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Barn conversions: Planning & Class Q permitted development rights [2023 update]

What's your best bet for creating a brand new home in the country? It could well be converting a barn - we explaining how your permitted development rights can make that possible

6 January 2023
9 minutes read

Do you have a barn that you would like to convert into a residential dwelling? 

This could be less of a daunting process that you may think. 

Before we go any further, it is important that you understand the intricacies of the planning legislation and policy you will need to take full advantage of in order to breathe new life into a disused or unloved barn or agricultural building.

In this article, we will explain the basic principles of Class Q permitted development rights and take you step-by-step through the extensive criteria that your barn will have to meet to qualify for conversion under these rights. 

We will show you how to take full advantage of all of the options available to you to convert your agricultural building into an extraordinary and architecturally outstanding dwelling.

Now let’s get to it...

What is a barn conversion?

A barn conversion is where you take an existing but disused barn and turn it into an office, new family homes, holiday let, B&B or even studio space for artists and photographers. 

Unlike a new build project in agricultural land or green belt land where you are most of the time starting from scratch, having an existing structure means most of the core elements of your soon-to-be converted barn are already in place. You can utilise the outer walls and the roof of your existing barn to create an area that can be cosy, spacious and easily filled with natural light. 

If you're inspired by this article and want to learn more about barn conversions, contact the author to discuss your project.

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Why are barn conversions so popular?

Barn conversions are becoming more common in the UK, and can be a really great investment with converted barn prices soaring.

Surprisingly enough, a barn conversion presents the opportunity to create flexible living space that can adapt to the needs and demands of modern family life. So, if you’re looking for somewhere to convert, raise a family and then sell for a sizable profit, barn conversions can be a great investment for you.

Besides, barns are often in rural areas, so if you’re looking to live away from city life but still want an existing structure with a track leading to it and some form of foundation, a barn can be great. 

Here’s another way to think about it: architecturally barns can also be outstanding structures, and their conversion can create the opportunity to design a contemporary/modern dwelling that retains agricultural design and style elements. 

For example, you can convert stone barns or wooden barns, rustic barns, traditional barns, timber-framed Victorian barns and modern agricultural buildings by using the original materials in a way that honours them and appreciates them. 

Because barn conversions offer a wide range of opportunities for transformation, your architects can work to the specific shape of the building, and if you’re the one who wants to start the process and owns the barn, you can have whatever design you want in the barn. So, you can have your barn conversion tailor-made for you, your needs and your requirements. 

But that’s not all… Changes in legislation over the past decade have made barn conversions easier to build and give owners more freedom and less red tape. We’ll go on to discuss this later, but there’s never been a better time to buy and convert a barn - or finally do something with a disused barn on your property.

Class Q permitted development rights for barn conversions

If you’re looking to convert a barn into a house, the good news is that most of the barn conversions fall under permitted development rights. This means you are not required to submit a full planning application, which is one of the main hurdles you must tackle during the traditional planning process.

In essence, Class Q permitted development rights seek to speed up the planning process and get new homes into the system at a much quicker rate than the traditional planning process. The rights present a fantastic and unique opportunity to repurpose a disused or neglected building into something extraordinary. 

All you need to do is submit a prior approval application to regularise the conversion of your barn to ensure that it is both legal and that the council is fully accepting of the proposal. Therefore, it is essential you receive prior approval from the local planning authority before you proceed with any works on your barn conversion. Failing to do so, could create problems for you later on down the line. 

In short, prior approval for a barn conversion allows the local planning authority to consider the proposal and their potential impacts on transport and highways, noise, contamination, flood risk and how these could potentially be mitigated. It also covers the walls, windows, roofs and materials of your agricultural barn conversion. The local planning authority has 56 days to assess your prior approval application.

Just to be absolutely clear, although Class Q falls into the wider set of permitted development rules, the prior approval part of it is not optional. You always need written agreement from the council before you can even begin to think of starting works that would turn a barn into a different use.

How to make a prior approval application for Class Q

Permitted development rules for barn conversions are complex and full of little nuances, occasionally making it difficult to meet all of the necessary requirements to qualify. The legislation sets out a very specific set of conditions that must be met before you can start converting your barn. 

