Old cow shed transformed into a modern home

A pair of novice builders have transformed an old cow shed into a distinctive, elegant and stylish modern home

Douglas Gibb Photography
Douglas Gibb Photography

Moving from an elegant, beautifully decorated Victorian flat in the vibrant west end of Glasgow to a potential-filled but battered old cattle shed in the sticks is the kind of flight of fancy we all might contemplate in an idle daydream but never, when push comes to shove, actually do in reality. Heather Nevay and her partner John Burke are not like other people, however. They knew they wanted a lifestyle change – “a change of gear”, as Heather puts it – and this project, on the edge of a small village in Argyll, has most certainly delivered. “It was exactly what we needed,” she says.

It all began 13 years ago. They’d bought the land – an acre and a half of woodland – from the Forestry Commission in 2003 for £94,000, a sale that included the two properties on the site. One of these was a small timber-clad cottage that was being used as an office, while the other was a stone cow byre that was serving as a workshop. It was clear that it would take a substantial effort to make either building habitable, but the couple were undaunted. “It was something to get our teeth into,” says Heather. “It was very satisfying and creative.”

The first thing they tackled was the cottage, which they did up into a cosy one-bedroom, Scandinavian-style house, timber-clad inside and out. It was complete by 2005. “We rent it out now, but we were able to stay in it while we were working on the barn, which was so convenient,” says Heather.

The much larger cow byre was a far more challenging proposition, but the couple, hardened by the first renovation, didn’t flinch. Certain they knew what they wanted to do with it, they decided against hiring an architect. It was a gamble, but it paid off: “We had no problem getting it through planning,” says John. “They liked our scheme.”

The building, which was subdivided internally in three, sits on a gentle slope, so the three ‘chambers’ were all on slightly different levels. The highest of these is now the kitchen, while the other two are guest bedrooms. The living and dining area and the entire upper floor are all new additions.

Heather, who’s an artist, had no trouble visualising this arrangement, and was adamant that it was worth keeping the split-level layout. “I feel it adds definition and interest,” she explains. “We’ve made it so there are very few doors dividing the space – rather, a step or a turn of a corner indicates a new room perfectly.”

As well as dispensing with the services of an architect, the couple also decided to take on much of the construction work themselves. A local building firm, Paul Morley & Son, was hired to do the shell of the property, while Heather and John did the fitting-out work, with the much-needed help of a friend, Greg Yuill. It was an enormous job. “That’s why it took five years,” says Heather with a rueful laugh. “Had we known how long it would take and how hard it would be, we might not have done it!”

Tackling the plaster-boarding is recalled as a par­ticularly tough task, on account of the high ceilings – “a real test of endurance”, she calls it, admitting they sensibly used a plasterer for the final skim.

Heather acknowledges Morley’s flexibility. “I know the other building firms that we asked to quote were put off by our wanting to do so much of the labour. Most would rather do everything them­selves. I can understand that – it’s simpler for them.”

To complicate matters, some of the detailing was quite tricky – there are no skirting boards downstairs, for instance, and most of the windows (including the floor-to-ceiling ones) are frameless, making lining them up with the resin floor quite difficult to achieve – so it was crucial that the builders were motivated and understanding.

John, a structural engineer who works in the oil industry, played a big part in the success of the conver­sion, thoroughly researching the project to allow him to manage the build. Even so, it took fully five years between work starting on the barn in 2009 and it being ready for them to move into in 2014.

“We just took our time,” he says. “We were using our own money as we didn’t want to take out a mortgage, so we did the work as and when we could afford it. We saved a lot by doing so much ourselves, of course, but it was hard work, both the managing of the process and the actual labour itself. We did run out of steam occasionally, which is why it took so long, but we kept going – and it’s finished now!”

Despite their reduced labour costs they did, inevitably, go over budget, and have so far spent around £260,000 on top of the purchase price. Heather puts the blame for that on the beauty of the place (“It merited the use of good quality finishes!”). Applying the resin to the floors, for example, was not cheap: “Things like that are more expensive than you think they’re going to be, but we just took our time and saved up,” she says. In fact, if they were to do the whole thing again, they’d actually spend more: “I would invest in a better quality kitchen,” says Heather. “We chose a B&Q kitchen, a budget option, and lifted it by adding a resin worktop. We are pleased with it, but I wish we’d just bitten the bullet and gone for something slicker and more expensive.”

The resin flooring, although expensive, was actually also a financial compromise. They’d wanted polished concrete, “But it was way over what we could afford, so we opted for the resin instead, which has been great,” says Heather.

John would spend more too, by extending the driveway round to the front door. “At the moment we park at the back and come in through the kitchen, bringing lots of dust from the garden with us. The front door is hardly used, despite the fact that we designed the porch especially as a boot room, where we could shake off the worst of the outdoors, remove our shoes and come in to a clean house.”

The landscaping, clearly, is not quite complete yet. “We have been a little unmotivated with that because the setting is so beautiful,” Heather admits. “But we do have ideas: I’m thinking about creating quite an abstract scheme à la Charles Jencks, with some terraced lawn swirls around the house!”

Jencks, responsible for some of the most interes­ting gardens in Britain, is not the only source of ideas: Heather has also been powerfully inspired by the modernist masterpiece that houses the Burrell Collection in Glasgow and its views of the woods behind it: “We are used to admiring long-distance views from large windows. We’re trying to recreate something of the Burrell’s vista here.”

In contrast to the grounds, the interior of the house is complete. The scheme – minimal, with a slightly industrial edge – was largely dictated by the building, but it was also a reaction against what they’d been used to. The couple’s previous home, that Victorian flat in Glasgow, “was very cluttered, with a dramatic, period look”, says Heather. “We just wanted a change. We did the Scandi look for the cottage, which was fun, but the barn really suits this spare, modernist but still quite natural style that we’ve gone for.”

She stuck to a restricted palette of materials both inside and out – nothing more than glass, stone, slate and steel. “I didn’t want any natural wood because we’d used that so extensively in the cottage. And the house is set in woodland – I felt that was enough and wanted a bit of contrast.”

The barn has timber doors and windows but these have been painted white, as have the walls. This might change, though. “I would be open to using some quite dark shades in the future, once we’ve settled in,” she says. “In the meantime, the large windows bring plenty of colour in from the outside.”

Solar panels have helped to cut costs. “This is a two-season house,” says Heather. “Heating and hot water are free from April to October, but in winter we rely on the wood-burning stove back boiler and electricity for water and central heating.”

Powering the house was not straightforward, as John explains: “The integration of the solar thermal, wood-burner with back boiler, and electric back-up to provide hot water and underfloor heating was probably our trickiest problem. We are not on mains gas, you see, and we didn’t  want Calor gas or oil heating.” A septic tank was also installed: “There was no way round it.”

Many of the finishing touches around the house are paintings and sculptures by friends and artists they admire. Heather’s own paintings are almost miniaturist in style, shock­ing in the amount of detail they contain. She uses the symbolism of children’s toys and sinister figures to convey haunting emotions. There is a stack of new works in her studio, ready for her next show. “They’re not on display here – the scale is not right, nor the intense colours,” she says. “Maybe one day, one will go up, but I’ve not found the right place yet.”

She and John, however, have certainly found the right place, in this idyllic corner of Argyll.

You can browse the full article with more stunning photography on pages 138-146, issue 108.

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Words Alison Gibb
Photography Douglas Gibb