By Peter Baily
As published in Church Building September-October 1996
This conversion of a l7th century ninebay barn on the edge of rural Hertfordshire is the culmination of many years' thought, hopes, prayer and aspirations of the parish and community of St. James' the Great Church, guided by the Rector, the Reverend Clive Slaughter. The original village which surrounded the 13th century church had dwindled with the passage of time but has suddenly achieved a new lease of life with the construction of two large housing estates forming a larger parish over the last six years.
The need for a larger place of worship was realised some years ago and the church architects, John Glanfield & Partners, were asked to produce a scheme for the provision of a hall that could be used for the main act of worship on Sunday. Schemes to build on surrounding church land were unacceptable to English Heritage. A large barn adjoining the farm within 50 metres of the churchyard gate became available and was purchased after long deliberations over the suitability and feasibility of converting what had been a home for pigs for many years, had little in the way of windows, was leaning in two directions and had a slope in the floor of half a metre in its length. Fortunately the metal roof covering had helped to slow the deterioration of the oak frame.
Working closely with the Conservation Officer at East Hertfordshire District Council, and English Heritage, the scheme for the conversion of the barn developed. The existing timbers were cleaned using a very soft sand blasting, and methods of repair were clarified.
Timber specialists R,T.T. Restorations Ltd., and our structural engineers, Howard, Cavanna & Associates had to devise systems to stabilise the distressed frame and secure it for the future, within acceptable visual constraints to satisfy the conservationists and ourselves. In sections, the barn was stripped back to the skeleton frame, tied to new foundations and upstand below the sole plate, a large amount of repair and renewal in English Oak was carried out, extra braces added and stainless steel ties hidden in the roof coverings which were fully boarded with battens and cross battens incorporating the 2L2 insulation system and covered with a mix of two shades of handmade clay tiles.
Norris of Hertford Ltd., were appointed main contractors with whom we worked very closely on details from day to day to handle the incorporation of a new external envelope and interior fitting out into the leaning frame. Every area had to be surveyed in detail to produce drawings for each glazed screen and fittings.
All the materials were chosen with great care to achieve an aged appearance to the complete satisfaction of the Conservation Officers, to the outside and a sympathetic introduction of new materials to the inside to enhance the historic frame whilst achieving a useable building for the Parish.
The principles of the design were to keep the main barn as free as possible of visual intrusions with any subdivisions being fully glazed to allow the original structure to be visible. All later additions to the rear of the barn were demolished. The main addition within the barn is a small section of mezzanine floor to house the Rector's and Parish offices approached via a new open Oak staircase. This floor also forms a low ceilinged entrance area as a foil to the main space which is in excess of 8 metres high.
A minimum of windows have been inserted between wall studs with large glazed panels provided where barn doors had originally been positioned. Virtually all the wall studs have been left in position, exposed where at all possible.
One of the two original midstreys was extended to form a raised Altar or stage area and new extensions to house toilets, kitchen, plant and vestry were built in brick to contrast with the boarded barn, at the conservationists request. A raised terrace area to the South side giving a large outdoor area for social occasions was constructed with steps down to landscaped grounds following the breaking up of the original farmyard.
An adjoining, low farm building, originally a cow shed, has been linked to the barn to provide smaller meeting rooms particularly for childrens playgroups.
A full, high quality, sound system and Allen organ have been installed which makes the Centre an ideal location for musical events.
A further open barn to the rear is available for later conversion when funds allow and particular extra needs are identified.
In excess of 300 people can attend services in the main hall with larger numbers able to attend social events within the whole building.
Bishop Christopher of St. Albans blessed the building in April this year and he joined in commending the parish for having the vision to take on such a challenging, but on completion, such a rewarding project. Subsequently the Centre is being used regularly for many and various functions alongside its primary one of a place of worship for all main services.
Opening ceremony, April 1996.