In the beginning…
It all began with a spice cupboard and a library… perhaps an observatory… in a tall tower. How nice to live somewhere with family and friends, close enough to own and share these things!
As the idea took shape it was fuelled by other advantages, – a communal space for parties, film shows and meals; a big garden and orchard; mutual support for childcare and infirmity. Leo recognised the model as ‘co-housing’. We realised that it wasn’t a new idea, just the adaptation of an ancient one, brought up to date with handbooks, a dedicated website, and many other groups with similar ideas.
Our advantage was in having an in house architect and a core of family members keen to give it a go. In early 2011 we began looking for sites around Sheffield where Leo and Kate lived and worked. We looked at brownfield city sites (no land), fields (too expensive), ex public houses, and pretty soon decided farms or farm buildings best suited our needs. A few were investigated but none of such quality as Barnes Hall Farm where on request for more land we were offered a field!
We were up and stumbling!
August 2013 update…
Two and a half years later…. we are now the proud owners of a fine set of farm buildings, the field, and planning permission for 7 dwellings plus a communal space.
Looking back over the last two and a half years it seems as though getting to this point, the point where we own the site for our project at Barnes Hall Farm, has taken far longer than it should have done! After all, all that we needed was planning permission for our own (Leo’s) designs as opposed to the existing designs that already had planning permission attached to them.
Although two years later we hadn’t yet got the planning permission, or the ownership, we had however got solicitors hard at work as we formed the Open House Project Ltd Co. and we had entered into an option to purchase once permission was obtained. We also had a planning consultant who was utterly indispensible, steering us through the planning process with insight and determination and a historical buildings expert who understood the buildings and could make a case for our plans. We had an accountant who was helpful and encouraging and an insurance broker likewise. We had developed a Skype meeting procedure (no video) that worked with increasing efficiency. Members of the group acquired a working knowledge of all the areas that the professionals led us through. We found out about strategies for dealing with bats, new legislation affecting drainage and sewerage, the advantages of pellets or woodchips in a biomass boiler and much, much more.
There have been plenty of frustrations, mainly around the planning process. At each of the two meetings we had with the planners things seemed to go so well only to find that further down the line conditions were changing. Two more of the barns were suddenly brought to the attention of English Heritage, who, to their credit, listed them in double quick time. The archaeologists seized the opportunity for a monitored excavation which we will undertake in due course. The permission has come back with twenty plus conditions but our phased development has been accepted with even the archaeology not being required until the first dwelling has been developed.
Now we stand on the threshold of the next stage. Leo has hours of work ahead of him – preparing the detailed design and construction drawings being not the least of them. Our first task on site was the planting out of a pine tree. A happy occasion! The vendors came to watch and Mollie, our most senior member, gave it her blessing.
The next task is creating the composting toilet. It just gets better and better….
October 28th 2013
The composting toilet is a great success. The separation device, if taking some getting used to, really does prevent the smells. The pine tree has fared less well since it proved an attraction for the cows still using the field who considerably munched its lower branches. We have now relocated it and hope for the best.
The caravan on site, neatly tucked in between the cart shed and the wall, has already proved its worth. Several of us have spent nights there and the electricity hook up means warmth and lighting through the colder weather. A weekend with nearly everyone on site got the growing area cleared and a ladder of raised beds established which are being filled with soil and compost from every corner of the site as it is gradually cleared. There is much discussion about which fruit trees to plant in the orchard this winter. A major effort went into removing weeds from the farmyard and exposing the lovely sets. The weeds are already fighting back. The dairy has been commandeered as an impromptu kitchen where Leo has shown unexpected plumbing skills. Greg is bent on unravelling the surface drainage with timely imputs from Geoff.
Soon we need to address the question of our energy needs, renewables certainly, but which, where, when, how are questions we hope to answer before long.
June 29th 2014
Seven months on and we nearly have the answers to the renewable energy question. Our researches have led us to Ground Source Heat using the Open Loop system . It seems certain that we have an accessible water source under our feet that could supply water at a constant temperature which is then heated further and pumped directly to under floor heating. Another pump feeds water heated to a higher temperature into our hot water taps. The next thing we need to find out is how we return the cold water to the earth at the end of the process.
