Sometimes the only way to create space is to add an extension. And in the case of Tom and Jeanette Mills this was their chance to give a modern twist to their 1950s farmhouse. Unfortunately, their vision for an innovative yet sympathetic design did not meet the planners’ criteria for building in the countryside…

The farmhouse was originally built by Tom’s grandfather in the 1950s and is of a traditional style, including five bedrooms and three reception rooms. The couple made substantial upgrades to the house’s heating system when they moved in a decade ago – installing a new boiler, fitting double glazed sash windows, insulating the roofspace, where there are two bedrooms, and filling the cavity walls with beaded insulation.

However, over the last few years their family size has grown, altering their lifestyle and how they use the property. In fact, the general layout of the ‘living’ areas was not conducive to modern family life at all. The children, who are all under 12, need space to play, do homework, watch TV or access the internet; but currently these activities occur in different rooms, which can either break up ‘family’ time or have everyone under each other’s feet because the rooms aren’t big enough for multi-tasking. Many families will empathise with this, because older properties were naturally built for a very different way of life – in this case, life in the 1950s.

Therefore Tom and Jeanette wanted a large multi-functional living space the whole family could use and enjoy; and where they could cook/eat with guests and then relax in an adjoining lounge area, rather than sitting at a dinner table all night. Like many families, they had considered adding a conservatory to the side of the property, feeling this would provide a bright, airy living space and a lovely view of the garden. However, when they explored their needs further, they felt there might also be scope for Tom to create a study area, rather than converting a bedroom in the roofspace, away from the rest of the family. As the children grow up, this bedroom will be needed by one of them, leaving the family with the space dilemma once more. If a study could be incorporated into the new living space, Tom would no longer be disconnected from everyone when he’s working. A two-storey extension rather than a conservatory seemed like the most logical and practical solution. It also provided the opportunity to create something unique for their property – one thing they didn’t want was an ill-conceived ‘stick-on’ extension, leaking expensive energy.

1950s Farmhouse Design

The property is situated on an elevated site with Slemish Mountain at the rear and a beautiful valley at the front. Maximising these views was critical to the overall design of the new space. The family is also lucky to have its own wooded area, which Tom’s grandfather planted when the house was constructed. They have used this free, natural energy source to fuel their stove, and wanted it to be considered when heating the new space.

The size and location of the windows have been designed for passively heating and lighting the building during the day, while large insulated panels will cover the glazing in the evening to conserve heat and energy. The first floor mezzanine area is accessed via a feature staircase and accommodates an open plan study area for Tom. It’s visible through a large void running the full length of the gable wall and keeps the space light and airy. Full height glazing to the void area helps partition old from new, creating a sympathetic buffer. The slot window is non-intrusive and provides additional light to the space.

Environmentally sound construction is of paramount importance to the couple so sustainable timber frame construction or SIP (Structurally Insulated Panels) with highly efficient insulation was put forward, along with natural reclaimed slates to match the existing roof and highly efficient, thermally broken, aluminium windows. The use of blockwork for the outer skin on the ground floor and cedar cladding on the first floor helps to unite modern and traditional elements. Timber cladding is a sustainable material and has been associated with many traditional buildings throughout Ireland and the UK. Its use here also helps to define the location, which is surrounded by a dense wooded area. Additionally it provides a modern statement without totally abandoning the style of the existing house.

The exposed internal supporting structure for the first floor mezzanine is all constructed out of Glulam (engineered timber) beams and posts. The laminated timber is as strong as steelwork yet gives a much more interesting visual appearance. Also the project has two highly efficient in-roof solar panels installed providing approximately 50% to 60% of the annual hot water usage of the house. As for the windows, while a triple glazed option was available, at the time it was too expensive to fall within the budget. Following a few tweaks, the plans were taken forward for planning approval.


The Architect describes the process.
Application and initial response: The project was submitted for planning in December 2008. Within six weeks the planning department issued a letter requesting amendments to the design. These included: a vertical emphasis required to all windows with large windows broken up with rendered piers, large gable glazing to be removed, cedar panelling to be replaced with render to match existing facade and the front slot window to be removed or given vertical emphasis.

It appeared that the planning department were pushing for a ‘safe’ extension that replicated the main house and followed very closely, the “Design Guide for Rural Northern Ireland” (DGRNI). This was exactly the extension that Jeanette and Tom specifically said they did not want. The architect and clients felt the plans submitted respected the principles laid down in DGRNI, adopting a traditional linear plan that stepped down with the site. They also felt that it had massing and traditional form which was visually subservient to the main house and utilised traditional, vernacular and natural materials in a sensitive manner. It was their view that the DGRNI makes it clear that it does not require or desire new buildings/ extensions to look like traditional reproductions and encourages modern design.

