We’ve probably all seen shows on television where enterprising people have turned an old church, factory, shipping container or whatever into a stunning home. They usually go over budget and they often encounter problems along the way. But their renovation projects prove that breathing new life into old spaces can be a wonderful way to create a dream home.

But what types of building lend themselves to conversion into a home? And how can you avoid some of the pitfalls our TV case studies sometimes encounter?

Planning a building conversion

There seems to be a bit of a common theme to our blog posts. We often start by reiterating the importance of planning. But it really is key. Creating a new home from an old building that was used for something else entirely can take a great deal of imagination, time and foresight. And you do need to have a flexible approach to budgeting. Conversions, like new builds, are largely free of VAT, so that helps, but the cost of such projects should never be underestimated.

One of the advantages of converting an old building is that they’re often in prime locations where you’d never get permission for a new build. Barn conversions, for example, are often one of the only ways to develop a home in an idyllic rural setting. But that comes with its own challenges. You’ll have to work with the existing building and that may mean dealing with significant structural issues before you even get to think about design. It’s therefore vital to get a survey before you buy the building so you can being to guage how much work – and money – is going to be needed to complete your project. It’s important to remember, however, that you never quite know what you’re going to find until you begin work.

You’ll also need to consider the cost for design and all the work that needs doing. Speak to an architect and builder before making any commitments to help get an idea of the big picture cost-wise. And then build in at least another 20 per cent for contingency.

Many barns, chuches and other old buildings are listed, so as well as getting the usual planning permissions, you may need listed building consent. If you’re converting a church, you’ll also need permission from the church authorities. In general, planners don’t like to see big changes to the outside of the existing building. Getting the OK to add things like new windows can be very difficult, so think about what you already have to work with – are you going to be able to achieve your vision whilst maintaining the integrity of the original structure?

Never buy a building for conversion on the assumption that you’ll get planning permission to convert it. That could be a very costly mistake.

Which buildings make good conversions?

The most common type of buildings converted to homes are barns and other agricultital buildings. Having said that, there are a wide range of buildings around that can be converted with a bit of imagination. Old churches, chapels and even schools come to market and can make wonderful homes, if you work with the right architect.

Industrial buildings can be a little more tricky. Depending on what the building was used for, you may need to consider the implications of decontamination. But don’t write this off as a category – think how beautiful a watermill conversion could be.

Another big plus for non-agricutural buildings is that they can be a great locations, central to local amenities. Location really is an important consideration if resale and return on investment are part of your motivation for carrying out a conversion project.

When looking for a building with conversion opportunity it’s worth remembering that often suitable buildings aren’t actually on the market. You may need to look carefully for redundant building in the area you’re interested in and then seek out the current owner to discuss your proposal. It might take a bit of work, but could be well worth it in the end.

Types of barn conversion

Barns can be constructed from a variety of materials but are usually predominantly either timber, stone or brick. The type of construction can impact your options when it comes to conversion. Brick or stone barns, for example, tend to feature small openings, whilst timber barns tend to offer larger, more open spaces. Stone barns tend to be the most expensive to convert with brick being the cheapest.

Converting industrial buildings

It might take a bit of imagination to see how an old warehouse or factory can make  beautiful home, but they can be a great way of getting a large living space in a central, urban location. Making a design feature of original brickwork or beams can give a real sense of personality, as can keeping traditional stone floors or using existing ironmongery.

Converting a church into a home

The law about converting churches changed in the 1960s, and since then a large number have been converted into wonderful, atmospheric homes. One of the main challenges is converting the space without making major external alterations, but a clever architect will find ways to make the space work. A quick word of warning though – if the church is attached to a graveyard, the law requires that human remains be removed and interred somewhere else if the plans will affect them.


We love conversion projects! They’re often a real challenge as we have to find clever ways to achieve the finish a client wants whilst complying with plannings rules and protecting the character of the original building. We’d love to hear from you if you have an exciting conversion project that we might be able to help with.