It is crucial that you submit a meticulous prior approval application for your barn conversion and prove that your proposal falls within Class Q permitted development rights. In the first instance, if you fail to adequately demonstrate that you have met all of the criteria, and the council subsequently reject your application, it can be extremely difficult to prove otherwise in future applications. 

Recent changes made to Class Q permitted development rights also now require applicants to provide drawings with a greater level of detail. This includes:

  • Floor plans
  • Elevations
  • Natural light assessment
  • Door, window and wall dimensions
  • Proposed use of each room

Since April 2021, all barn conversions have had to comply with minimum space standards, meaning for new residential units to be created under Class Q permitted development rights, all proposed habitable rooms will have to meet a minimum standard set out by the government.

If you can meet those standards, you are able to convert your barn into:

  • Up to 3 larger homes within a maximum of 465 square metres; or
  • Up to 5 smaller homes each no larger than 100 square metres; or 
  • A mix of both, within a total of no more than five housing units, of which no more than three may be larger homes.

In order to qualify under permitted development rights, your barn must be able to meet all of the following criteria

  • The barn must have been used in agriculture on 20th March 2013 – or within 10 years of you applying to convert it. You are not allowed to build a barn and convert it straight away – new barns must exist solely for agricultural use for at least 10 years before they can be converted. The agricultural use may have stopped before March 2013, but it can’t have had any other material change of use since this time.
  • The building must not be listed – if your barn is listed by Historic England that you will not be able to convert it under PDR, you will have to apply for both planning permission and listed building consent.
  • The building needs to be structurally sound. – the requirements for this have been toned down, and you are allowed to add floor, internal walls and reinforcements to help support the building. But the core idea remains that this is a conversion, not a new building – anything that seems to be blurring that line is likely to be refused.
  • The barn must reflect the original use – this means that the overall character of the new conversion must make clear its previous use as an agricultural building or barn. You are allowed to add windows and doors, but only where reasonably necessary. 
  • The barn must not be in a conservation area, national park or area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) – if your barn is situated on land within any of these designations, it is not a suitable case for conversion under permitted development rights. 

There are numerous benefits to taking the permitted development route for a barn conversion. As well as it being cheaper and quicker, you will have to provide less supporting evidence to the council than a traditional planning application would require.

Most importantly your conversion will not have to comply with local planning policy and design guidance. This means there are fewer hoops for you to jump through and your proposal will be subject to less scrutiny. Arguably, this gives you more freedom and flexibility to create something bespoke, unique and outstanding. 

For instance, new developments in agricultural land or isolated homes within the open countryside are not usually permitted. However, if you have an existing agricultural building that meets all of the criteria for Class Q permitted development rights, this is a valuable loophole in the planning system that can provide you with a house in the open countryside.

When do I need planning permission to convert a barn into a house?

Full planning permission is required when your barn does not meet the requirements set out in Class Q of permitted development rights. In this scenario, you will have to submit a full planning application to your local council to seek consent to convert your barn.

For example, you will require planning permission to convert a barn if it sits within an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), a conservation area, a national park, a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), the Broads, or a World Heritage Site. 

Obviously, all of these land designations are there to prevent the inappropriate development of protected land. This means that any proposal to convert a barn within protected land will have to be heavily scrutinised and deliberated on by the local planning authority. 

In order to carry out a thorough assessment as to whether this would be deemed an acceptable development, a full planning application with supporting evidence will need to be submitted.

Needless to say, if you want to secure planning permission for your barn conversion, you must ensure that you have put together a strong case to convince the council that consent should be granted for your proposal. In order to maximise your chances, you should ensure that your design:

  • Is in keeping with its original surroundings
  • Maintain the character of the original building
  • Respect protected wildlife species and their habitats

If you're inspired by this article and want to learn more about barn conversions, contact the author to discuss your project.

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To put it in a nutshell: gaining planning permission for a barn conversion is a much more subjective decision made by the council, with the taste of the officers or planning committee becoming a factor. Permitted development, meanwhile, consists of rules that you can tick your way through. 

Applying for planning permission requires you to build up your case, showing the council why they should award you with planning permission for this project. 

Do I need building regulations approval to convert a barn?

