Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Interiors - to conserve or restore?

Continuing our topic of Conservation vs Restoration, there is a mind boggling amount of information and misinformation widely available online, through television series, magazines and educational facilities.  Where conservation is mostly about repair, maintaining and protecting what is already there, restoration is more about making what's old new again, and perhaps even stamping a fresh identity onto a building or a room.

Photo of Church Farm House, Hampshire, courtesy of Savills

What a conservationist might see when sweeping up the gravel drive of a 17th century farmhouse is evidence of brick repaired with cement, a damp course inserted and interfering with the house's breathability.  Or perhaps lead flashing sealed with mastic.  Or a perfect corner on an interior wall that is sure to be lined with a modern metal corner.  There is a damp patch repaired also with concrete near the front door in the entry hall that will need to be scooped out gently and refilled with lime plaster, acrylic paint peeling in the front hall near the skirting, a upvc window in the scullery that is affecting the breathability of the house... the list goes on.

What would a builder more attuned to clients who show him the latest issue of Architectural Digest see in the same building?  An opportunity to knock something down and start again perhaps?  Or to open up all the interior rooms, to treat the crumbling plaster with a dose of plaster board and a gypsum scrim coat to devise a more rational spot for a cloakroom?  To install warm double glazing at the back of the house where it may be allowed?  To chip off all the old lime plaster because a bit was crumbling and start again with gypsum, so much cheaper and easier with the new wiring going in...  and so it goes.

Every person who looks at a house will see it in a different way.  Most can no longer claim total ignorance of traditional building methods as television programmes feature everything from plasterers to medieval manor houses and thatchers, with everything in between and across all time lines.   I am the sort of person who becomes a quivering lovesick wreck when I see an abandoned building.  And when I move into a house I like to rough it and gradually repair, add, change, as seems necessary and appropriate.  I believe it takes time to get to know a house, its own quirks, wishes, desires, personality, just like a person.  Act too quickly and important messages may be lost or ignored.

Even with a comprehensive scheme for regenerating a listed or just ancient building and respecting the original fabric, many factors, such as budget, time, planning, covenanting, building regulations and conservation issues all come into play.

When, for example, we wished to turn a redundant building attached to our house into a library that was not listed but was in a conservation area, we painstakingly installed period appropriate hand blown leaded lights and wrought iron hardware made by the local blacksmith - we were praised by the conservation officer for respecting the nature of the main building but not slavishly copying what was already there.  However, we were then rebuked by the building regs officer who demanded double glazing and windows that opened to the front.  They would not be secure, but he said this was of no importance to my young family.  What was paramount was the consideration that a handicapped person may buy my home in future and need to get out these windows if there was a fire!

I may wish to repair each of the 49 sash windows in a Georgian old rectory, only to find that my plans clash with my green energy goals.  Do I put in secondary glazing and interlined curtains and hope for the best?  In many cases this is a perfect solution - but does it offend my aesthetic sense to have secondary glazing panels up in Autumn not coming off until Spring gently restores the temperature?

One architect we worked with in Charleston came up with an ingenious - although admittedly costly - solution for his own new house.  Secondary sash windows.  Difficult to clean but beautiful.  Sadly local planners no longer treat this as an acceptable solution, so it could not be done in a new building.

Architect Andrew Gould's House built in vernacular style  with double sash windows
(interior and colour consultation by Killian-Dawson)

...It is for all these buildings, therefore, of all times and styles, that we plead, and call upon those who have to deal with them, to put Protection in the place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering, and show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying... William Morris, part of the manifesto of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)

When television programmes bombard us with exciting new kitchens and clean modern, dust free interiors produced as rabbits from the hats of restoration, the above can seem harsh, indeed impossible to achieve, not to mention limiting our creative capacities and some would say, a building's chance for survival.  After all, isn't a building a sort of organism that is an extension of each time it in, its use changing, its looks changing as each generation leaves it's mark?

I do not have the answers but I do believe it is vital to consider each thing we do to an old building very carefully before attacking it with sledgehammers and acid, and a large team of builders with power tools, serving up contemporary to suit our current view of what we see in magazines and shop windows, or even other friends' kitchens.  Fashion continually alters.  If I walk into an old rectory and find I have been duped and the interior is a modern spotlit, smooth walled chrome and stainless steel mass complete with smart systems, I must confess I feel shocked and sometimes a bit cheated.   The fantasy of living in an old building is not the same as the reality.  Sometimes the inhabitants would be better served to spread their wings and build something new.   Buildings once altered cannot be returned to their previous state, achieved only through time.  We must be careful not to destroy what we fall in love with.