Winter and Spring are now over. The former was a pleasantly mild affair with no snow to speak of. Spring saw the arrival and erection of the Polytunnel which has been a haven of warmth in cold winds and a great environment for growing our (mainly salad) crops. We already have more lettuce etc than we know what to do with and are just waiting for our first tomato to ripen
Sheena has been busy getting phase one of the development underway, organising ground clearance and general tidying up. Neat piles of wood, stones, bricks, slates etc are springing up. We have been loaned a dumper truck (no brakes) and a mini digger (prone to tipping over) which Sheena and Greg respectively have mastered – more or less – and proved invaluable for such things as investigating the surface drainage through a series of carefully sited holes and excavations in the field and the track. Sheena chatted up the road surfacers on Bracken Hill and got them to dump their leftovers at the farm at the end of a day, so, with some serious hard work from our younger members, the drive surface is much improved. She has also been working her way through the planning conditions. One impressive result is the sample wall panels she helped John, a local craftsman, to create.
With the decision made on the heat source and a revised plan for the electricity installation possibly agreed, Leo should be ready to submit the plans for building regulations approval and we should be able to tell the planners that we have fulfilled all the necessary conditions for the development to start. No one is holding their breath. If we have learned anything it is that everything takes far longer than expected, not least because of the nature of the co-housing decision making process.
In the courtyard, the weeds have taken over again – we have a superb crop of clover, great for the bees and Polly noticed the full life cycle of the ladybird being played out many times over on a South facing wall. We have had a green woodpecker sighting in there and much evidence of the sparrowhawk picking off the pigeons. We erected an owlbox back in January after repeated visits from one, but he/she seems to have moved on .
The orchard has yet to materialise, so indeed have the chickens. The spice cupboard and the library seem like an impossible dream, but who knows, once we get started…..properly started……….
The new year is upon us and still there is little to show that we are in earnest apart from those tidy piles of stone, rubble, brick and rusting metal, oh, and the not quite so tidy heaps of horse manure, warm to the touch and hopefully breaking down into the perfect garden compost. Snow has been and gone and now we have gales. The polytunnel stands firm as a rock and is still a place of relative calm and warmth although there is not very much enjoying the conditions – a few greens, some lettuces and a fine showing of parsley – both flat leaved and curled!
We hope we have nearly cleared the planning hurdles that will give us consent to commence development. Their guideline time is already well behind us, but we have all had Christmas and New Year to contend with haven’t we? Northern Power Grid have turned up in force to discuss the plan for the electricity that will benefit not only us but our neighbours. We are now waiting for them to tell us exactly what the plan is!
Sheena has swept out all the buildings and covered entrances and exits with polythene in an effort to exclude the pigeons, she has strung hazard tape up steps and across doorways to ensure visitor safety and bought high viz jackets, rigger boots and helmets for adults and children alike.
We are ready to go!
Soon we will be able to tell our friends that we are finally underway and to book them in for working days, but …….we are not quite there yet!
Happy New Year!
More than a year on and a very busy year it has been. It was in January this year that the first unit became habitable. One of the things we had to do was to agree on the names of the various units and make the names official in the eyes of post office. We then watched as they gradually appeared on various online data bases. It was with some sadness that we realised we would have to relinquish any mention of Barnes Hall Farm in our address. In the interests of clarification and brevity it had to go. So now we have the unit name – e.g. The Cartshed or The Byre, followed by Bracken Hill, Burncross etc. No wonder the relief postman can’t find us!
Building work finally got underway last Spring, or rather a mixture of demolition, groundworks and stone walling. I think retrospectively we are quite glad that we started with one of the smaller units. For instance we needed scaffolding for the roof but it wasn’t intimidatingly high and we could stand on the ground to do a lot of the re-pointing of the stonework. Similarly the disasters were on a minor scale. When we had a pour-in of concrete that was missing the setting ingredient it didnt take that much scooping out!
As the work on the Byre progressed we came to appreciate our small band of expert workman – their patience with us when we wanted to learn and to lend a hand and their unfailing good humour. We also began to appreciate the beauty of Leo’s design and the need to allow his vision to shine through. The result is a comfortable, warm and welcoming building – distinctive but unpretentiousness, one small in floor area but spacious in its volume. The windows all along the south east facing side add to the sense of space. The patio and the orchard beyond feel like an extension of the inside and when the sliding doors are opened it all becomes one big room!
As well as completing the Byre we have done some of the groundwork for the rest of the project including drilling 2 boreholes. The big achievement was the electricity, a saga that rolled on and on, so that when Northern Power Grid and their contractors finally got going on site it was November and a dryish summer had come to an end. We had already dug our share of the trenches and the Archaeologist on site was witness to the fact that we turned up nothing of interest – not a single brooch or coin!
