:: home :: news :: our work :: us :: contact

Seeing the light

by Dominic Bradbury

Telegraph Magazine, 12 June 2004

'A barn no one else would touch with a bargepole became a weekend haven of light and space for a London family.'

See also:

Other articles about this project:

  • 'Samy Barn'. Featured project in 'Barns', Conran Octopus, 2004, by Dominic Bradbury, Mark Luscombe-Whyte.

'For Catherine and Richard Samy and their two daughters, India and Sky, it's a life of town and country. In the working week they squeeze into a small flat in central London. But at weekends and holidays they head up the A12 to suffolk and their converted barn not far from the coast, where they have all the space they could ever need. Space to roam the gardens and fields , for friends and family to come to stay. Space for India, aged five, and Sky, four, to ride their bicycles around the dramatic glass atrium at the heart of the barn when it's raining.

'Getting it right was a long time coming for the Samys. Drawn by the charms of Southwold and Aldeburgh, they began by renting a weekend place in Suffolk. Only later did they decide to buy somewhere of their own. After considering building a house from scratch somewhere near the coast, they soon realised that planning restrictions would make it difficult or impossible if they wanted a greenfield location. More than anything, they wanted to create a contemporary space within the shell of something old. So seven years ago they started hunting for barns, looking for something they could convert and shape to their own needs and lifestyle.

'"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 this.'"

'The triple-height, 16th-century barn had seen better days. The Samys found a 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," Catherine says. "But when we went in through the old cart doors and looked up, it was like this huge upturned ship. It was beautiful."

'Luckily, the listed frame was in good condition. The surveyors also found that the barn was sitting on solid, Tudor brick footings, suggesting that a manor house might once have stood on the site. As the barn had been used mostly for storing crops, there were two giant sets of doors on either side to let carts pass through as they dropped off their loads. In Victorian times, one end had been sectioned off with a timber partition wall and divided into two levels, animals below and hayloft above.

'The building had outline planning permission for two homes, which would have destroyed its character. Fortunately, the Samys began working the architect Geoff Pyle of Pyle Boyd Architects, and his associate, Ben Kilburn, on a new scheme that would preserve the barn's unity and character as one large, light, family home.

'"Geoff was a good listener and every meeting was an inspiration because he would give our thoughts a twist," Richard says. "We envisaged somewhere that could be full of people but where you could still find a space to be on your own. It was important that guests could disappear, read their books and not worry about anyone."

'Given their big financial commitment, the couple made the work a game of two halves. First they sensitively restored the frame, reclad the barn in cedar boards and replaced the corrugated iron roof with thatch. They kept the existing Victorian division at one end and within it created a large kitchen-dining-room downstairs and a master bedroom upstairs, with its own mezzanine dressing-room. Making use of the high ceilings, they installed a semi-open bathroom tucked below. On the ceiling they incorporated some internal thatch, between the beams and beneath a layer of insulation, to remind Catherine of the straw-roofed houses of her childhood in Kenya. On the other side of the barn partition they created a guest bedroom on the ground floor and a family sitting-room above, which took them to the central openings for the old cart doors which were glazed from floor to eaves on either side to create a dynamic combined atrium, hallway and stairwell.

'The other half of the barn was completed a full six years later, by which time Pyle was on secondment abroad and the baton was passed to Kilburn, now with Cullum and Nightingale. They added another guest room and children's bedroom on the ground floor and a large, dramatic main sitting-room above, partially open-ended to the glazed central hallway to maximise light flow. "One of my concerns was whether we could get enough light through the space without making the windows so obvious that the barn looked like a normal house," Catherine says. "But it has ended up as a space that is drenched with light, even on quite dull days."

'There is a natural balance between private and public space, achieved by adopting an unconventional but commonsense floor plan. With a triple-height space in much of the barn, the Samys positioned most of the bedrooms and bathrooms on the ground floor and put the main living spaces above to take advantage of the elevated views of the countryside. Perhaps most importantly, the character and charm of the old barn remains, the the sense of proportion and space and in the exposed timber beams.

'"If we were going to use the space to its full drama and enjoy the benefit of looking out across the fields, the living-room had to go upstairs," Richard says. "Friends came into the unfinished empty half and said, "You are going to leave this open, aren't you? But the roof was so high that the proportions seemed wrong. And we knew from our bedroom at the other end that once you got to the first floor the height was very pleasing and you could take advantage of it without its being too daunting. And to lose out on those views would have been unforgivable."

'"It's a real contrast to our life in London," Catherine says. "I don't think we could live in the confined space of the flat all the time. We'd go loopy. And it's lovely to have people for a weekend. The only drawback is getting in the car and heading back to London and metro land."'