Farmhouse – Enduring legacy

Charlie and Gillian Hutchison reflect on the sudden passing of a close friend, who also happened to be the architect of their old farmhouse.

The Co Down couple first met Julian Leith after some wrangling with the planners. “We bought an old farmhouse 20 years ago, with four old stone sheds in the garden,” says Charlie. “With the house came a cabinet maker and a litter of six kittens! The cabinet maker was using one of the sheds (which eventually became our dining room) as his workshop, he’s since moved on although we do keep in touch. The kittens also found homes.”

The coupled eventually secured outline planning permission for a change of use of vernacular buildings, allowing them to turn the old dilapidated barns into houses.

Charlie jests the plan was to convert the outhouses to make a fortune. “While we didn’t make a fortune we did serial self-build on our property and we needed some expert guidance. That’s how Julian came in the picture.”

The farmhouse, Bailies Farm, was in good condition so they moved straight in and lived in it for nine years. In 2001 they tackled the first two barn conversion projects, Julian’s brain children, the year in which Charlie set up his own Health & Safety consultancy.

“Julian designed and supervised the building works, we had little involvement because I was really busy at the time and we knew we wouldn’t be living in the houses,” confides Charlie. “Julian insisted in using the old fashioned restoration techniques such as lime plaster inside and lime mortar for external joints in the stone walls.”


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The planning requirements stipulated that the renovations could not add more than 15% to the original size of each of the buildings, and thanks to Julian’s clever design the first house feels like it’s twice as big as it originally was.

The second conversion was easier because the barn was already large to begin with. Both barns sold quickly in the mid-2000s, which is when Charlie and Gillian tackled the third barn conversion. This was to be their new home and they moved in 2006.

Home run

“While we did not get too involved with the build process for the first two conversions, we had much more of an input in the design of this house,” says Charlie. “This time around it was different as we were going to be living in it!”

“For instance, Julian wanted the kitchen to be upstairs, so we would make use of the external sandstone stairs. Gillian put her foot down on that one! There was no way she was going to have to go up a set of stairs to get to the kitchen.”

Julian also wanted to give the large window, which was the original entrance to the barn, his signature chessboard look – lots of cross bars and panes of glass. “Gillian and I both felt one single sheet of glazing would suit the building better so we eventually persuaded Julian to redesign and he came up with what we have now.”

The wing of the L-shaped house is brand new, but was clad in the same stone as the original barn. “I think the house works especially well because there’s very little dead space. It’s a bit unusual in that we have a bedroom downstairs but in this day and age it’s what you’d call futureproofing.”

Gillian chose most of the finishes. “We had to get stonemasons to lay the kitchen floor as it’s made of large slabs of stone, which came from the roof ventilation system of a very old prison,” he says.

They also had to figure out how to support the roof, which was going to place a lot of weight on the old stone walls. “We had to get that right so we poured a reinforced concrete ring beam on top of the existing walls which took the load of the heavily insulated roof. We didn’t know whether to hide that or leave it, eventually we decided to let it show, which we think works well.”

The decision to leave the beams exposed to give it the vaulted look was the builder’s idea. “I knew the builder having worked with him on other jobs, he had carried out several restoration projects so I asked him if he would do our barn conversion, we worked closely together.”

Different strokes

Julian had a passion for old buildings but Charlie and Gillian had a much more contemporary approach and chose to put in more modern materials than the architect would have specified. Yet the couple was still swayed by Julian’s choice of natural roof slates, of the Bangor Blue type, and stone cladding in line with the existing barn.

“These are the kinds of things you can’t compromise on!” says Gillian. “Julian was a real character, passionate about old vernacular buildings and he knew how to convince us when it mattered. We regularly had differences of opinion but it always ended well. We became close friends.”

As Charlie and Gillian are currently selling the original farmhouse they lived in, Bailies Farm, with its 180 year old staircase, original cornicing and floor tiles, Charlie ponders whether the traditional style has much appeal to the modern day house purchaser.

“The farmhouse lay idle for a year and a half despite other modern houses locally selling well,” says Charlie. “Bailies Farm is a 2,800 sqft five bedroom house, it is 180 years old and has amazing character, it is on the market at £230,000, while three-bed bungalows with straight walls and uPVC windows are selling for £180,000.”