If we have learned anything it is that co-housing type development is not easy. There are the rewards of comradeship, or working together on a task and acheiving the common goals, but at times the processes can seem unduly lengthy. Discussion and agreement is the medium of progress and the skills required aren’t just practical ones (although strength, experience, and a work ethic count for much), but listening, trusting and caring for one another (and one another’s children) are equally valuable.
Finally the orchard has been planted with trees, recently we were tempted by the offer of some chickens but decided that the time wasn’t yet right. Maybe next year……
Nearly a year on and things have got moving again after a rather quiet summer, at least on the building front. A lot of consolidation took place and a certain amount of finishing off associated with the first phase, walls and steps were finished and a path that defines the orchard area and gives wheelchair access to the Byre. Chris, the joiner who put so much consideration and skill into fitting our difficult shaped kitchen, was taken ill and had to stop work. It took a while for us to accept we had to find someone else to put doors on a few cupboards, finish the skirting board, and put glass in the shower.
It was a good summer for produce. We were still picking raspberries in November and eating tomatoes well into December. Too many courgettes became large marrows overnight. Some were stuffed (not everyone’s favourite dish but we are working on them!), others eventually turned into chutney, and a few returned to the compost heap.
We extricated the caravan from its quiet corner and moved it alongside the Cartshed, across the orchard from the Byre. This has turned it into a playroom/ video suite for the kids which suits us all – distance , after all, lends enchantment! In the working week it provides a bit of a retreat for on site workers where despite its temperamental electrics it can provide an electric kettle, a heater, a soft seat and a table for the flapjack.
In November work on the next phase began in earnest and the roof covered in massive stone tiles was stripped, patched where necessary, felted, windows inserted and tiled by Christmas. in the New Year Travis Wainwright moved inside and insulated throughout to be followed by the plasterers and finally the painters (us) who have left the roof looking properly finished and beautiful to behold.
More recently work moved to the ground. We were pleased to see Chris Scurfield, the archaeologist again and finally give him something of interest when we began knocking down and digging in the corner of the barn where industrialisation must have reached the farm. Evidence of steam powered machinery for processing turnips etc, possibly threshing, possibly saw mill. We look forward to his report.
The internal dividing wall between unit 5 and the communal space is nearly complete. Slightly disconcerting that we now have this large enclosed room with no entrance! You wouldnt want to drop your phone in just as the final blocks are being laid.
The next big advance will be the slab! But with that come implications for the underfloor heating – the establishment of the system that will work throughout the development including a plant room and super insulated pipework that needs to carry the water for both systems, heating and hot water. This could well prove to be the most complicated bit of the whole project, or maybe not…….
Back in July a bigger caravan joined the site. Primarily a holiday home for Matt and Hannah but also possible temporary accommodation for Leo, Kate and family. They sold their house in Heeley and at the beginning of September moved into the caravan. At the beginning of April, having stoically survived the cold and the wet, they finally moved into their new home, now known as The Long Barn.
After one of two teething problems the ground source heating seems to be working well, the floors are warm and the temperature comfortable throughout the house. The interior is amazing, the different finishes on the walls, the height of the main space, the lovely long breakfast bar and the dining area with table seating for a dozen or more. The last thing to be finished is the stairs to the bedrooms and Leo’s office. That particular space is already in use as Leo gets down to the detailed drawings for the next phase. Work on this (units 2 and 3) is unlikely to get seriously underway before next year.
In the meantime, Dean is doing some tidying up jobs outside, his lovely stonework always a treat for the eye. We have recognised that the courtyard area needs to be cleared to create a more organised storage area and a pleasanter recreational space for children/residents. It’s likely the crusher will be recalled to deal with our ever increasing piles of stone.
Spring has finally arrived outside, the trees in the orchard are full of blossom, the seeds are sprouting in the polytunnel, the tomato plants (all 50 of them) are waiting to be potted on with their strings, the strawberries are in flower and the asparagus spears are emerging. Onwards and upwards!
A year of consolidation rather than forging ahead with more building work.
Leo, of course, had to submit the detailed plans for the next phase – the development of the building that will provide the next 2 units, already called the West Barn and The Granary. We waited for the thumbs up from the planners! There was also the finance to be found and although we settled early on the Ecology Building Society who were nothing but helpful, there were one or two hold ups along the way to our first draw down of funds, just completed.
