An important Grade I listed house gets the surprising nod
JCA Team: Director - Peter Cave Principal Architect - Nigel Hammett Technician - Adrian Dadswell
Project Design Team: Johnston Cave Associates Quantity Surveyor: Michael Edwards Associates Structural Engineers: David Osborne Associates Historic Buildings Consultants: CgMs Consulting Interior Designer: John Stefanidis Ltd Principal contractor: Symm & Co
Project type: Repairs and extension to existing country house
Project year: 2006-2008
Our client’s house is a glorious example of 18th Century architecture, with fine brickwork including moulded external brick cornices. It also makes extensive use of flared headers in both Flemish and header bonded brickwork.
What really distinguishes it, is the 1920’s North and South additions by the architect Clough William-Ellis, better known as the architect of the Italianate village of Portmeirion in North Wales and very fashionable during the inter-war years. His quirky and inventive details created another level of interest in the building.
William-Ellis had used a clever arrangement of partially blind windows and a high parapet in the North Wing to match the external elevation of the South Wing, but it meant that the internal layout was handicapped by low ceiling heights on the first floor with a number of compromised rooms and spaces behind the symmetrical façade as he had simply stuck it over what was there.
As the client said "The house is a complete jumble. The floor for the dining room is three feet too low. And because the kitchen is on a different level, you have to drag the food upstairs."
The ground-floor room was sunken; a sort of semi-basement, with the ceiling half way up the window. In the same way, the window sills in the first-floor bedroom were nearer the ceiling than the floor.
It did look right from the outside though.
Unfortunately, but perhaps fortunately, the fabric of William-Ellis’ wings had started to fail, which presented the perfect opportunity to review the internal layouts and see if they could be brought up to modern standards and needs.
Our proposal was to reorganise the North service wing to improve the kitchen and formal dining facilities at ground floor level and to provide guest accommodation on the first floor and also to finally resolve the problem of the low ceiling heights and blind windows.
As conservation architects steeped in the battle between preserving the past while making buildings fit for the present as well as the future, we expected significant push-back from the local authority and especially English Heritage who have oversight of listed buildings. To our clients’ delight and obvious relief, the project was given the immediate nod with English Heritage even saying that they would not oppose more far reaching approach to adapt the William-Ellis wings to match the existing house more closely.
There were of course provisos. As a Practice we see these as part and parcel of our normal service on a project of this historical importance - namely to record any features of historical interest.
With the full blessing of the authorities, we were able to remove the wings’ roof and rebuild the parapet to match the south elevation of the main house. This enabled us to raise the the bedroom ceilings to their proper heights and made for far more comfortable spaces within.
During the course of this work, the whole structure was invisibly reinforced with a series of steel sections bolted to the inner face of the external wall along with a ring beam below gutter level.
What was far from invisible was the 1920’s brickwork. William-Ellis had used similar bricks to the original structure, but they were far from an exact match. Research established that he obviously knew at the time that he had a problem as he had had difficulty finding suitable bricks. In the end he had resorted to buying an old building of similar vintage, knocking it down and salvaging the bricks. Even so, these reused bricks, possibly mixed with others, produced an inconsistent size of bonding and coursing – all of which was particularly noticeable on such an elegant and symmetrical building. The brickwork was finally compromised by the use of heavy cement mortar which meant that over time, the bricks eroded before the mortar and we were now faced with the consequences.
Our solution to retain as much as we could and then to match the varying textures, sizes and colours as best as possible with a variety of new hand-made bricks and held together with an attractive classic lime based mortar.
Although construction work had to be started and finished within a tight timeframe which coincided with a time of year that did not suit conservation materials such as the lime-based mortar, the task was completed on time thanks to the close cooperation and skill of the building contractor.
Satisfyingly, the view of the house from the formal garden was of a matching and consistent whole with a pleasing brick colour. But perhaps more importantly, the house now had a logical arrangement of rooms and spaces and pleasing bedroom ceiling heights that wouldn’t need further revisiting for another few centuries.
And it was not just English Heritage and the local authority that were nodding in approval, but also our happy client.