Resubmission: However, taking all comments on board, and in the interest of compromise, they adapted the design by inserting vertical glazing bars and re-orientating the extension so that the horizontal window was to the rear of the property – meaning Tom’s views would be of Slemish rather than of the scenic valley. The timber cladding was retained as fundamental to the design concept, as was the gable glazing. The application was re-submitted in February 2009 with a design statement.

Deferral: The planning department did not partake in any further communication and did not view the design amendments as satisfactory. The application was put forward for refusal without further discussion in April 2009. The architect and clients requested a deferral meeting and were thankful that this was accepted on the grounds that compromise could still be achieved. At the deferral meeting in May 2009 the planning department were unwilling to compromise on the majority of points, leaving Jeanette and Tom little room for manoeuvre. If they wanted the plans to be approved, they had to concede the use of timber cladding to satisfy the case officer. The retention of the modern gable glazing was fought for and eventually found to be acceptable by the planning department, although reorientated to the north westerly corner, negating some of the solar gain.

Approval: Received September 2009 on the basis of the deferral meetings.

Finding compromise for a modern design can be very difficult when the legislation seems to be restrictive – as it is in the countryside. This property is located in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty so many case officers are reluctant to embrace anything new or unfamiliar for fear of setting precedence. Modern extensions that reflect their time and place need to be virtually hidden from the roadside and neighbours if they are to be approved. Even with a design or environmental statement, the case officer must be 100% satisfied and confident that the decision they make won’t impact negatively on the environment. Of course, the Mills could have decided to appeal the decision with PACNI (Planning Appeals Commission for Northern Ireland) but this could have taken up to two years and diluted their interest and enthusiasm for the project. The family defended their initial concept and are satisfied that the revised plans will still fulfil the requirements of their original brief, but are naturally disappointed they won’t be able to fully realise the ‘modern’ extension they had hoped for. But, as Jeanette says, every cloud has a silver lining: “the delay in planning did provide us with more time to choose the right finishes.”

The Build

The Building Control plans were submitted in November 2009 and tendering went ahead in December 2009. By March 2010, the project broke ground. “Our architect really helped us ‘scope out’ the tender and we approached three building contractors,” says Jeanette. “We tendered for a main contractor lump sum contract, adding a 10% contingency. We also had separate items tendered (windows/doors, stairs, handrails), clarifying extras that were not included in the tender figure, e.g. light fittings, wood burning stove, floors finishes, external works such as paving/decking.”

As seen above, the Mills initially wanted to go for SIP construction but due to cost, they decided to choose between timber frame and concrete block . “After some serious thought, we decided that the concrete block would be more cost effective considering the rest of the house was of a similar construction. We could still achieve similar U-values in terms of the insulation properties as the build would be superinsulated.”

Invariably, some compromises needed to be made in order to keep on track with the budget,” she adds.

“Initially, we had planned to have a ‘feature’ staircase running from the ground floor into the mezzanine office made of steel and glass. After a lot of research it became apparent that we simply couldn’t do this within budget.” Their architect helped with a new design incorporating an open tread oak staircase with vertical timber slats running between the stairs and the ceiling of the living room. This retained the open and transparent feeling, allowing natural light to travel into the space. “We went with this design and it has worked superbly!”

Thankfully, living on site was straightforward: “As the extension was being built along the side of the main house, there was just a simple door opening between the two structures. There was very little interference with every day family life,” says Jeanette. “We were able to just close the door from the side of the house. We could easily see all the building work taking place from behind the external glazed door of our kitchen. This external door would become an internal door between the kitchen and the extension. We also had a very good building contractor who was able to foresee issues before they arose. Our builder had a very skilled team of people working with him. They were considerate and professional, and we always felt that we had overall control of the project. Sometimes you need to be led by the experts and we were happy to take advice.”

The Mills emphasise the need to get the right people on board from the beginning. “After our architect, we believe the single most important decision we made was choosing the right building contractor. We made the decision to go with ours based on word of mouth recommendation, locality, and the fact that we knew we could work well with him at our initial meeting when he made his first site visit.” Initial meetings are also vital, they say, in order to make sure the architect and builder can work well together. “We were fortunate in that no one tried to ‘push’ us down a particular route but simply offered advice, allowing us to weigh up the options whilst keeping as close as possible to the original brief.”

There is, however, one thing they would change. “I would get rid of the two radiators in the upstairs office,” says Jeannette. “Due to the extension being so well insulated, there is no need for them! Even when the outside temperature dipped to -15°C last winter, I never needed to turn them on.” In the end the Mills got exactly what they wanted – a home suitable to modern living.

Size before: 180m2
Size after: 230m2

Build spec

Cost: £57,000
Value: estimated to increase by £80,000
Construction: masonry, wet dash lime render on entire house
Insulation: 80mm rigid phenolic insulation board
Glazing: A-Rated timber-aluminium composite windows, double glazed argon filled and low-e
U-values: roof and floors 0.15W/m²K, walls 0.22 W/m²K, windows 1.3 W/m²K