off their loads. In Victorian times, one end of the barn had been sectioned off with a timber partition wall and divided into two levels, with animals below and a hay loft above.

'The building came with outline planning permission for not one, but two homes - a division that could have wrecked the character of the building. Having bought the barn, the Samys began working with the architect Geoff Pyle of Pyle Boyd Architects and his associate Ben Kilburn on a new scheme that would better preserve the unity and character of the barn as one large, light, spacious and truly bespoke family home.

'"The main thing we talked about was the way we wanted to live," says Samy, "Geoff was a good listener and every meeting was an inspiration because he would give our thoughts a twist and some stardust. We went through how we envisaged using the space in terms of if being somewhere that could be full of people but where you could still find a space to be on your own. The London flat is too small to entertain in so we ask people to come up here for the weekend and it was important that people could disappear, read their books and not worry about anyone, or that they can be very much part of things if there's cooking going on or whatever. It's that combination of sociable spaces and being able to go off and be quiet somewhere."

'An overall plan for the conversion was conceived, but given their big financial commitment the Samys decided to do the work in two phases. Having restored the frame, recladded the barn and thatched the roof, as it would once have been, they respected the Victorian division and created a spacious kitchen/dining room downstairs. Upstairs a master bedroom was added with its own mezzanine dressing room making use of the high ceilings, with a semi-open bathroom tucked below. Beyond the partition they also created a guest bedroom on the ground floor and a family sitting room above, which took them to the central cart doors that were glazed from floor to eaves on either side. The other half of the barn was completed six years later, by which time Geoff Pyle was working on temporary secondment abroad and the baton was passed to Ben Kilburn, now with Cullum and Nightingale, who project-managed the completion. This time they added another guest room and children's bedroom on the ground floor and a large dramatic main sitting room above that, partially open ended to the central hallway/reception area/lightwell in order to maximize the flow of light.

'"One of my main concerns in ending up with a barn was whether we could get enough light through the space - because light is incredibly important to us - without making the windows so obvious that it end up making the barn look like a normal house," says Samy. "But it has ended up as a space that is absolutely drenched with light, even on quite dull days."

'Every possible solution has been used to create such an impressive level of natural light. Two large and long rectangular skylights have been sensitively incorporated in the roof at the rear of the house, leaving the front of the steeply pitched thatched crown untouched. The glazed lightwell formed within the cart doorways has been effectively used to push light into surrounding parts of the house, feeding the ground-floor guest rooms to either side through large internal windows as well as the main, semi open-ended sitting room upstairs and the family room opposite, which also has an internal window and a glass door. The stairway and landing within the lightwell hallway feature a glass balcony and balustrade to avoid breaking up the light.

'In addition, there are a number of other windows throughout the building that avoid typically domestic window patterns. Most beautiful of all are the corner windows to the front of the barn, where the transparency reveals some of the timber frame. Other small arrow-slit windows are dotted through on different levels, while there are also a number of hatches flush within the cedar timber cladding that can be opened up to increase the flow of light and air in summer.

'"The point of the corner windows was celebrating the frame so you get a glimpse of the inner workings of how this thing stands up," says Samy. "And I love the way the arrow-slit windows - which you don't really notice from outside - cut through the different levels and give you these lovely slants of light and glimpsed views."

'Light and layout alike have proved very successful. A good balance between private and public space, openness and intimacy, has been achieved by adopting an unconventional but commonsense floor plan. With a triple-height space to play with in much of the barn, placing most of the bedrooms and bathrooms on the ground floor with the main living spaces above, taking advantage of the high ceilings and the elevated views of the surrounding countryside, was an inspired step.

'"We really are too conventional generally when it comes to living space," says Samy. "We realized that if we were going to use the rooms to their full drama and enjoy the benefit of looking out across the fields then the automatic place for the living room was upstairs. People came into the empty half of the barn before it was done and said, 'You are going to leave this open, aren't you?' But actually the roof was so high up above that the proportions were wrong. But we knew from being in our bedroom at the other end of the barn that once you got to first-floor height the space was very pleasing and you could use the ceiling height without it being too daunting. And to have lost out on any of that would have been too shameful."'