Tucked away down a quiet farm track just outside the Sussex village of Robertsbridge, sits Lower Barn Farm. Once used for grazing sheep and horses, the site will soon be home to a very ‘on trend’ agricultural venture – an elderflower farm.

Having witnessed a growing interest and demand for elderflower flavoured gins, tonic waters, cordials, pressés, sparkling wines and who can forget Harry and Meghan’s lemon and elderflower wedding cake, the owners purchased the site a few years ago with an ambitious view to fill a gap in the home-grown market for this fashionable, flavoursome, flower.

With 25-acres of elderflower bushes planted, the next step was to create a modern space suitable for processing the blossom post-harvest, ready to be taken away for juicing. In late October 2018, work began on site.

“The farm had numerous existing buildings which were no longer fit for purpose,” said Keith Stoner, manager and owner of Forma, the agricultural building specialists delivering the project. “We started with the removal of an old pole barn and two asbestos and concrete structures before making a start on the extensive landscaping and groundworks.”

The unusual set up of the old buildings (which had been constructed on two different levels and divided by a retaining wall) combined with some harsh weather conditions and a limited single-track access to the site meant that demolition, site clearance and landscaping were more challenging than the average build, but nothing which the team at Forma and its contractors couldn’t deal with.

“We have cleared the entire area, which means that alongside the new building there is plenty of hard-standing yard space or, as the farm’s production grows, there is ample room for an additional building,” said Keith.

The 25-metre by 18-metre fully galvanised steel frame, designed by Forma and built in the UK, is a standard agricultural building benefitting from two industrial roller shutter doors, which have been installed by D. Hughes, and divided by a central personnel door. The flooring has been finished with a power float concrete to provide a smooth finish.

As the building will be used for storing agricultural machinery and the all-important elderflower processing equipment, Keith has also added concrete panels around the lower half of the wall.

“Normally used for livestock buildings, these panels will add an extra layer of security which was important to the owners,” said Keith. “We work with ACP Concrete because the panels they produce are much higher quality than others on the market. As a company too, they are very reliable; when project managing agricultural buildings, which usually need to be ready in a minimal timeframe, it is important to know that they will deliver on time, every time.”

Building in the blood

A few years ago, after helping his daughter with a school project on ancestry, Keith discovered that the Stoner family have been involved in the Sussex construction industry for well over 400 years.

“We managed to trace the Stoner side of the family right back to 1605,” said Keith. “Henry Stoner was located in Cowfold, Sussex, just three miles from where I live now, registered as a bricklayer by trade. Since then it appears that the Stoner family have either earnt their living as builders or carpenters. My great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all builders and I went on to study constructional engineering at college.”

In his early working life, Keith took a slightly different path into the emergency services, working as a firefighter for several years before becoming a police officer. But the pull of the family trade could not be ignored and in 2000 Keith finally established his own building company.

“Over the years I have also worked as a contracts manager for a groundworks company and at a steel frame manufacturing firm,” said Keith. “The experience I gained complemented my solid, foundational knowledge of the building trade and I thought it was mad to put that to waste. I knew that I could bring all my expertise together to provide customers with the best possible buildings solution.”

A complete service

Having learnt from other companies’ limitations, Keith set about establishing Forma, which is named after the Latin word ‘to mould, shape or create’. Based in Henfield, Sussex, the firm undertakes projects in Kent, Surrey, Sussex and some areas of Hampshire.

“I try not to take on more than four projects at once,” said Keith. “When I started Forma, I wanted to make sure that customers would remember us for delivering an unbeatable construction and project management service and keeping our workload at a sensible level allows me to manage each build effectively and be hands-on and involved at every site.”

Offering a complete turnkey service, Forma will see the building project through from start to finish. As well as being able to advise on planning legislation for projects, the Forma team will look after everything from clearing the site, to laying the foundations, putting up the steel frame and adding the finishing touches, to make sure that the customer has a fully fitted, ready to use building on hand-over day.

“Customers don’t need to worry about finding contractors for the different elements of the job because Forma provide a complete service,” said Keith. “When you are busy farming, it can be extremely difficult to project manage a building development. Problems with the weather can cause delays, which have big knock on effects, and you also don’t want to spend half a morning phoning round suppliers if someone has let you down or sent the wrong part when you are trying to manage the main business.”

Those working with Forma also benefit from having just one point of contact from the initial quote right through to hand over day. There is no faceless deskbound account manager trying to discuss a project or site issue which they have not seen with their own eyes.

“I like to keep clients regularly updated too,” said Keith. “Reliability and communication are paramount and from my experience working with other building companies I would like to think that the service Forma provides is a truly local, personal service.

Having spent so long working in the industry and seeing first-hand how other steel frame businesses operate behind the scenes, Keith also prides himself on fair pricing.

“Site visits are essential to understand the needs of the individual business, so standard pricing and over the phone quotes are not always realistic,” said Keith. “I am always happy to pop out to the site to meet the customer, have a look at what they want, chat through the most cost-effective way of doing the groundworks and advising on what building frame will suit their individual needs.”

After the site visit, within five to seven working days Forma aims to return a comprehensive written quote which is fully itemised to ensure that there are no hidden costs.

With Lower Barn Farm’s elderflower processing plant now complete, Forma will soon be starting work on another machinery and equipment storage facility near Cranleigh in Surrey and a livestock building near Steyning in West Sussex. Later this year work will also start on a winery and farm shop facility for a new vineyard in West Sussex.