Innovation in the Henhouse

PUBLISHED: 13:35 22 October 2007 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 February 2013

The living space is 15.4m (50ft) by 6m (20ft)

The living space is 15.4m (50ft) by 6m (20ft)

When Jennifer Newman made the move from London to the Somerset/Wiltshire border with her partner, Bernard Rimmer, little did the couple know how much their lives and careers were to change. For as Jennifer could not find the right type of furnitur...

When Jennifer Newman made the move from London to the Somerset/Wiltshire border with her partner, Bernard Rimmer, little did the couple know how much their lives and careers were to change. For as Jennifer could not find the right type of furniture to suit their new home - a converted chicken shed - she set about designing her own. And she did this so successfully that her Groove Table and Cube Stools outside furniture was a finalist in the 2006 Grand Designs magazine award for Best Garden Product. She has also exhibited a new product at Liberty and has started exporting to the US.

But, ironically, this unexpected success means that the couple are having to uproot themselves once more and return to London to concentrate on the new business - but, having rented out their property, they are leaving behind a very different home from the one they bought.

It took two years for Jennifer to find the right plot of land on which to build a contemporary house. "None of them pressed the right button until I came to Gibbs Barn," she says.

Not many people would have shared Jennifer's vision, as what she and Bernard beheld was a 1950s chicken shed, empty for 10 years and made of brick and stone. "Basically an L-shaped industrial building," says Bernard, a consultant in innovative construction. "It had stone gabled ends and dado walls a metre high on the right side, plus it was timber-clad with a timber frame above and timber trusses. The whole thing was topped with a black crinkly tin roof."

However, Jennifer is an artist (specialising in abstracts) and her decision was instant, based as it was on the near-280 sq m (3,000 sq ft) of space it offered and the fantastic views of the countryside. That was back in 2002. The couple bought it for £160,000, but it took another five months to get planning permission and then a year to rebuild.

"The planning permission took a bit longer than we had anticipated - we had thought about three months - but our local council was extremely co-operative in backing our contemporary ideas," says Bernard. "In fact, they improved the building design by insisting that certain areas of stonework were kept fully intact. Planning officers usually come in for a lot of stick but our experience was good."

"But it's far more difficult to rebuild using an existing structure than it is to build from scratch," says Jennifer. "Far more expensive too."

What also made it even more of an expensive exercise was that the couple, who wanted something strongly contemporary, elected to keep the building single-storey with a five-metre apex - this for the resulting 'wow' factor.

In the rebuild the couple managed to combine original stone walls, pantiles and timber trusses with modern materials such as polished concrete floors, glass pivot doors and a black steel roof. The huge glass doors are, in fact, the biggest pivoting glass doors in Europe. The large open spaces were made possible with the aid of a hidden steel structure enabling them to create full-height windows throughout. All the initial walls were finished with shadow gaps and the timber trusses are all exposed.

Using Domonic Teversham, a building company from Blandford Forum, the couple first had the building stripped back to the stonework, then took the roof off and set aside the timber trusses. "We had to build steel columns onto new foundations then place the timber trusses on top of the steel columns in such a way as to keep the trusses exposed," says Bernard. "We wanted the steel braces in the roof to be hidden."

The rebuild combined the original stone walls and timber trusses with modern materials such as polished concrete floors, glass pivot doors and a black steel roof

Domonic Teversham did the basic groundwork such as laying the foundations, restoring the brick and stonework and installing the steel columns; then the couple employed separate companies for such jobs as installing the huge steel windows, replacing the timber cladding and creating the complicated structure of the roof. "It's complicated because it is lined with plasterboard so had to be ultra-watertight," says Bernard. "We had to have a double roof with a tack tray - that is, a galvanised steel tray over the purlins. That was completed with plywood above, onto which is fixed a soft steel roof. This soft steel is an alloy which is like lead or zinc but comes in rolls. It is put through a mangle to turn up the edges to form little u-shapes and then each piece is placed next to another and the edges turned over with a little hand-tool."

The result is a powder-coated galvanised steel roof forming a series of little ribs. "We kept it black to replicate the original, which Jennifer quite liked," says Bernard.

Inside, the building has been divided into a master bedroom with two en-suite bathrooms and two dressing rooms, another bedroom, Jenny's studio (which could be turned into two more bedrooms), a study for Bernard, another bathroom, a kitchen-living area, a utility room and a hall.

"The idea of having two bathrooms attached to the main bedroom is fantastic," says Bernard. "It means when you wake up in the morning there's no decision as to who goes first!"

The flooring is all of polished high-quality concrete, six inches (15cm) thick, into which the underfloor heating pipes are embedded halfway down. "Our underfloor heating is quite different from the norm, which usually consists of a thin screed floor with the pipes close to the surface," says Bernard. "We had to bed the pipes well down or the concrete would crack. The floor acts like one huge storage heater. The way we heat the water is very sustainable. Power stations have to keep the turbines going at night and have to dissipate the surplus power through the cooling towers. This is very wasteful and is mitigated when night-time electricity is used, as in the barn. The benefit to the consumer is a much lower cost for this night-time power, about a third of the daytime cost. This is a true win-win situation. The environment gains and the consumer gains too."

He adds, "Polished concrete floors are very beautiful things to have and very sustainable. You could call them the modern stone as they are made of local materials, produced locally and are very cheap. All our flooring cost only 5,000."

He continues, "Rebuilding this place was very labour-intensive because of the design and its minimalist nature. There are no skirtings or architraves, only pivot doors which are huge, as are the steel windows. Taking an old property and making it contemporary is extremely expensive. Although it looks simple, the construction was very time-consuming."

Trade Kitchens of Dorset supplied the white MDF units and there is a huge black-topped concrete island by MASS Concrete, measuring some 3.6m (12ft) long and 1.5m (5ft) wide.

"We used to live in Battersea and wanted a place big enough to incorporate a studio," recalls Jennifer. "This was the nearest place at the price we could afford. I thought I wanted to buy a plot and build something very contemporary with a lot of glass, but it dawned on me that even if I did I probably wouldn't get planning permission. So we decided it would be better to renovate an old building and as soon as I saw this one I knew it was right."

The couple spent many long days visiting the site. "It was quite horrendous - the local petrol station became our temporary bathroom," says Jennifer. "We never seemed to have much opportunity to wash as we would be on site all day and get back to our B&B places very late."

"Pulling down and rebuilding is the most expensive way to create a dwelling," adds Bernard. "It would have been so much cheaper to pull it down and start again."

To see more of Jennifer Newman's contemporary furniture design visit or call (01985 840531. For more information about Bernard Rimmer's construction innovation consultancy visit


Trade Kitchens

MASS Concrete

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