Rob Lea had always wanted to design and build his own home, and convert an old barn, so when the opportunity came to do both – using reclaimed materials – he jumped at the chance
TEXT Roseanne Field IMAGES Rob Lea
Self-confessed “serial refurbisher” Rob Lea had dreamed of becoming an architect and designing and building his own home since he was a young child. It’s therefore no surprise that he’s undertaken several refurbishment projects over the years, alongside his previous job in an architectural office. Most recently, he converted an old pub to a house, having made a deal with the owners who were struggling to sell it after a few bad years in business. “It was a huge project for me, doing everything on my own, but the finished home was great,” he says. “Plus we had a good few parties before I converted the pub area, and I retained a games room complete with bar, pool table, juke box and fruit machine!”
Despite having undertaken some hefty projects, Rob, who now works on car dealership design, still had an itch to scratch – he had always wanted to convert an old barn. So when an 1826 farmhouse complete with barns and fields came up for sale he couldn’t resist. “It had never been on the market before,” he explains. “It had been in the family since it was built, I bought it from the last descendant.”
The farm was well-known in the village of Nether Heage, just north of Derby – “it was the dream home for a lot of locals,” Rob admits. He’d bought it with his partner, and their plan was to live in the house while they converted the three barns to holiday lets “before living the good life with alpacas, pigs and sheep!” Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, with the relationship coming to an end and Rob therefore decided to sell the house and attached barn, keeping two barns and the field for himself.
With the sale having gone through, Rob was ready to obtain planning permission for his planned works – to convert the larger barn into a three bedroom holiday let and demolish the smaller one so he could build his ideal home. He had previously obtained prior approval for the work he and his partner had intended to do on the three barns (conversion to domestic properties under Class Q Permitted Development).
He then put in an additional application to account for the change of plans. “I did all the applications myself and they went through smoothly,” he says. “There were no problems or objections whatsoever. They requested details of planting, access etc., but didn’t make a single comment on the design.”
In fact, not only did Rob make the applications himself, he even did the designs and drawings himself. “I literally started off with rectangles sketched out to get the size and proportions, and then just continually tweaked until I was happy with it,” he explains. “I use CAD all the time so it was easy for me.”
He had to make one further alteration, where he’d missed out a sunken area where a hot tub was to sit, but a simple additional application soon rectified the situation. The only conditions set by the local authority related to what Rob refers to as the “usual” things, such as biodiversity, sample panels, and access.
With everything in place following the change of plan, Rob was ready to begin work. He had already extended the drains from the back of the main house to the barns before the house had sold, so that was one less thing to worry about. An unusual quirk with the main electric supply worked in his favour: “The mains feed for the street runs underground alongside my property, but at one point it actually kinks into my garden area – nobody knows why,” he says. “So it was a simple tee off the feed without the need for a road closure.” He decided against connecting to mains gas, and therefore the only other supply to sort out was water, which required temporary traffic lights while it was extended from the road.
Although connecting to utilities can be notoriously difficult, Rob says he was “pleasantly surprised” by how good the suppliers were to deal with.
Work started onsite in January 2019, right before what Rob says was “the wettest February for years. He adds: “We were breaking the ice and pumping out the excavations every morning.” Despite this, he says that once the groundworks were finished everything went smoothly.
The build itself was “pretty much” finished in August, which Rob credits to his builders. “They were fantastic. Every guy was professional and great to work with.”
However, things slowed up slightly when it came to getting the interior ready. “It went well until it got to drylining and plastering,” explains Rob. “We lost time at that stage, which had a knock-on effect on the other trades.” The work being behind meant he lost allocated time slots with plumbers and electricians so he admits those aspects took longer than they should have. “But I was perfectly happy living in the middle of my field in the mobile home,” he says. “I might have been in more of a hurry if I was paying rent somewhere.”
The house was built to effectively be a larger replica of the demolished barn it replaced, and Rob therefore reused as much of the materials as possible. “The stone was from the old demolished barn, but quoins, heads and sills were sourced from a local quarry,” he says. The Staffordshire clay roof tiles were reclaimed from the barn, while any additional tiles required were bought as and when, and were also reclaimed (with the exception of ridge and tile-and-a-halfs).
In order to remain in keeping with the traditional stone building, Rob installed mid-grey aluminium windows. “I thought the typical anthracite would be too sharp and stark,” he explains. “The mid-grey is softer and goes well with the warm stone tones.”
