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A Modern Pastoral

Oxfordshire, UK

A 17th-century tithe barn, extended and remodelled by architects McLaren Excell, where the historical fabric is in dialogue with crisp contemporary details and an industrial material palette

Barn conversions are considered highly desirable homes, but they come with space-planning difficulties. Once you’ve carved up the interior to create the rooms you need to live in, the soaring ceilings and long views that were originally there may well have disappeared in the service of functionality. When Jeremy and Mel Offer bought a listed Oxfordshire barn that had already been (badly) converted, that’s exactly what had happened: architects McLaren Excell’s eloquent remodel and extension rights the wrongs – and then some.

The house as it was consisted of a 17th-century barn – full of character, with its time-worn, elm exposed frame – and an adjoining Victorian cart shed. Now, there’s a new larch-clad bedroom wing sitting at right angles to it, with a glass link separating the two. The extension has allowed the barn to once again become the best version of itself, with McLaren Excell’s further interventions adding a crisp industrial edge that contrasts with the historical fabric, yet seems entirely appropriate for a building with agricultural roots.

A polished concrete floor, runs throughout, and openings for the glazing have been outlined in rolled steel – not just a neat way to frame views of the meadow that rises steeply uphill away from the house, but a means to disguise the point where millimetre-perfect metal meets the wonkiness of the old barn. “It would have been a clumsy junction where the frames of the sliding doors hit the existing fabric of the building; this approach detaches it,” says architect Luke McLaren.

Two new skylights in the cart shed have been framed in the same way, and the steel detailing continues in the bespoke shelving that runs along one wall. Most striking of all is a black steel box that sits between the kitchen and the entrance hall, which leads up to a plywood-lined mezzanine office. “It’s a completely freestanding structure within the building,” says McLaren (the barn’s listed status means that intervening too much in the fabric would not be desirable). “The thinking was always that, when you stand back and look at it, it felt like a sort of sculptural piece in the room,” he continues, citing the work of artist Richard Serra as an inspiration.

This is not a house of pattern and colour – Offer is a fan of pared-back Japanese design and a collector of mid-century Scandinavian furniture – but the palette of materials brings its own visual dynamism. The panels of the steel box have vertical waves of patination (a manufacturing side-effect – they are produced as the steel cools); the grigio perla stone used on the kitchen island and in the master-suite bathroom is studded with chunks of rock in every shade of grey; and the centuries-old timber frame, pitted, knotted and split, offers endless visual fascination.

The bedroom wing contains a suite of rooms downstairs: gym, bathroom, dressing area and master bedroom, the latter of which is compact, with the bed raised on a platform and cosily encased in oak (another example of the Japanese influence here). Upstairs there are a further three guest bedrooms.

The new building is set half a floor lower than the barn – a response to a planning condition that said that the extension should not exceed the ridge height of its older neighbour – while the run of glazing in the link building is broken up by a rhythmic series of steel fins that cast striped shadows across the otherwise minimal interior. The crisp contemporary appearance of the glass link has been extended around the corner to the front facade of the cart shed, softening the junction where old meets new.

We really wanted to achieve a sense of permanence that spoke to the rest of the building. This has been here for hundreds of years, and we wanted whatever we put in to also be here for hundreds of years

At night, atmospheric lighting transforms the house; in the barn and cart shed, suspended track lights from XAL sit at about the height where the ceiling would be if this was a two-storey space: “We’ve created a more human scale by dropping the lighting down to a much more intimate level,” says Offer. “This place could be quite spooky if it wasn’t lit properly.” Uplighters supplement the tracks, highlighting the timber frame as it rises to its apex.

Offer is a designer (he’s Volvo’s global head of design, and works in Gothenberg most of the week), and when asked whether he was an exacting client, there is a pause of about a nanosecond before he says “yes”. He adds that “I did find it difficult, coming from a car design background, where the tolerances of the split lines between doors are two millimetres, and they’re perfect, to a building that’s all over the place. Here it’s more of a wabi-sabi approach where you celebrate the fact that it isn’t perfect.”

Indeed, it is the work that has gone into all the details that makes this house a triumph. “I knew Jeremy was going to be very specific about what he wanted,” says McLaren. “But we were on the same page from day one. It didn’t add to the stress of the project – we like to get these things right as much as anyone.”

Offer concludes that “we really wanted to achieve a sense of permanence that spoke to the rest of the building. This has been here for hundreds of years and we wanted whatever we put in to also be here for hundreds of years. That’s why it’s all really honest, solid materials. I mean, no-one’s moving that kitchen – it’s all 15mm slabs of steel.”