Once every few years a project comes along that stands out from all the others. These projects are not necessarily the biggest, or the most expensive, or the most ground-breaking – but they are always the most fulfilling. And I don’t mean fulfilling in the warm fuzzy feeling sense of the word, I’m talking about the kind of fulfilment that you get after a particularly difficult training session, or from getting the mark you were aiming for in a harder-than-expected test that you really had to grind for. I suppose another word for this type of fulfilment is pride, and the Ty Carreg project is something that we at The IAD Company will remain proud of for a very long time.
The West Aberthaw Barns were a collection of stone ruins located a few hundred meters away from the Aberthaw Power Station. The site consisted of several buildings, the oldest of which dates back over 800 years, in varying states of disrepair. From structures with most of the walls still intact but lacking roofs or windows, through to buildings that could only be identified by the footprint of their foundations, the requirements to bring each one back to life were varied to say the least.
The original developer purchased the site with a view to building four luxury homes, taking advantage of the secluded location, rural surroundings and clear sea views. As stunning as the new properties would have been, however, this was not what destiny had in store for our barns.
Part way through construction the site was noticed by specialist provider Orbis Education and Care. All the factors that had made this site so well suited as a luxury housing development had the potential to give even greater benefits to a residential care home. The isolation, the green setting and the calming influence of the sea all fed into the site’s unique potential.
As those of you who work in the healthcare sector will know, there are very strict rules which regulate the industry, including around accommodation. As those of you who work in the construction industry will know, there are also very strict rules when working on 800-year-old grade II listed buildings. As Orbis’ appointed architectural and interior design consultants for this project our job was to find the space in between all of the regulations, and create something extraordinary within it.
Our first task was to make sure that the practical requirements of the barns could be met. Our brief was to create a mixture of self-contained apartments and shared houses with space to provide forever homes for 12 adults with additional needs relating to the autistic spectrum.
As well as ensuring all the new rooms were large enough and complied with the relevant regulatory standards, we also had to make sure that each room had access to suitably sized windows, both as sources of natural light and to meet fire regulations. Unlike most of our projects we had almost no flexibility to extend any of the barns, or to alter, enlarge or add any windows or openings due to the listed status of the site. This meant that we had to get seriously creative with our internal layouts to make sure that all the new residents would have the best possible environments to live in.
After working through all the options, the pieces began to fall in to place and a floor plan that achieved everything we wanted to achieve came together. Armed with a working layout we took the project back in to planning with a Change of Use application, to have the site recategorised from a C3 use class to a C2. A C3 use class covers individual homes inhabited by a family or a small group of unrelated co-inhabitors. The C2 class is used to categorise residential institutions such as boarding schools, care homes, nursing homes and hospitals. Securing approval for the change in use class was essential as construction could not start on the revised areas until approval was granted.
At the time of the application the Aberthaw Barns project was the most significant conservation development taking place within the Vale of Glamorgan. This meant that the level of attention it garnered from the planning department was significantly higher than most of the other schemes we had previously worked on. At times, I would be lying if I said this didn’t feel like a hindrance, as the level of scrutiny imposed on every decision being taken, particularly in the beginning, felt over-bearing and counter-productive. Over time however, the level of involvement from the planners allowed us to cultivate a strong working relationship which benefited everybody. We were able to get guidance and input on matters quickly and could trust that the planners really understood the site and what we were trying to achieve. In return, the planners were able to get involved in the design process and learnt to trust that we were all on the same page when it came to the conservation and celebration of the history and character of the site.
One instance which highlighted the strength of this working relationship came when we informed the planning officers that we were hoping to include CCTV around the site. The initial response from the officers was less than encouraging, but rather than shut the idea down entirely we were able to open a dialogue about what they were actually objecting to – which turned out the be the visual impact the modern looking cameras would have against the historic buildings. As part of the original development application an ecology plan had been put together and implemented to make sure the local wildlife was not going to be negatively impacted by the proposals. The plan included provisions for several different types of birds’ nest to be dotted strategically around the site. Once we had established that the main concern for the officers was that the cameras would stand out in the barns’ historical setting, we developed a bespoke camera casing which imitated the design of the proposed swallow nests. Although these new camera cases would look out of place on most other schemes, they fit in with the historical and agricultural setting of the barns and were therefore approved and installed throughout the development. You can see a picture of our custom CCTV birdboxes below. Similar discussions enabled us to include key fob entry systems and staff attack systems across the site along the same vein too.
After much more back and forth, negotiation, diplomacy and compromise the planning application was conditionally approved and we were able to proceed with building the new scheme. As most of the structural work had already been approved by building control as part of the original development, IAD Company came to an agreement with the building control inspector which enabled us to proceed with the main body of work whilst simultaneously putting together information on how we would be meeting the regulations that were now required as a result of the change of use, such as stricter fire regulations etc.
One area where the new scheme differed significantly from the original was in the mechanical and electrical servicing requirements. The new use of the site required a much more comprehensive level of servicing, which is reflected in the 12 miles of cabling that now runs underneath Ty Carreg. As the buildings are set on top of a natural solid stone shelf the work involved in digging out all of the required service trenches was mammoth. Furthermore, due to the un-permeable ground surrounding the barns huge drainage runs were required to discharge the surface water now being generated as a result of the hard landscaping introduced through the landscaping scheme.
