12 July 2002

CONVERSIONS: KEEP

A GRIP ON COSTS

Theres a lot to be gained

from converting an old barn

(or two) into workshops or

offices. But theres a lot to

go wrong too. Oxfordshire

farmer Chris Lay and

chartered surveyor

Julian Sayers laid out the

potential benefits and

pitfalls to David Cousins

WHEN it comes to farm diversification, Chris Lay would probably count himself one of the lucky ones. From the farmhouse window he can see his set of previously dilapidated barns gleaming smartly in the sunlight with nicely repointed brickwork, straight roofs and not a board out of place. More to the point, inside are tenants who are happy to be there and pleased to be paying £15/sq ft rent.

Chris and Sue Lay plus Chriss brother Nick and his wife Margaret are third-generation farmers at Manor Farm, West Hagbourne near Didcot. Their two-pronged business was based on 465ha (1150 acres) of combinable crops and a pig unit that turned out 11,000 animals/year.

Three years ago they decided that the future for pigs was too risky and scrapped them. Instead, like so many other farmers in the last five years, they decided to concentrate on the arable business but also looked to non-farming enterprises to provide a measure of long-term financial security.

Livery enterprise

A DIY livery enterprise has proved one relatively low-risk way to achieve that. But in March last year they took a plunge of an altogether more major sort, which was to convert a set of barns into offices.

Manor Farm does have certain geographic advantages. The busy A34 and A417 trunk roads are nearby, Didcot is two miles down the road and Oxford just half an hours drive away. Moreover Oxfordshire is already home to quite a lot of young high-tech firms of the sort that might be expected to find converted barns attractive.

Much of the project management was carried out by the Lays agent, Julian Sayers from Adkin Rural and Commercial. Mr Sayers already had a lot of experience of redundant barn conversions, so it made sense for him to carry out the initial feasibility study and liaise with the architect, planners, contract manager and builders and market the resulting offices.

Planning was relatively straightforward. There was some discussion over the concrete portal building that the Lays wanted to take down and replace with a new building of traditional construction to form the fourth unit. But a solution satisfactory to all was negotiated.

The initial plan was that the 4800sq ft of buildings (mainly pig buildings, feed barns and machinery sheds) would be converted in a way that could accommodate one relatively large firm, two medium-sized ones, or four small ones. In the event, though, a board placed by the side of the A417 prompted a call from computer training firm Skillsolve. It was keen to move to larger premises and the Manor Farm offices were just what it had been looking for.

In particular, says Skillsolves managing director John Smithson, the architecturally attractive development was much more pleasant for the 20-40 people/day who come on its training courses than an anonymous business park or traffic-bedevilled town centre office block.

Lease expired

The original plan had been to finish the building work in November. But Skillsolves existing lease expired in August and it didnt want to have to extend it for another year, so it was keen to move in as quickly as possible. Thanks to an industrious set of builders, Skillsolve was able to move in within minutes of the builders van moving out.

Mr Lay is delighted with the way things have worked out. Having one firm as a tenant makes the job of the landlord relatively straightforward. The £450,000 cost of the conversion (part-borrowed and part from existing capital) is not a figure for the faint-hearted, but with a rent of £15/sq ft putting £70,000/year on to the right side of the balance sheet, Mr Lay hopes to have paid back the conversion cost within seven or eight years.