David Grandorge enjoys Casswell Bank’s lean and sensitive renovation of a distinctive agricultural building type
The Covid-19 pandemic has begun to significantly impact our daily lives. The crisis, together with our exit from the European Union and the future impacts of climate change, has brought in to focus the fragility of our food supply, something that Jojo Tulloh (the client, together with her husband Stephen Brierley, of the building reviewed here) has been thinking about and acting upon over the last two decades.
Between 2001 and 2019, Tulloh kept an organic allotment in East London. Over this time period and beyond, she has researched and written on self-sufficiency (which is difficult) and how to cook with simple, local, healthy ingredients (which is not). Her means of cultivation and culinary attitudes were inspired by Patience Gray (1917-2005), an original thinker, gardener, cook and writer who, after an unusually peripatetic life, spent the last 30 of her 87 years in a more-or-less self-sufficient manner in a former cow barn in Apulia, southern Italy.
The existing barn, built in 1825, was purchased in dilapidated condition with permitted development approval to make a dwelling within the 45-square-metre footprint. A local joiner carried out the works for a budget of £140,000. Linneys (or linhays) are characterised by a hay loft above an open-fronted feeding room. The straw was kept dry while acting as insulation for the livestock below. Hay would be gravity-fed to the animals through slots in the floor directly into hay racks. In this building, cows entered from either side through two identical facades each composed of three diminutive arches. In the renovation project, a ground slab was cast to ease headroom beneath the arches, and a timber platform erected within the old stone walls.
In 2016, Tulloh and Brierley considered buying a house in North Devon where they could stay with their children when visiting close relatives, and which could become a permanent home in the longer term. During this time, Patience Gray’s provisional way of life was a preoccupation for them. While holidaying there that year, they chanced upon a photograph of an old stone barn for sale in a local newspaper – a two-storey farm building, or ‘linney’, of a type unique to the south-west of England, which was once used to house cattle over the winter months. This particular example was in a dilapidated condition and was unusually built into a sloping site. These issues notwithstanding, they decided, due to its remoteness, its proximity to astonishingly beautiful woodland and its echoes of Gray’s Italian dwelling, that they should buy it.
Subsequently they met Alex Bank of Casswell Bank Architects through his wife Laura, who co-runs a London restaurant, Towpath, and with whom Tulloh had recently researched future food movements in California. Bank and his design partner Sam Casswell were familiar with designing for remote locations, notably a reworking and extension of an existing house on Shingle Street on the Suffolk coast, and a very collaborative design process started.
Both parties immediately agreed that the exterior of the linney was to stay intact, eschewing the tropes of most barn conversions, now so common as to seem banal. The new thermal line was therefore set deliberately behind the massive 600mm-thick limestone walls on the two flanks of the building, thus preserving the autonomy of its diminutive stone arches and allowing the stone to be experienced from within the living space.
Stone set aside from the demolition of the existing spine wall that formerly supported the ridge of the roof was repurposed in the rebuilding and careful repair of the external walls. The line where they meet is just visible, giving the walls a palimpsest-like quality.
The plan and section, as we might expect in a small building, are very tightly calibrated. The linney’s original spatial form and orientation were reconfigured to make a double-height living space with a cooking space at its centre, on the north-east side, and a raised timber platform to the south-east, reached by an alternating tread stair. A series of smaller spaces – a bathroom and bedrooms – are inserted above and below the platform with varying degrees of openness to the main room.
The clients desired a less conventional, more open living situation, and enjoyed the notion of ‘camping out’, enabling family life to become more compact, more intimate. Consequently, one sleeping space is situated on the generous balcony of the upper floor with a more conventional bedroom beside it. The parents’ bedroom is situated in a slightly raised space built above storage that is open to the main room at ground level, an ensemble that was informed by the clients’ affection for artist Andrea Zittel’s pod housing in the Californian desert. It should be noted that the only casement door employed in the interior is that to the bathroom.
The new construction employs a lean palette of natural, breathable materials – locally sourced rough-sawn timber studs, joists, rafters and planks for the exposed superstructure, and compressed wood fibre insulation and lime plaster to line the inner face of the gable walls.
Generous daylight and ventilation are enabled through a facade of sliding doors on the south-west edge of the main room, a new opening in the gable and two opening rooflights. The mixture of top- and side-light from different orientations creates a number of joyous lighting effects throughout the day and through different seasons.
A building treated as found, then augmented with subtle additions, provides for rich spatial and material solutions that are rarely employed in new buildings. Here, the architects’ picturesque approach to furniture, structure and space is enhanced by the overall feeling of being close to nature while being protected from it. The marrying of a strong, yet generous client with an ambitious, yet thoughtful young practice has resulted in an architecture that is both precise and open-ended, serious and pleasurable.