The change from a predominantly soft landscaping to an almost entirely hard landscaping scheme was made at quite a late stage. Originally our proposal was to include a lot of green areas, flower beds and allotment patches for the end users to take ownership of following handover, but after lengthy consideration the planning department deemed the scheme to be too domestic for the setting and politely advised us to implement a more agricultural solution instead – which entailed the use of large areas of un-permeable hard standing.
Due to the levels surrounding site the only direction we were able to send the drainage runs was to the South. In line with the complex theme of the project what lay in the field directly South of the site was a registered ancient monument and what was assumed to be the burial grounds of the original inhabitants of the barns circa 1200-1500 AD. Given the nature of the ground we were digging in to an archaeological watching brief was required, and a very gradual and tense dig began.
Any delay caused by uncovering something interesting during the dig at this stage in the project had the potential to impact on the final handover date. To this day I still can not quite believe that we managed to dig over 100 meters through the field without running into a single noteworthy item. I am sure the archaeologist was very unsatisfied but for the rest of the team this was a massive result. One last note on the electrics. With a stone wall, such as those that make up all of the external walls of the barns, it is common practice to run electric cabling in face mounted conduits. Aesthetically this can be made in to a really interesting feature by using clever materials for the conduits and casings. However, due to the end-users who would be inhabiting Ty Carreg, surface mounted wiring was an absolute no-go – and due to the listed status of the structures there was no option to route any cables inside of the stone walls. This added another layer of complexity to our internal layouts as we now had to place all of our switches and sockets in to and on to the new internal stud walls. Some slight re-thinking lead to some minor re-jigging and soon after we had a new electric plan which was completely independent of any original stonework.
During the planning process our interior design team had been working hard on a full design package for the site. One of the challenges when designing a facility such as this is that you can never predict the individual needs of the person who will be occupying any one specific bedroom until the design has already been installed. The goal therefore is to create environments which feel individual whilst still appealing to everybody, and which are also neutral while remaining playful - all while providing everything required to run an institutional service within a homely and natural setting. Thankfully the interiors team at IAD relish a challenge! Through research, collaboration, experience and hard work we came together and created a scheme that was practical, playful, fun and functional.
To do this, and in response to the particular requirements of Orbis Education and Care’s end users, we incorporated heavy oak furniture that is both extremely durable and beautiful. We researched a paint palette of neutral and calming colours which has since been applied throughout not only this project, all other Orbis accommodation for end-users with similar needs. Bespoke reinforced TV frames were designed and built to protect electrical goods without compromising the homely feel of the rooms. Stud walls were built to create tile-able and wipe-able surfaces in kitchens and bathrooms. All doors were designed to open against a wall, thus reducing the power with which they could be pushed open, and ligature risks presented by the huge beams spanning the barns were countered with the installation of lowered ceilings which also allowed us to house spot lights and create large plant rooms within the roof voids. Bedroom floors were given coved edges and where necessary discrete floor drains were incorporated into the design to help with ongoing maintenance requirements. The bathrooms were all turned in to wet rooms using resin floors, and anti-ligature shower heads were built into the walls during construction too. This level of spec, combined with the inherent beauty and character of the West Aberthaw Barns, are what make Ty Carreg a truly unique facility.
You may notice in the photographs from this project that all stone walls have been painted white internally - this was in response to a planning condition which mandated that exceptionally breathable paint needed to be used to protect the integrity of the external walls. This was a problem for Orbis Education and Care, as most breathable paints are also difficult to clean and would likely absorb anything that might be smeared on to them, making them unhygienic. Through a lot of research (and a bit of good luck!) we eventually sourced a product which was breathable, wipeable and has a very similar appearance to the traditional lime render which is typically used in stone barn conversions. Whilst a good practical solution was eventually found, this in turn left our interiors team with a tough job when it came to bringing enough colour in to the scheme, as although we were able to apply the researched palette mentioned above to the internal stud walls, this still left some of the rooms feeling quite stark. As with every other element of the project, the challenge was accepted and won, in this case with the use of art work, fabrics, furniture and window dressings.
When the construction phase came to an end and the full site clean was completed the IAD interiors team mobilised to install the next phase of our scheme. From building furniture and making beds to hanging curtains and canvasses we spent 3 days transforming the site from a series of (very pretty) empty boxes in to 12 unique homes eagerly anticipating the arrival of their new occupiers. After one last round of dusting, hoovering, scrubbing and tweaking our beloved barns were ready for handover.
In terms of the timescales involved, from the time IAD Company was brought on board to the date of the project handover, the West Aberthaw Barns project took around 18 months - by no means the longest project we have worked on as a company. However, the level of detail this project required, the unique challenges it presented and the genuinely incredible impact it will have on the lives of its residents going forward are all reasons why we perhaps feel more proud of Ty Carreg than pretty much anything else we have been involved with over the years.
After Ty Carreg opened its doors, we submitted the project to the prestigious Building Better Healthcare awards, Design in Mental Health awards and Inspire awards. The winners have now all been announced and I’m delighted to report that we took home the prize at both the DIMH and Inspire awards and were recognized with the Highly Commended award by the BBH judges. We were all honoured to receive these award and are looking forward to submitting some of our upcoming projects to next year’s contests.
I know I speak for everyone here at The IAD Company when I wish all the staff and residents of Ty Carreg a happy ever after in their new forever homes.