All barn conversions, regardless of their size or use, require building regulations approval. So how do you show you are complying with building regulations?

This is the part where you will need a good architect and structural engineer to assist you to submit your building regulations drawings for building control approval.

There are two ways you can make a building regulations application for your barn conversion, either by making a full-plans building control application or by submitting a building notice.

However, we would highly recommend you use the route of a full-plans building control application because the Building Notice route will not give you the protection and reassurance that a full-plans application would provide. 

When applying using the full plans route, your architect will require to submit a full set of technical and building regulations drawings for your barn conversion including site location plan, floor plans, elevations and vertical sections through the barn showing construction details. Those plans should be accompanied by supporting structural calculations, specifications and construction notes.

Barn conversion ideas: How to design yours

Well, let’s start with the barn! 

If you’ve got one in mind, walk around the site. Think about things that you’d like to include, things you’d like to keep and things you’d like to avoid. Note these ideas down: being clear with your architect is the best way to get a barn conversion that you’re happy with.

Also, remember that you’re starting with an existing building. If you wanted to knock it down and start over with something new, that’s fine – but this article isn’t for you! 

The truth is your transformation should create something that includes both its original elements and what came before so you can make something wonderful. Incorporating the original elements of the barn does not mean that you cannot achieve a contemporary barn conversion design. Indeed you can.

Bear with us, because we’re going to show you how...

Barn conversion exterior design ideas

If you’re looking for a barn conversion, there’s a good chance that you'll do an online search and end up overwhelmed by different pictures of beautiful buildings. Sounds familiar?

Quite simply, the exterior of your barn should be both practical and appealing. It should keep out the wind and rain, support the rest of the building and everything else.

If you’re looking at a stone barn conversion, you might want to keep as much as possible of the original stonework: aside from looking good, it’ll act as a great insulator and help you stay cool in the summer and cosy in the winter. Those features are, as you might expect, rustic and gorgeous. Keeping that in the building’s facade helps to create a home that feels beautiful.

By contrast, you can also incorporate contemporary and sustainable materials into the building envelope, and rely on efficiency and passive design measures. By doing this, you can minimise life-cycle environmental impacts, enhance indoor environmental quality and reduce maintenance requirements.

Barn conversion interior design ideas

If you’ve ever been in a rustic and traditional barn conversion, you’re likely to notice exposed timber beams over the walls and ceilings. It’s pretty obvious once you think about it… Keeping these visible is the vogue, but it’s also a great way to keep the memory of what the building was.

Similarly, some converted stables will keep the two-part doors (sometimes called Dutch doors) that brilliantly combine what the building is supposed to be ‘about’ – the harmony between the original elements – and the modern purpose that makes the building a home, office or studio. (Quick note: former stables dating back to when the use of horses was common on farms are eligible for Class Q - stables most recently used for horses for recreational riding are, strictly speaking, not.) 

Of course, there’s more to the interior than just the way it looks. Converted barns do tend to be open plan, but the new changes to laws mean that you can divide them up into rooms if you like. 

Needless to say, converting a barn into a new use offers the opportunity to achieve an extremely beautiful transformation. For example, you can utilise gorgeous wood panelling and have high ceilings that allow for a lot of natural light and make the place very airy. This also makes the space feel light and refreshing and combines rustic senses and historical features with modern amenities.

There are also practical things, like making sure that the barn conversion is properly insulated, the roof is functional and weatherproof – the odd leak might be alright for a barn full of cows, but you don’t want that in your new home! Ultimately, your architect will come up with a design that shows off your barn’s original features and keeps it nice and suitable for people to be in. 

Contemporary vs traditional barn conversions

As you might expect, there’s a lot of variety when it comes to barn conversions. The type of barn you’re converting – steel-framed, agricultural, modern, traditional stone – will affect how you build and what you build. 

You’ll also need to decide if you’d like the barn conversion to be contemporary or traditional, and if you want to use older materials and methods for a more old-fashioned look that honours the building’s past, or if you’d prefer something more up-to-date. 

You should discuss the specifics with your architect because they’re likely to have all kinds of interesting insights into what makes your barn beautiful and functional.

How do you find and choose the right barn conversion architect?

