Alix O’Neill 7 Apr 2017 10:00am

Renovating historic properties

It takes patience, imagination and an indomitable spirit to take on the renovation of historic properties. From securing planning permission to ensuring the project runs on time and to budget, there are numerous things to consider. Alix O’Neill meets three women who have transformed a church, a 19th century engine house and Grade I listed offices into the homes of their dreams
Caption: From securing planning permission to ensuring the project runs on time and to budget, there are numerous things to consider, Alix O’Neill finds.

Fiona Pollard, an events organiser, bought her Grade I-listed Bath townhouse in 2015

“We weren’t planning on a project. But, when we returned to the UK from Australia with our four children in 2013, my husband and I struggled to find a townhouse big enough for all the kids to have their own bedroom.

“When I walked into this property, I was a little overwhelmed. Built by John Wood between 1728 and 1735, it had been used as offices and had lain empty for two years. Although it seemed in reasonable condition, it was obvious it would need to be gutted. There were 11 loos, no bathroom or kitchen and each floor had a separate electricity supply. When central heating was installed, pipes had literally been placed across the wall. I realised that for it to become a practical family home, we’d have to take out every floor.

“When you convert a listed building, a whole load of people have to give consent. First, you need to get planning permission from your local council, then the relevant heritage organisation. In Bath, that’s a big deal. John Wood is a world-renowned architect and Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage city. You’re not able to do anything with the exterior and very little inside. It had taken a couple of years for the pension fund that had previously owned the building to secure residential planning permission, which meant we had to go along with whatever had been agreed.

“These houses aren’t very practical. There are 89 steps from top to bottom. Our front door opens onto a busy square, which meant we couldn’t put a skip at the front and we couldn’t put one at the back because we were landlocked by a garage that belonged to somebody else. When we needed to dig up a floor, we had to take it up and down the steps in a little bucket. It also looked like we wouldn’t be able to put the showers where the plans determined they should be, as each floor had a separate water supply. The supply ran under the garage, so we ended up having to buy it. Despite the challenges, we came in bang on budget – £350,000 – and completed the project in just six months.

“There were some pleasant surprises along the way. At the very back of the house was a walk-in Chubb safe. In the 1920s, the property had been a bank. When we cut the safe out, we found another room behind it that ran under the garden. It must have been where food was delivered for the kitchen. It’s now a games room.

“My favourite thing about the house is the abundance of light. Hawker Joinery installed all the windows, as well as the doors. They were fantastic and we now own the company. It’s a real privilege living here.”

Carmel Davison, a small business owner, bought a converted church in Little Packington, Warwickshire

“You need a certain mindset to live in a church. Everyone who visits loves it here, but couldn’t imagine their home in a graveyard. I find it tranquil.

“In the early 1990s, I went on holiday to New Zealand and came across the most beautiful little church on top of a hill. The owner had converted it into an art gallery. I never forgot it. When I got divorced and we had to sell our Georgian house, I struggled to find a place with similarly high ceilings and lots of natural light. I own a restaurant and we had just won an award. The chef called me into the kitchen to look at an article on us, but I was distracted by an ad at the bottom of the page – it was an old church for sale. The next day, I bought it. Everyone thought I was bonkers.

“The church dates back to 1860 and was deconsecrated in 1966. It lay derelict for years until a family bought it in the mid 1990s. They did all the groundwork – installing insulation, electrics and a septic tank, providing the basis for underfloor heating and securing planning permission, which took years as the property is listed. Rumour has it they even picked up 40 sacks of pigeon droppings, and went through them by hand for bits of stained glass to restore the windows to their original glory. It was a real labour of love. Unfortunately, the father died and they ran out of money for the project.

“I bought the church in 2000 for £250,000 and spent £200,000 doing it up. Although the previous owners had taken care of all the basics, it was still a massive project. There was barbed wire and broken glass everywhere, the graveyard hadn’t been touched and there wasn’t a single window pane or light fitting. I worked with a wonderful team of three builders to install a kitchen, bathrooms and metal balconies. All of the church conversions I had seen were very traditional with dark wood. I wanted my home to be light and modern, so I used maple wood throughout. It took two years from when I bought the church to moving in.

“I’ve loved living here, but unfortunately I have to sell. My dad died and left me his farm on the edge of the Cotswolds. It needs a lot of work, but I’m ready for another project – it’s addictive. Leaving the church will be hard, though. Nearly everything in my life has gone well since moving here.”

Carmel’s home is on sale through Knight Frank

Sarah Stanley, owner of Unique Home Stays, converted a 19th century engine house in Trelion, Cornwall

“I run a luxury holiday rental company of some 160 houses. Most are independently owned, but we buy two to three a year. We only take on really special properties. “When I saw The Stack, a 19th century engine house with a Grade II-listed Cornish stone exterior, I knew there was something magical about it. Surrounded by rolling hills overlooking the Fal Valley, it is in such a peaceful setting.

“The young family living there at the time had really embraced the history of the building, keeping the interior quite raw and industrial to enhance the original features. They had done a great job of improving the property and it was easy to see how we could take it to the next level. We had to repoint it and, as it’s a rental home, install handrails for safety reasons. We also built a deck at the back with a hot tub and created areas around the garden for social gatherings.

“Inside, we had to rewire the place and put in radiators. There were a lot of tiny rooms over a number of floors, so we made the master bedroom slightly smaller to make a bigger sitting room upstairs. The basement sitting room was converted into a cosy cinema. We added new worktops and cabinetry in the kitchen, and finished everything off with an eclectic approach to the design. We picked up stuff on Freecycle and from local reclamation yards. It was important it had that private home feel. Books around the house always have something to do with the locality or the property or what I like as the owner. I stay here with my partner sometimes.

“It took three months to complete the work and we spent around £100,000 in total. The only difficulty was getting the sofas upstairs. I remember three men, in comedy circus fashion, practically standing on each other’s shoulders to squeeze this sofa up a narrow, winding staircase. But we got there in the end.”

The Stack is available to rent from £1,800 per week for six people

Converting an historic property

Considering a renovation project? Sarah Khan explains some of the unique challenges and provides advice on what you need to know

“Each property is individual and will come with its own challenges. If listed, it will have a greater set of constraints than a non-listed building. One misconception people have is that only the facade is listed, but the listed status applies to fireplaces, windows, doors, joinery, cornices – everything. You need permission to change things. Also important to remember is that traditional construction is different to modern construction. Modern solutions don’t really work with historic buildings.

You’ll need planning permission from your local council if you’re making changes to a building. If it’s listed, you’ll require listed building consent. Some properties will require both of these. Historic England gets involved only if a property is listed as Grade I or Grade II*. For Grade II buildings, the most common listing, you won’t need to contact the organisation.

Often with historic properties, a lot of changes will have been made over the years, but will have been covered up. When you embark on a project, you can expect to encounter surprises, such as opening up a floor and discovering half the joints are missing. A good team can predict and minimise uncertainties as much as possible.

Your first point of call when undertaking a restoration project should be a conservation architect or conservation-accredited surveyor. Building constraints don’t necessarily mean you can’t get what you want – you just need someone to help you look at things more creatively. A good architect will tell you the kind of team you need. It’s important they have knowledge of working with traditional construction.”