At the time of the build Charlie and Gillian had four children, three of them have since left the coop. “Our eldest son’s bedroom, which was next to the mezzanine, was reclaimed to make that open space upstairs much larger, we turned it into a games room.”

“Within four months of him leaving we had the partition wall removed; he left in September and at Christmas he had quite a shock, but he was quick to forgive us,” says the dad. “He likes the settee for lounging around and the pool table and darts board! The upstairs living room acts as a sun room in the day time and is very cosy at night.”

The house was kitted out with an oil boiler, which was the norm at the time, says Charlie. “15 years ago everyone had an oil boiler. We moved into the Barn in 2006, and a year later we found out we could get a grant for a wood pellet burning boiler and within four years it paid for itself.”

The upkeep is easy, he says, you give the pellet feeder a shake once a week and empty the ash can once a month. The hopper holds four tons of wood pellets and does require space, adds Charlie.

“We did run out of pellets once which lead to Gillian and my youngest son having to get into the hopper and hoover out all the fine dust which clogged up the screw – but that was my fault as Gillian frequently reminds me!”

Lived in

As is so often the case Charlie and Gillian realise they spend most of their time in the kitchen, something you might expect would have changed now that most of the children have moved on.

“We have a lovely sunroom with a beautiful aspect which we never use and we only use the dining room area on special occasions like Christmas when all the kids are back,” muses Charlie. “We just always end up in the kitchen no matter what.”

Charlie is very proud of his choice of one radiator downstairs, in the kitchen, as the ground floor has underfloor heating. “How else are you meant to dry tea towels?” he asks. “I was ridiculed at first but I was right to stick to my guns, it’s brilliant.” The upper floor is fitted with radiators. He also installed photovoltaic solar panels two years ago. “It was sheer luck that the one roof that was well positioned to take advantage of the sun, was the one that couldn’t be seen. I just don’t like the look of the panels but no one knows we have them which is great!”

He says it’s much better value to use the electricity the panels generate. “The scheme pays us to generate electricity at 16p/kWh which we can then use instead of buying electricity from NIE and any surplus we sell it back at 5p/kWh. It’s reduced our electricity bill by around £100 per month which is a lot but that includes the offices as well.”

Charlie says he has many fond memories of the discussions he and Gillian had with Julian, regarding the use of lime putty, the choice of slates and Julian’s signature wooden staircases to name but a few. “He always encouraged us to make up our own minds even though he may have had a different point of view,” says Charlie. “Julian was a unique character with a gift of being able to make you feel very much part of his projects, I never thought of Julian as the architect who designed our houses, which of course he was. I think of Julian as a good friend who was always there to advise, guide and help us build our dream home, with a designer touch!”

Build spec
House size: 3,420 sqft 
Land cost: £50,000 
Build cost: £220,000 

The next issue, Summer 2016, will be looking at another one of Julian Leith’s designs. 

The companies listed below provide products & services relating to this article.

ProfessionCompanyAddressTel No.Website
BuilderD Murphy & Sons Construction LtdNewry, Co Down
tel. 30838911
Plumbing and Underfloor Heating
Kane Group Building ServicesCastlewellan, Co Downtel. 020 3191 8257
Electrics
Adair Building ServicesBanbridge, Co Downtel. 97 533 433www.adairbuildingservices.co.uk
Spiral Staircase & BalustradesBallinliss Forge WorksNewry, Co Downtel. 30848694
Photograper
Paul Lindsay at Christopher Hill7 Clarence Street, Belfast, BT2 8DYtel: 9024 5038www.scenicireland.com

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About Astrid Madsen

Astrid Madsen is the editor of SelfBuild & Improve Your Home magazine. She previously held the same role in an Irish trade publication, before that she worked at the National Standards Authority of Ireland. She graduated with a BA in Urban Studies from Columbia University in New York and holds an MBA from the Instituto de Estudios Bursatiles in Madrid. France of origin, she now lives in Portarlington, County Laois, where she's taken on the task of renovating a listed building! Email astrid.madsen@selfbuild.ie

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