Any materials that were required were ordered through the contractor, who Rob had hired on a ‘labour only’ basis. “I was reassured that I could check the cost of all materials and didn’t pay any mark-up or VAT upfront,” he explains. However, he almost always found the price the contractor could get couldn’t be beaten, and so “even materials I needed for my own use, not installed by him, he let me put on his trade account and invoiced me.”
The right look
When designing the home Rob wanted to create the perfect balance between making it “look like it had always been here – as modest as possible from the road, but a bit more imaginative on the unseen elevations”.
The old barn was single storey with an open front; Rob’s new house is two storeys, but he kept the height as low as possible so it didn’t impose on its surroundings too much. The front is glazed to replicate the original open front, but has three openings instead of the former two. He’s proud of the final product, and the fact that “it never really changed from what I drew on day one.”
The gable end, which isn’t visible from the road, is fully glazed top to bottom. Rob installed bi-fold doors here which lead off from the kitchen/dining area, while the master bedroom above has a Juliet balcony. He wanted the house to be “light, bright and simple,” with the exception of the two bathrooms which he describes as “unexpectedly dark and opulent – I like them being so different to the rest of the house.”
Designing the 200 m2 house himself meant Rob could focus on the finer details. He knew he wanted to include a sunken hot tub area, which he achieved by excavating a part of the hillside and building in a dry stone wall. Another priority was making sure the Christmas tree would have a good spot! “It sits under the open staircase and is visible from everywhere,” he explains.
The house has an open entrance atrium, with the rest of the downstairs space leading off it. “The spaces are nicely proportioned without feeling too open,” Rob explains, adding “I wanted defined spaces.” He plans to install two large sliding doors so the lounge, with its log burner, can be closed off during the colder winter months.
The master bedroom is accessed via a glass bridge, another of Rob’s more specific design inclusions. “Firstly, I wanted a talking point, which it certainly is!” He also wanted to leave the atrium as open as possible to allow views right up to the ridge when entering the property.
Internally Rob wanted a “rustic and industrial look but without being twee,” he says. “I wanted to give the internals the feel of an old barn.” Achieving this included cladding two walls with stone, using neutral paint colours such as white and a golden sandstone, and cutting up flagstones to use as windowsills. He also installed bespoke kitchen units, and a bespoke steel staircase with chunky oak treads, made by a local steel fabricator. The fireplace features a cast in situ concrete surround which the installer built for him.
As the house isn’t connected to mains gas, Rob installed a ground source heat pump, which he says “it seemed the obvious solution when you have a field.” What he hadn’t realised is that under the soil it’s solid rock, and it took a lot more work – and money – than he had anticipated. Nonetheless, he says it’s “great” now it’s installed and working, and he loves the thought that the underfloor heating and hot water ”come out of the field.” Rob’s also installed an MVHR system, confessing he’s “a bit of a fresh air freak!”
While he wasn’t overly focused on installing sustainable features – “I’m not an eco warrior,” – he says he was “happy to invest in anything that will become economic in the long run.” The house is therefore insulated to a much greater extent than Building Regs require and he reused materials from the original barn wherever possible. He has “a good few years” supply of logs for the log burner from the trees that had to be cut down for the build, and any spoil from excavations was spread over the field and recovered with soil.
Although Rob had intended to work on both the house and barn at the same time, the barn naturally dropped down the priorities list. “I needed to concentrate on finishing the house first,” he says. “It’s been re-roofed, gutted inside, and I’ve nearly finishing pointing it up.” With the house now pretty much finished he plans to pick up work on the barn again, which he says won’t take as long as it will be done to a much lower spec.
Now the house is complete, Rob says he’s particularly pleased with the internal stone walls. “The two-storey one in the hallway is a real feature, but it took on average two hours per course to lay, with a total of 32 courses,” he explains. “That doesn’t include finding the stone, splitting it, sorting it, moving it down to the house or pointing it. I won’t be giving up my day job any time soon!”
Overall Rob couldn’t be happier with the finished result, although admits he “always has projects on the go” and hasn’t “sat down long enough to appreciate what I’ve got”. Nonetheless he says the finished house is a “beautiful building. It sits will with the existing farm buildings, and it’s incredibly bright and spacious.” Now he’s installed the hot tub, he can “wind down and appreciate the beautiful rural location I live in, just surrounded by fields and sky. And my alpacas!”
So is another project on the horizon any time soon? “Maybe,” he confesses. He already has ideas to build another house into the hillside at the top of the field, with a sedum roof and a full glass front to take in the “stunning” views. “But that’s after I’ve finished the barn, and had a bit of a rest. And a couple of holidays!”