Barn conversions: from dream to reality

Readers reveal their experiences of transforming old, rundown farm buildings in rural France into stunning family homes

24 July 2019
By Brian McCulloch

Converting a barn into a house proved a very different experience for Sally and Michael St Leger than doing up a large house in a village centre.

They started looking for a project after finishing their first house and feeling they still had the energy to do a second.

“Finding a barn took longer than I thought,” said Sally. “The ones we looked at were not right because of their position, complete ruins or just not suitable.
“Eventually we found one up in the Vendée so moved from our first house in Haute-Garonne.”

They bought a cluster of three barns (photo below): one large, which had been used until fairly recently for livestock, and two smaller ones.

“Having so much space was intimidating at first but we started off with the idea of putting in a mezzanine, having a split-level living area and keeping original beams with enough height, because I do not like low beams, and went on from there.”

An architect friend gave them some ideas, including having a closed-in terrace, which is a feature Sally was happy with.

Builder Michael drew up most of the plans for the permis de construire with an architect, who helped them put it through the mairie. “While waiting for the permis, one of the small barns needed its roof done urgently, so we asked the maire if we could get going. He had a look and said we should start the work.”

For the first nine months of the two-year project, they lived in a nearby gîte, and left for “work” every day. Once they had one bedroom, they moved in, stepping into the work site each day.

“It is hard physical labour,” Sally said. “But it was satisfying, especially as work went on and we had ideas which we were able to implement as we went along.”

They spent around €250,000 on the conversion, and Sally said the budget was sometimes higher than expected. “For example, having a woodburner to heat such a large building meant a high-quality, high-output one which cost €4,000, not the €900 ones you see in the shop.”

She said they think successful projects need at least two of three things: time, skill and money – and ideally all three.

Now it is finished, Sally has started work again as an estate agent and Michael is getting established in the area as a builder, often inviting clients over to show what he can do.

“But I sometimes see properties and rush back all excited about the possibilities for them, so you never know,” she laughed.

We travelled from Australia every summer to create our perfect French property

Commuting every summer from Australia was how Lynne Thorsen and husband Bryan Rowe converted their French farmhouse and barn into a family home with all comforts.

They found their property in 2003 after holidaying in Lot-et-Garonne while living in London and being taken by the area.

“It was a small two-up, two-down farmhouse attached to the barn, with minimal running water, feeble electricity and no bathroom or toilet,” said Lynne.

“The kitchen had been updated in the 1970s but apart from that it was as it had always been, and it had been in the family for 400 years.”

After buying the property, the couple moved back to their home in Melbourne but came to France each summer for three or four months to work on it.

Bryan, an internet and mobile specialist, works a lot in Africa, so having a house in Europe made sense to save on travel.

He almost always had to work while they were over, so Lynne, who at the time was either pregnant or with small children, did a lot of the work herself with
her dad while her mum looked after the youngsters. They had professionals in to do big structural work, the electricity and plumbing, but did the rest themselves.

“It was hard work, but because we were over for three or four months at a time, it never seemed to be too much,” said Lynne, who works as a therapist.

“Quite quickly, we organised it so that we had one project to do each time we were over, and that worked well.”

The couple moved permanently to France 10 years ago, and their children are all in French schools and bilingual.

What was once the barn is now the main kitchen and living space.

“We made a decision to keep pretty much to the original barn layout, and so there is now a wall where the cow byres used to be, and the mezzanine is where the hayloft was,” she said.

“We have kept as much of the original stone and character of the building as we can. What I think makes it very special is all the light we get from the glass where the old barn doors were.”

The couple had their main surprises just after buying the house. “We were naïve, and had not thought of the fact we would have to have a septic tank,” Lynne said.

“It was just as the new regulations were coming in, so we had to have plans and inspections, but we left it in the hands of the professionals, to arrive back the next year and find it in a completely different place, not at all where we wanted it.

“Eventually we had to have it moved so we could put our pool in.”

Similarly, just after buying the property, they realised the roof was in worse shape than they had thought.

The main beams were good but all the supporting timber had to be replaced.

Now the house is finished but the work continues.

“I am busy in the garden, where we have a hectare,” said Lynne. “We still plan the work, one project at a time.”

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