Finding the right architect can be tricky. It’s the first big step in this process, and it’ll set up the rest of the project. You want someone trustworthy, reliable and good at their job and someone who will listen to your thoughts and ideas. After all, this will be your building: you need to like it! 

Take a look online for reliable architecture firms with good reviews and relevant experience. Most of the architects will have portfolios of their work on their websites so you can see what they’ve done before – and you might be able to get some new ideas. Then contact the architecture firm and they’ll be able to arrange meetings and consultations to get the project started.

How do you find and choose a good reliable builder for converting a barn?

Like finding the right architect, finding the right builder is crucial for the project’s success. You’ll need someone you can trust, and someone who is reliable. Your architect may be able to recommend a good builder, or you can look into local firms. 

There are a number of things you should check before committing to a builder, like the reviews, if they are a member of a trade association and you should ask to see some of their previous work. 

How much does a barn conversion cost in the UK?

The average cost of converting a barn in the UK is generally estimated to be somewhere around £1,750 - £3,000 per square metre. However, the cost of barn conversions will also depend on the type of barn you’re converting: stone barn conversions are the most expensive, brick barn conversions are the cheapest and wood barn conversions are somewhere in the middle. Of course, this will depend on the barn in question. 

We think that the benefits of having a beautiful building outweigh the costs, but if you’re on a tight budget this may not be the right choice for you. In some cases, it might become more expensive to convert a barn than it is to build something completely new. 

You should be aware that if you are a private individual and not a business you can reclaim VAT paid on labour and materials that get used in your barn conversion. If you use a VAT-registered builder (make sure you check this) they will invoice you with a VAT rate of 5%, instead of the normal 20%. If you buy any materials yourself, keep the receipts and submit them for a VAT refund. You have to do this quite quickly, though: this offer is only valid for three months after the barn conversion is finished.

How long does it take to convert a barn into a house?

Most barn conversions take around a year to complete – however this will depend on the barn in question and the amount of work you would like done.

We recommend speaking with your architects and builders to get a good idea of how long it will take for you specifically, and remember to take several variables including the complexity of the design, the extent of structural works (and whether you will need need a new foundation or not) and level of fixtures, fittings and material finishes into consideration. 

Can you extend a barn conversion?

You can… sometimes. However, firstly, we’re not actually sure if you’d need to, because barns tend to be, by definition, extremely roomy already. Barns can be divided into more than one dwelling, but if you just want one large house you’ll probably already have space for everything within the existing structure. 

If you still wish to extend your barn, then, unfortunately, one of the most important restrictions on barn conversions is that you are not permitted to extend beyond the existing footprint of the original barn.

The facts are: additions to your barn of a significant size are unlikely to be looked upon favourably by the local planning authority. Modest extensions may be deemed acceptable, such as those linking the barn and other outbuildings, but only if they are designed appropriately. 

If you wish to provide additional space for a garage, then this may be permitted if it is designed sympathetically with the barn. Essentially this means it must be designed to replicate the appearance of a stable or other agricultural building.

But one thing’s for sure... If you are keen to have an extension, you will be required to submit a full planning application. This is because under permitted development rights you are restricted to converting your barn within its original square footage. It is important to note that it is easier to gain permission to extend your barn at a later date, once the conversion has taken place. 

How Urbanist Architecture can help you

Now you should have a thorough understanding of how to successfully convert your barn into something truly unique and architecturally outstanding using Class Q permitted development rights. 

The truth is, rates of refusal are high for barn conversions – however with the right professional backing and with the best planning team on your side, you will hugely increase your chances of success. While, on the face of it permitted development rights may seem simple, rarely anything in planning is simple. However, navigating them successfully can result in a modern barn conversion to be proud of. 

If you would like us to help you design your conversion and create an exemplary transformation, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We have worked on dozens of countryside projects and we can help you turn your barn into a home, office space, studio, bed and breakfast and much, much more.

Claudia Stephens, Assistant Planner at Urbanist Architecture

Claudia Stephens

Claudia is our assistant planner, providing regulatory research and evidence-based advice for many of our projects, as well as negotiating with local authority planning departments and keeping us abreast of the latest legislation and government guidance.

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