January 2018

Why refurbishment matters

Ian Manley is one of Churchill Hui’s most experienced Building Surveyors and Contract Administrators specialising in the refurbishment and major repairs of older housing stock and listed buildings. In this opinion piece, Ian outlines why he considers refurbishment of older properties to be an important and relevant consideration for housing providers today.

Buildings are an intrinsic part of history and sometimes the focal point of a town or neighbourhood. Unfortunately, many old buildings are seen solely as development plots. I can understand why from a purely financial point of view and with a demand to maximise the density of developments, but this is a shame. Many parts of London have been transformed and are now unrecognisable due to the over redevelopment of areas with modern medium to high-rise housing that aims to provide the maximum number of dwellings.

Such development completely changes the character of these areas. The result is that more and more neighbourhoods are looking very uniform with no individuality or personality. Many of these developments are also unfortunately of low quality, both in respect of the detailed design and use of low cost materials which can leave many developments soon looking tired and outdated.

If our aim is to bring dilapidated housing up to modern standards, don’t immediately rush in with the wrecking ball. Consider the merits and potential of the existing stock which, with the right consideration, can be refurbished to meet current standards and provide high quality housing. It is becoming increasingly difficult to construct properties with traditionally detailed features, partly owing to the high cost and lack of skilled stonemasons, bricklayers and specialist tradespeople. Could the construction industry these days recreate the craftsmanship and architecture of the Natural History Museum, St Pancras or even much less ornate Victorian buildings on the scale that was achieved in the past? Once they are gone, they are gone.

Victorian appeal

Personally, I like the challenge of working on Victorian buildings and get a great sense of satisfaction bringing them back to life, fit to serve another 100 years. The vast majority of older buildings, due to their traditional construction form, are extremely robust, stylish, spacious and light with high ceilings. Many have intricate stone and brickwork and fine detailing. Whilst such buildings were unfashionable in the mid-century they are now viewed by many to make appealing residential and commercial premises.

A Victorian property today will have been standing for a minimum of 115 years. A careful and strategic refurbishment and repair (using modern materials where appropriate) could generate a longer lifespan, even another century. You don’t always need to go through a seemingly protracted planning process either. Many new build properties, constructed using non-traditional materials, are much more likely to need a higher level of maintenance and repair to keep them in good order.

I suppose it depends on what you perceive as ‘value’. For me, preserving an important, beautiful or iconic building for the next generation (and the next) to enjoy is a big deal. A building can certainly be worth more than the sum of its parts.

Refurbishing affordable homes

At Churchill Hui I have been responsible for design, specification and management of many refurbishment jobs for private and social housing. To refurbish such buildings sympathetically and to achieve the best results for our clients we undertake such contracts in a traditional manner, designing, specifying and managing the works ourselves. The results speak for themselves and both clients and tenants give great feedback.

Take Victoria House for example, a grade II listed building (1849) and one of the few surviving properties within the Clapham Park Estate. At the time of the proposed works, it provided poor quality affordable housing and the brief was to regenerate the accommodation to bring up to modern day standards. Our proposals included the full refurbishment and extension to the original property with a strong focus on retaining pertinent historic features where possible.

Victoria House – before

Our main challenge was to subdivide the new accommodation according to existing walls and partitions. A typical solution was to keep new partitions beneath existing ceilings and carry out acoustic and fire separation from and within the floor above to preserve original cornices and ceiling mouldings. The whole of the lower ground floor had its original York stone floor intact. Each ‘large’ flagstone was individually labelled, carefully taken up, and relayed in the same position and orientation on completion of the construction of an insulated concrete floor. Intricate work, but well worth it. That floor will last for years, preserving the house’s prestigious past. There was also an original open ‘Copper’ (used to produce hot water in days gone by) within the lower ground floor which was retained as a feature in the one of the new apartments.

