Review: Grand Designs shows that feature ruins are always special, but sometimes the “before” pix are a lot better than the “after”.
In the latest episode we meet architect Rob (31) and Ruth (27), who have bought a parcel of land with a 200-year-old crumbling industrial ruin beside a river in a narrow valley in South Cumbria – they want to turn the ruin into a house and studio. It’s a very secluded, beautiful spot, although it looks awfully shady, and we would be worried about that river flooding.
Their ruin is a “scheduled ancient monument”, but what they’re planning will change all this, because they are going to build RIGHT INSIDE AND ABOVE the stone ruin. Good grief. How is this preserving the aesthetics of the old water mill/blacking mill/pig sty? Sure, the stone will remain, but there will be an almighty 300 square-metre house and studio sprouting out the top of it.
Clearly, the authorities don’t mind, as long as the stone remains. Which is not quite the attitude we take here in New Zealand. From a distance, this seems truly bizarre.
* Grand Designs UK: Daring design for cruddy site delivers ‘heaven on earth’
* Grand Designs UK: A bothy reno which genuinely rattles Kevin McCloud
* Grand Designs UK: Kevin McCloud clashes with couple converting ‘dark satanic mill’
We have seen this sort of thing before on Grand Designs UK. The recent bothy renovation in Scotland was an example of a great, thoughtful build. But there was also the Dinton Castle folly that completely altered a crumbling old ruin. The couple who built that one put it on the market promptly, and from what we can see it is still for sale.
In describing Rob and Ruth’s building plan, McCloud says: “Rob and Ruth ambitiously want to avoid trashing the place by conserving the dilapidated character-filled mill buildings as they are.”
Technically, that is correct, because the two-storey, timber-framed house and separate architecture studio will be slotted within the walls.
But they are most certainly not conserving them “as they are”. Nothing is going to look the same. As McCloud notes, the new will appear to be growing out of the old. He thinks it is a ”very imaginative idea”. And it would be, if this hadn’t been a listed monument.
The couple has a small £250,000 (NZ$476,000) budget, which is partly by a loan from Rob’s dad. But this is a very complex, technically challenging build, and it seems too little. They paid £110,000 for the site.
But before work can start, several rotten trees on the cliff need to be felled as they are at risk of falling on the ruin. And sure enough, the biggest tree falls the wrong way and takes out the stone at the rear. First disaster.
“Everybody’s still alive, so I’m quite happy about that,” says the tree-felling boss. The site looks horribly bare when finished – and to think they bought it for the beautiful wooded setting. But they have plans to replant.
And the ruin becomes rubble
Then they get the bad news from Historic England structural engineers – the structure is too fragile and dangerous to repair and will have to be demolished. It seems almost criminal watching the digger attack the walls – one nudge and it tumbles.
“It looks like a bomb has hit it,” says McCloud on a return visit. “There’s nothing left. It’s all gone.” It is all a pile of rubble. The couple rightly look a bit embarrassed and worry that they have destroyed the spirit of the place (they have). McCloud just looks stunned.
He gives us a little talk about the “atmosphere” of a place and how it resides in the tens of thousands of tiny details. Now all gone.
It gets more weird. McCloud interviews someone from Historic England who actually says the original builders of the mill “didn’t intend it to last for 200 years”. As though that makes it all OK. But he does want the walls put back. So, they are going to have to rebuild the mill back up around the house, which is more time and money.
In the meantime, the presenter heads off to another restored ruin – Astley Castle in Warwickshire, where “the decrepitude is beautiful”, but it doesn’t have a mighty big contemporary house popping out the top of it.
‘Can you carry an echo of a building forward?’
McCloud asks the architect about a demolished ruin: “Can you carry an echo of a building forward that isn’t there any more?” The architect thinks it’s pretty problematic, but there will be a “landscape presence”. This is a great interview and worth checking out if you missed it.
Rob even says at one point: “What I absolutely loved about this building was the look of it, and the look of it in its historic state.” Exactly.
Work gets underway back in South Cumbria, and first off there’s a problem with the high water table. They can’t pump the water out fast enough (there’s a river running through it). And there are problems getting the concrete to the site over a narrow “listed” stone bridge, but the team come up with clever solutions, and the foundations are poured.
Then they find out the foundations are not strong enough to carry the weight of the big house – this is a major, expensive setback. Do they not have a building consent process in England? Why are they only now discovering this?
Long story short – this turns out to be a long, slow build, with financial shocks along the way, such as the £40,000 quote to get the power connected (later dropped to £16,000). You can’t help but feel sorry for Rob and Ruth, even if they did show a certain naivety at the outset. It’s a massive, expensive learning curve. But they are fortunate to have family help, including Rob’s dad.
And then there are the demolished mill walls to rebuild, and McCloud is worried it could turn out a bit “Disney”. As the walls go up he compares the build to a set for Game of Thrones, and he thinks the couple have turned into building goblins.
But the professional stonemasons know their stuff, and oblige Ruth by using the moss-covered stones she painstakingly carries over to them.
Grand reveal, but it’s not all complete
Finally, McCloud returns for the reveal. The proposed 18-month build has taken three-and-a-half years and lots of 18-hour days. And it’s not finished.
To their credit, Rob and Ruth have done a good job of the house. But, clearly, it’s not how they imagined it would be at the start – the stone walls look far too fresh and sharp. (Is it still a scheduled ancient monument? Surely not, but McCloud mentions there are heritage signs pointing to this site – that has to be a joke.)
McCloud describes it as beautiful. And there’s no doubt the mix of larch cladding and stone works, with the big house looking like it is sliding up out of the stonework. In another five years or so, it will probably have settled in and weathered. Moss, shrubs, creepers and trees will have softened the exterior.
And inside? It’s huge and modern – the furniture is a little lost in the space, but they have only just moved in. They have painted the steel I-beams different colours, which is quirky. We love the sustainability features – they have opted for extra insulation and a mechanical ventilation system, similar to a passive house, which should regulate the temperature and humidity.
There is no kitchen yet. There is a temporary work bench with a camping stove on top. And the spare bedrooms, studio and rooftop garden have yet to be fitted out.
But it’s an impressive space, with close-up views of the surrounding greenery. We hope, for their sake, there will be sun pouring inside in winter.
And the cost? They have got away with £300,000 (NZ$568,000), which is very cheap for such a complex build.
They will be disappointed about the loss of the ruin, but they are proud of the resurrected stonework. As McCloud notes: “To be clear, this is not a conservation or a restoration project. It is a new building, but it makes an important contribution to the industrial history of this valley.”
Which is one way to look at it.
Grand Designs UK screens on TVNZ1 on Sundays at 8.30pm and at TVNZ OnDemand.