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Barn-conversion rule change prompts design-quality warning

Final model of nick willson willinghurst estate nwa

Planning changes allowing the fast-track conversion of barns into homes could reduce design quality, architects have warned

From 6 April, permitted development rights will be extended to allow up to five new residential units – up from the current limit of three – to be created from an existing agricultural building.

Housing minister Dominic Raab said the change would help rural communities deliver ‘much-needed’ family homes.

But architect Nick Willson warned that while he backed the idea of barn conversions, the extension of permitted development rights could usher in a slew of ‘substandard projects’.

His practice, Hoxton-based Nick Willson Architects, hopes to be on site soon with a scheme to convert a large barn in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty into three new homes (pictured).

‘There is a potential to enhance and conserve underused buildings and offer a sustainable off-grid series of developments,’ Willson told the AJ. ‘Architects could really take the lead with the use of rich materials, low-energy design and the use of the natural environment.

‘It could be like settlements in older times – possibly having a skilled occupant in each house. Shared allotments could be used along with a sustainable water management system.

We would expect this to have a knock-on affect on the overall design quality of  proposals

‘Unfortunately, I doubt that a permitted development route will be able to enforce any of this, and the dwellings may end up being poorly built and designed, quite possibly without architects.’Tom Gresford, director of Oxford and London based Gresford Architects, while welcoming the policy change, echoed the warning about architects being bypassed.

’The fundamental problem with permitted development,’ he said, ‘is that it essentially encourages poor-quality architecture and building, especially from a sustainability point of view, by allowing owners to circumnavigate architects.’

James Lockwood, a director at Lincolnshire practice ID Architecture, said his practice had often found the planning process for barn conversions to be challenging, with planners ‘cautious to approve these applications, even before the proposed design is to be considered’ 

But he said he would question the motivation of a developer wanting to increase the number of dwellings from a converted barn, saying he would ‘expect this to have a knock-on effect on the overall design quality of proposals’. 

More positive was Matt Swanton, a partner at Hampshire based practice Re-Format, who thought the planning change could create more affordable rural homes.

’In our experience, the permitted development rights have tended to focus on small holdings and isolated barns for conversion. Where these can be subdivided into smaller clusters of new homes there is the potential to create more opportunities for lower-cost rural homes instead of expensive one-off rural houses, which is a welcome variation to the policy.’

David Nossiter, of David Nossiter Architects, predicted the rule change would lead to a rise in steel-framed barns being turned into homes, saying this would present ’some wonderful opportunities’.

He added: ‘I would have thought that the new rules would provide a boost for architects. As at present, the interpretation of the rules by planning officers, on a case-by-case basis, will impact on good design.’

Makower Architects designer Donna Macfadyen said that while building five homes rather than three allowed for the creation of small communities, this might not be as straightforward as it seemed.

‘If the building can be converted but the land around it for space to park your car is farm land you can run into issues,’ she said.

‘Accessing these properties can also be complicated. They can be at the end of a track that is not actually a public highway, for example, and that can trip you up at planning stage.

‘We’re always in favour of the creation of new homes in principle, especially if the policy allows for smaller, more affordable units.’ 


A disused piggery set in farm land taken through the planning system by Makower Architects

A disused piggery set in farm land taken through the planning system by Makower Architects

Matthew Walker, an architect at Zac Monro Architects, said the practice was in favour of policies allowing homes to be created for people who needed them.

He added: ‘This offers a great opportunity for smaller, more affordable homes to be created, giving future generations the opportunity to stay within their local communities.’

Tim Breitmeyer, president of rural landowners’ body the CLA, said farm-building-to-home conversions had been ‘a success story’.

Changes, including the increased ability to build homes by converting existing farm buildings, would ‘reinvigorate rural communities and help to build a stronger, more sustainable countryside’, he added

Tim Jones, head of rural at estate agent Carter Jonas, also backed the changes.

The ability to develop up to five reasonably sized residential units from an agricultural building, as opposed to three larger ones, will enable farmers to deliver more, less expensive homes, to the benefit of the wider community, while maintaining the value of the overall development,’ he said.

Rebecca Mushing, a planning solicitor with lawyer Wright Hassall, said that while permitted development still required an application to the council, it was generally cheaper and quicker than going through the full planning process.

The latest change was likely to lead to an increase in conversions, she added.

‘This particular development right is popular and we are asked about it on a regular basis,’ she said. ‘I anticipate that the amendments are likely to be popular with landowners.’ 

Raab added that the government wanted to be creative in meeting the housing needs of rural areas.

‘That’s why I’m changing planning rules so rural communities have more flexibility on how best to use existing buildings to deliver more much-needed homes for families,’ he said.

‘This is part of our comprehensive reform programme to build the homes Britain needs.’

The amended development right will allow existing agricultural buildings to be converted into up to three homes with a total maximum of 465m2 or up to five smaller homes each no larger than 100m2 or a mix of the two within certain parameters. 


Readers' comments (2)

  • Having done a number of part Q conversions we as a practice feel that they differ little from a standard development or conversion in terms of the landowners willingness to engage an Architectural practice over, say, plans drawn or a planning consultant. Some will go ahead without any professional input, just as they always have, and others will recognise that the potential for a stunning conversion is something that they can't achieve without help.

    Increase in unit numbers can surely only mean an increase in complexity and spacial awareness when dealing with 465 sqm of existing built form, perhaps requiring professional input more than ever?

    Regardless of unit numbers, the changes that need to come into play are clear policy parameters and definitions. I have had brick barns turned down, other brick barns approved, steel portal units passed and failed by the same LPA mere fields apart and timber framed '10 year' structures approved without question. What does 'suitable for conversion' mean? To a professional chartered architectural practice, the possibilities for even the crudest steel portal form are endless!

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  • Couldn't agree more with the above. Definition of parameters is what's really needed and perhaps a change of mindset at LPAs where instead of looking for any reason to refuse, an encouragement of good design and creative use of space would be better suited.

    We had one refusal based on 'features not being necessary for the conversion of the building' so a stripped back (bland) scheme was submitted in it's place and subsequently approved. A good scheme within the 'rules' turned bland due to a desperate resistance by this particular LPA. Shame.

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