Restoring an old, period property can be both incredibly challenging yet rewarding at the same time. I’m a huge fan of old buildings and when I see so many of them abandoned and neglected across the UK it just seems like such a tragic waste. When there is such a demand for more homes in Britain, being able to unlock the architectural potential of an old building and give it a new lease of life is an opportunity not to be missed.
So why is restoration so important to Britain in these turbulent times? Ever since I wanted to be an architect at the age of 12, I’m pleased to say that I’ve never known such a buzz around the word ‘restoration’ and a sense of passion from the Great British public for restoring our old buildings. This passion has spread not only through the building and construction industry, but it is also having an extraordinary effect on ordinary people in the UK. I think there are three main reasons for this.
The first, I believe, is a public reaction to the bland and boring new-build housing that has been built by most of the big house builders in the last 20 years. People are becoming tired of living in little Noddy-Box, plastic houses that all look exactly the same and are tenuously labelled Windsor, Blenheim or Shakespeare in a feeble attempt to give these sub-standard new-build homes any sense of history. They are a mock pastiche of our architectural past and, at last, the public is beginning to see that.
Secondly, there is a greater public appreciation of the history of buildings and many people want to live in a home that is not only full of character, but has its own unique and historical story to tell. Many of our old buildings have been around for much longer than we have been and will hopefully be around for many years to come once we have gone and we appreciate that. Restoring an old building not only creates a powerful emotional connection between the owner and building, but it also allows the owner to create their own chapter in the building’s history and make their mark on it. There are now thousands of buildings on the English Heritage ‘buildings at risk’ register. These aren’t just tired old structures; these are buildings that are literally in danger of collapse at any moment and could be lost forever. As well as these fragile structures there are also tens of thousands of abandoned buildings that aren’t on the buildings at risk list, yet lie totally forgotten and neglected.
My television series, The Restoration Man, seeks to save these beautiful old buildings. We follow the lives of ordinary people who have been brave enough to take on very unusual buildings and make huge personal sacrifices to convert them into unique family homes. Their labours of love often come at a huge price – both financially and emotionally. Come to think of it, it’s actually wrong for me to call these people ordinary; they are actually extraordinary. With no experience of restoration and often lacking any knowledge of even the most basic building work, their dream is to save these buildings, often on the tightest of budgets. For them, there is nothing more rewarding then seeing an old building being dragged into the 21st century and saved for generations to come.
But, you need to be very careful. While these old buildings have so much potential they also have many risks. Some of these buildings seem incredibly cheap to buy, but this is because their restoration can be incredibly costly. Many have no services whatsoever, no power supply, mains drainage or mains water. This is fine if you wanted to live an ‘off-grid’ lifestyle, but living completely off-grid is often a difficult task. To arrange mains services if your building is in a remote location can cost a small fortune. I remember on one Restoration Man project it costing an eye-watering £30,000 to arrange the power and water supplies. You also need to make sure that the building is structurally sound, from its foundations all the way up to the roof timbers. Some structural problems are bound to exist in any old building, but you need to know about them as early as possible so you can budget for the remedial works and allow for it in your schedule. There are always surprises on a restoration project, but the key is to find out about them as quickly as you can and make sure you have enough contingency in your budget and time allowance in your schedule to deal with them.
One thing that is difficult to allow for at the beginning of a project is the red tape and bureaucracy. If you have a brilliant conservation officer who is pro-active, helpful, flexible and buys into what you are doing to a building then it is fantastic for everyone involved. If not, then it can be the most frustrating process on earth. You will be pulling your hair out at every stage of the build; so the sooner you can meet the conservation officer (I always do this before I even buy a building!) the better.
One of my favourite Restoration Man stories was the restoration of an old industrial icehouse near Loch Gilphead in Scotland. Laird Henderson bought the abandoned structure from the local farmer for the tiny sum of £6,000 and spent under £100,000 turning it into one of the most ecological and unique buildings in Scotland. Converting it from an old industrial building into a home gave the abandoned structure a new lease of life and saved it for many more years to come. If you have the opportunity to do the same then go for it. We’re always looking for new stories for The Restoration Man series so let us know if you want to be on the programme. Its great fun!
For more tips and advice from George, check out his website at www.georgeclarke.co.uk