Then there was the winter, then there were the contractors working on other jobs, then there was the need for the structural engineer to assess the soundness of the shell, the gable ends, the roof timbers etc which he couldn’t do until the asbestos sheeting had been removed… (the latter comprised the single skip load that has left the site as mentioned in the film we did for the building soc.) The only time imperative we had was to do with bats. Although successive bat surveys have detected fewer and none resident, (appparently they don’t go for asbestos roof covering), we did promise to incorporate several bat boxes in the outside walls prior to the roof removal and by the deadline of the end of March. We just about made it.
Now all that has been sorted it is looking like all systems go.
In the meantime, with the help of our neighbours we have had the drive re-surfaced which has enabled several to perfect their bike riding technique. We have planted 9 silver birch trees at the entrance (David Nash inspired). Kate has treated the quadrant of the courtyard outside their house to some imaginative planting, Polly has carefully nurtured a shoal of tadpoles in the pond, and, best of all, Dean has got going in the Open House. We have high hopes of that being finished in the next few months, ideally in time to provide refuge, should they need it, for the Connors who aim to move into the green caravan this summer. In time too, perhaps, for a Christmas party! The band is already practising in the Cartshed in the space it shares with the table tennis table. Joe’s football pitch is getting regular use and is maintained to perfection.
For the past few months the Open House has had resident Mistle thrushes. They built their nest on a beam and are on their third brood. They manage to ignore the building work going on below and I’m sure appreciate their 5 star accommodation – warm, dry, relatively safe and with Dean and Mantas for company.
Autumn 2019 saw work begin in earnest on the next 2 units (units 2 and 3). Travis Wainwright were appointed to manage and a team of roofers set to work. It’s a huge roof but a gentle angle with the added complication of a large glazing strip. The external was completed in the autumn and the plasterers finished off inside by Christmas.
Meanwhile, the Connors moved North in the summer of 2019 and set up home in the green caravan just in time for Luca to join Raymond as they started together at Ecclesfield Secondary school. Their possessions filled the middle room of the Cartshed so band practice and table tennis had to stop for the time being. With the completion of the Open house in the Autumn these activities could move in there. New Years Eve was a karaoke night with everyone taking part!
In early 2020 the Connors moved into the Open house which gave them more space and under floor heating. Matt created a deck outside from scaffolding planks surrounded by a border of large stones and pots with plants. They looked set to stay there until their house was finished.
Back at the build it was all about the demolition, the substructure and then the slab. In the New Year it became apparent that Travis Wainwright had over committed themselves and it was amicably agreed that they would withdraw from their managing role here and Dean took over. He has been the mainstay, with additional help from DW Carpentry (Dave and Anthony).
Then there was the Corona Virus. After lockdown was imposed we shut down briefly but soon it was clear that if Dean was working alone here it was not a problem and so he continued. As things eased off, work slowly got back to normal. Hannah, who along with Grace was shielding, at first found the situation at the forefront of things in the Open House very stressful, so in March there was house swap with the Connors going to the Byre and Greg and Sheila to the Open House. That has worked pretty well and will continue until the Connors can move in to The Granary, formerly unit 2. Such is the flexibility of co-housing! A word too about Ecology and Jon Lee who have been a pleasure to work with throughout.
Now the end is in sight. The Hackworthys completed their right of passage by moving into the Green Caravan in October. So far the winter has been kind and although predictions of ‘in for Christmas’ are looking slightly unrealistic it wont be long after until they are residents of The West Barn and then another few weeks until The Connors join them next door. Once again the quality of Leo’s design is apparent, supplemented by the chosen details of the owners to be and put into effect by our skilled and cooperative workforce.
The legacy of the build so far is a great mound of earth in one quadrant of the courtyard, piles of large stones , a shed full of timber offcuts, enormous cast iron columns (apparently originally used on the old tram system), huge beams and many bags of celotex and other building materials which are finding their way to the tip.
Outside we have made 5 new beds along the back of the sheds which this year grew potatoes, sweetcorn, squash and tromboncinos. We had a good fruit year with the yellow plums fruiting for the first time, a good crop of cherries and over laden apple trees. We did lose 2 fruit trees though – the Braeburn apple tree and the Conference pear.
It has been a difficult year for everyone but if the result is two fine homes that will carry this four hundred year old building forward for many years to come we are both proud and excited.