Sometimes houses become lost in time. In East Anglia, where agriculture is a major part of the region’s economy and the population density is low, it is not difficult for a house to be forgotten by the passing of years.
Although seemingly nothing special, this 18th century farmhouse, lived in over the centuries by subsequent generations of farming families, has survived virtually intact, with only the most minor of changes and updating to provide simple basics: indoor plumbing, elementary drainage, and eventually electrics.
Properties like these often reach a critical point in their history where they eventually cost too much for the incumbent farmer to fix and are given up for sale, rented out cheaply to farm labourers or abandoned altogether. For those that survive, it takes someone with vision to be able to see through the years of dereliction and decay to realise the underlying potential. Where this property is unique is that it avoided the sometimes inadvertently destructive ‘improvements’, led solely by the owners’ or tenants needs, with little thought to the character and fabric of the house itself, which many older buildings suffered in the later part of the 20th century.
The innovative and dramatic conversion of this farmhouse involved major structural repair and internal re-configuration, a stripping back the layers of utilitarian modifications to give the house a renewed lease of life. The result, in partnership with our adventurous clients who returned to the U.K. from many years living and working in the Middle East, is the creation of an eclectic but modern take on a very traditional building form.
The original concept was for a separate ultra-contemporary ‘satellite’ kitchen-dining room to be added on to the main building, connected by a glazed bridge giving views to the spring-fed pond as well as across the seasonally changing fields and woodland. The natural spring on the property not only lent its name to the farm from the outset but has played an historically important part to pilgrims passing this way over past centuries. Several items, identified by archaeologists as ‘tokens’ in payment for fresh drinking water, were discovered during the refurbishment works, as were intriguing apotropaic marks in several places throughout the house, apparently as protection against witchcraft. It is believed too that several large stone elements in the structure of the building may have come from an ancient priory building in the vicinity.
The costs for the bridge and satellite eventually ruled this idea out and led instead to a re-focussing on the available space within the original building. It was decided to remove all the lightweight internal partitions that had been added over the years to create a number of bedrooms on the first floor and to pare the whole upstairs back to its original form. This enabled the creation of one large bedroom and a large bathroom at the opposite end of this floor with a dressing room-cum-landing in the middle. Beyond the bathroom an additional walk-in wardrobe was created with washing and ironing facilities incorporated.
The ceiling was opened up to the rafters and the existing oak structure has been exposed throughout the house together with the steel brackets used in the repair of the building. The entire property had to be re-roofed and a ply sheet was added to give additional strength above the rafters.
At ground floor a similar opening up to the original brick walls gave rise to a large sitting room with a small office off to one side, over the top of a semi-submerged cold store. This latter was reconfigured to give access from within the house and converted for use as a cellar. A dining room sits centrally with a large breakfast room and kitchen at the opposite end of the house. Other areas created include a back hall ‘snug’ and utility rooms.
Formerly a house with a confusing warren of poorly partitioned rooms, the house has become one of fewer, better sized rooms, flowing together harmoniously in an interconnected manner. The walls, stripped back to mellow traditional red brick or plastered and painted in muted tones, sit well with the exposed timber structure and are a constant reminder of this building’s heritage.
The house has been heated with a ground source system and the original but failing earth and pantile floor on the ground floor has been replaced with underfloor heating set in a limecrete floor. This is a breathable, sustainable construction material utilising a recycled glass substrate and a low cement content for the screed mix. A drainage trench was also dug around the perimeter of the house to resolve a previous damp problem.
Water is still supplied to the house from its own spring, as it has been since it was built on this special site centuries ago. However it now has the addition of a new filtration system to sift out any potential contaminants. The large pond, cleared and renovated, has also been transformed, into a natural swimming pond, and work continues on transforming and renovating the outlying barns to further accommodation.
Projects such as this are often most successful when there is an harmonious understanding in the client-architect-contractor team that has the best interests of the building itself at heart. Our clients, one of whom is an interior designer, were clear on their desires, supplying an illustrated vision statement for consideration and reference, but were also flexible when the building itself or the costs of certain elements required it. The result is a home our client can be proud of and an historic property that has not only been saved for the future but, like a diamond in the rough, has been enhanced to reveal its magnificence.
Breckland District Council
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