Victoria House – after. Smart, modern, affordable homes within a period mansion

In total, we created 10 No. 1-bedroom refurbished flats and 21 No. 1-bedroom new build flats to the rear of the site arranged around an attractive landscaped courtyard. All units were finished to a high standard with some units having private patios. The refurbished units retained features including fire places, original joinery and plaster to the walls, ceilings, covings, mouldings and decorative features. Victoria House has retained its historic grandeur and remains a beautiful composition of buildings providing modern, practical homes.

Old-fashioned appeal; modern living

It’s not just about preserving listed buildings though. We adopt similar principles when dealing with the more typical Victorian housing stock, although many of these properties have been refurbished in the past and have lost most of their original internal features e.g. inappropriate window replacements. Such buildings are refurbished to current standards – the external facades are sympathetically renovated with new windows, and the internals renovated to provide a modern, energy efficient property.

Churchill Hui was also appointed by Raven Housing Trust to refurbish a former Victorian property in Crawley which had already been extended and converted in the 1980s into a rather unattractive office building. We acted as Architects and Surveyors and transformed the building into 7 No. one and two-bedroom flats designated by the client as modern affordable homes. Whilst the brief was to completely overhaul the building, our technical expertise in refurbishing properties meant we could aesthetically improve the building to give it more of a residential feel and greater appeal. We specified cost-effective products to modernise the building, from the ground floor up to the loft. This included insulation, waterproofing and fitting thermally efficient casement windows in the flats and communal areas. External materials were chosen in keeping with the adjoining Victorian building without greatly increasing the cost, such as synthetic slate tiles and aluminium rainwater goods.

Before – office space from a 1980s conversion

After – Modern affordable homes

The renovated housing brought the building up to modern standards and building regulations. Residents were delighted with their new homes, reporting that they were light, spacious and warm with low running costs. The street scene has also benefitted.

In my experience it’s rare to find a period property that is beyond refurbishment, and we’ll mix creativity with practical design to preserve and enhance it. The interior may need completely stripping out, but the property can be restored externally to its former glory, providing homes that meet or exceed current standards including thermally and acoustically. Traditional materials like brickwork and tiled roofs weather naturally, but without causing harm or requiring significant maintenance costs to keep the building looking in good order. As I said, Victorian and similar properties are structurally solid and can provide quality homes for many years to come.

Award-winning work

Whilst we endeavour to save period buildings where possible, we had one project where a three storey Victorian end of terrace property in an upmarket town was so neglected that trees and shrubs were actually pulling the building down. In this case demolition and rebuild was the only viable option, but met with disdain and opposition from the Residents’ Association.

Our proposal was to completely replicate the existing detailing of the adjoining property and street, and once the building was complete they were very impressed – I quote “amazing, you would not know this is a new building!”. They insisted on presenting Churchill Hui and the construction team with an award.

Award-winning Victorian rebuild in south-west London

Of course, I am fully aware there is a UK housing crisis and that housing providers are doing their best to address this, but I don’t believe in the over-redevelopment of town centres and surrounding areas. A demolished pub here, a shop and large house there, and over time the character and history of the area is gradually eroded and eventually lost.

In my opinion, housing providers have an obligation where possible to protect and preserve the built environment, and this includes considering all factors when faced with a potential demolition and redevelopment of an older property. Personally, I’m proud of what we have achieved for our clients, their residents and the local community, who can continue to enjoy the character and personality that these buildings bestow on a neighbourhood.

Ian has been involved in the construction industry for over 30 years and is a Director at Churchill Hui. He is one of the firm’s most experienced Contract Administrators, having completed numerous residential refurbishments, conversion projects and major repair schemes. In addition, he has undertaken smaller new build residential schemes which were more suited to the traditionally procured route. Ian has also been involved in the design and specification for the refurbishment and conversion of buildings listed by English Heritage.

Ian deals with most aspects of repairs to existing properties including roof, window, kitchen and bathroom renewal programmes.

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