So You Wanna Get Converted

Creating a new home from a dilapidated old building thats use was intended for a purpose entirely different takes a great deal of imagination, time, perseverance and foresight as well as a highly flexible approach to budgeting. But if you are creative and resourceful, the end result can be simply beautiful.


Whilst it is true that many disused buildings are in prime locations where new housebuilding simply wouldn’t be entertained – former industrial buildings are often in central urban areas, for example, whilst barns tend to be in idyllic rural settings – at the heart of every conversion project is a desire to create a unique home. The fact that you can also reclaim some of the VAT paid on parts of your conversion work also makes converting attractive from a financial perspective.


However, before considering a project, remember that the very essence of converting is to retain the building’s existing characteristics and individual features. This means working with, rather than against, the existing building – and dealing with structural as well as design problems as you uncover them. Old buildings – much more so than building from scratch – are notoriously difficult beasts to master.


Planning Permission for Conversion Projects

You will need detailed planning permission approval before you can commence conversion work. Don’t just assume that having seen an empty barn you’ll automatically be able to convert it.


Many barns, churches and other old buildings are listed, so as well as getting planning permission, you may also need listed buildings consent. If the building is in a Conservation Area, then there will be restrictions placed on what alterations you can make. If you are converting a church, you will also need permission from the church authorities.


In general terms, planners don’t like to see significant alterations to the external appearance of old buildings during the conversion process. As a result, the amount of new openings for windows and doors, and changes to exterior cladding might be limited, requiring a well-considered design scheme. In extreme cases you may also not be able to make any permanent interior alterations new additions might have to be reversible.

Get a survey

It is important to have any building properly surveyed before exchanging a contract of purchase. A survey is usually carried out by a building surveyor who is a corporate member of the RICS (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveying), but you can also use architects and structural engineers. You can gauge from this just how much work – and money – is involved and what problems lie ahead of you, although bear in mind that until you begin working on old buildings it is impossible to know exactly what you are going to find.


Choosing the Right Property for Conversion

Conversion opportunities are as diverse as the number of buildings around, though you will find that most available opportunities tend to be farm buildings. However, churches, chapels and schools do come on the market reasonably often and offer a good architectural challenge – as well as being in great locations, in the heart of communities; many farm buildings are somewhat off the beaten track.


Industrial buildings (from warehouses to petrol stations) can be a bit of a mixed bag, especially if the building has been contaminated by its former use – decontamination can be costly. There are, however, many examples of highly successful industrial conversions, such as old watermills and former railway stations. Smaller warehouses and former factories can also make for stunning ultra-modern homes. A big plus point of industrial buildings is that they are often very close to city and town centres, and up-and-coming formerly run-down areas.


Bear in mind that if you choose a badly located property, you are unlikely to ever get a good return on any investment.


Barn Conversions

Thanks to the strict planning rules that govern building new dwellings in the countryside, barn conversions are vastly popular. Many barn conversions may be carried out under what is known as Permitted Development.


However, though many planners are keen to encourage the development of these now-obsolete agricultural buildings, they do place strict constraints on how much you can alter the barn’s exterior.


• You cannot usually change the roof line – dormers are never acceptable and roof lights should be keep to a minimum and out of sight.

• Openings should be kept as they are, which means making the most of existing doorways and cart door openings.

• Original materials should be repaired wherever possible and if a replacement is necessary, similar types should be used – preferably reclaimed or handmade.


Though planners discourage the insertion of new openings in barns, there are often some existing apertures that can be used. Some barns are open-sided and can be g