Nearly eight years after buying The Old Brewhouse, and six years after the start of work, we’ve now got the home we imagined when we first came across it in 2007 in a crumbling but idyllic state. There were roses climbing round the doors and windows, ivy smothering the walls and chimney and a lovely but overgrown pond and meadow for a garden.
The roses will soon be back to their former glory, though not the deadly ivy (the quickest way to destroy an old clay wall), the pond has been restored and the meadow preserved just as it was, for the sake of its orchids and fritillaries. So this is a good moment to recap what we have done.
The previous owners had begun in the early 1980s to convert the building next door to their farmhouse into a dwelling, but their project stalled; we bought the property a quarter century later on the basis that their planning permission had lapsed and we would have to apply again from scratch. The fact that it looked like a house rather than a barn – and was probably a dwelling centuries ago – made no difference. In planning terms it had similar legal status to a barn.
Our initial meeting with the council’s conservation officer to discuss a new planning application was nevertheless a shock: her first reaction was to say that there had been too many conversions in the neighbourhood and they had decided not to allow any more. It began to seem as if we had bought a very expensive shed.
While we waited for our planning consultants and architects, Hollins of Framlingham, to resolve our problems, we spent days at a time camping upstairs, dining on fish and chips and warm white wine, thinking through how we would turn the building into a home and worrying whether we would ever get permission to do what we wanted.
Hollins eventually solved the problem by finding a way to get the original 1983 planning permission reinstated. If work is not started within three years, a permission expires, but if the job can be shown to have been properly under way, permission lasts indefinitely. The council had no records of the project starting, but using builders’ receipts that the previous owners turned out of old files for us and the visual evidence of work that had actually been done, such as the rebuilding and strengthening of the chimney, it was eventually agreed that the original 1983 permission could be reinstated.
The whole process, including submitting detailed drawings for the new work we wanted to do, going through the planning and listed building processes, and finding a builder and getting his firm on site, took 18 months from the date we completed on the purchase.
Phase One of the building work was to repair the structure, install water, electricity and sewage, lower the ground floor to improve on the 1.7 metres headroom, repair the oak frame and rebuild the brick footings on which it rested. This proved to be a far from simple job. As shown in earlier posts, the building had to be jacked up section by section (a timber frame is very flexible), the rotten oak sole plates removed and replaced and the brick footings built back up underneath them. The floor was another big exercise, because the planners rightly banned concrete and insisted on a breathable substitute using lime.
We hired Robert Norman Construction of Framlingham to do the work, but to cut costs to meet our then strictly limited budget we left a long list of jobs to complete later. So while the builders did an excellent job finishing the main conversion in the summer of 2009, it took another four years until late 2013 to finish the work for which we had planning and listed building consent. This included repairs to the walls, inside and out, which involved lime plaster and wattle and daub, (where we learned the skills and did a lot of the work ourselves); commissioning Felix Oliver, who builds new oak framed buildings (Suffolk Timber Frame Buildings), to make the new stairs, and working with members of Suffolk Building Conservation Associates: William Clement Smith to continue with the oak frame repairs and Alan Wilkins and Rory Sumerling to plaster one big section of the outside wall.
As set out in the blog pages on our approach to the work, the basic rule was to repair wherever possible, and not to replace anything unnecessarily. For example, we have kept as much as we possibly can of the remaining old clay in the walls, and were delighted to receive written praise from Paul Harrison, the Mid Suffolk conservation officer, for our efforts. As we have seen so often when we have looked at modernisations of old Suffolk houses, the first instinct of many owners is to rip out any remaining clay and replace it. There’s a particularly egregious example within walking distance of us.
While we tackled the remaining jobs piece by piece over four years, we took time out to restore the old farm pond, which is the main feature of the house’s setting. (See the pond blog for details and costs). We also decided that it would be a mistake to build the tiny extension, the largest we could persuade the conservation officer to accept in 2007, and went back to the drawing board with Hollins to convince the council that we should be allowed to rebuild the part of The Old Brewhouse that had fallen down a few decades ago.
Since we could prove that it had been half as big again in the fairly recent past, we had a good case. We had a productive pre-application meeting with the planning officers and Paul Harrison (whose predecessor in 2007 had been so restrictive), and their views were fed back into the design; we took the trouble to brief the Parish Council, and won their support. All this smoothed the way to the planning permission and listed building consent we won in early autumn 2012 for a much bigger two-storey extension, designed by Hollins.
We started Phase Two, the extension, in January 2014. It is timber framed, in keeping with the spirit of the old building, even if technically very different. It combines a shape borrowed from the old building with modern detail such as aluminium doors and windows to prevent it looking like a pastiche.
There were some tense discussions over the foundations, which we were told would have to be piled, because it was to be built on clay next to a pond. (The old structure on whose site we were building had lasted quite a few hundred years, but rules are rules). Piling is very expensive, but DJE Construction of Attleborough, with Stroud Associates of Harkstead as our engineers, kept the cost very close to their original estimate, for which we were grateful, because the unexpected can be particularly costly where piling is concerned, and the design had to be changed several times.
We were lucky to find that Terry Booty of Booty Builders of Laxfield, along with Andrew and Tim, his two excellent craftsmen, were able to fit our extension into their schedule in the spring, and they completed it in the early autumn. They were multi-talented, with all the building skills between the three of them. (They only subcontracted plumbing and electrics, lime plastering the outside walls and the specialist metal roof on the single story structure that joins old to new). Terry was happy for us to take on some of the sourcing and ordering, notably the aluminium windows and doors (Kloeber) , the spiral staircase (British Spirals and Castings, formerly Cottage Craft Spirals) and the slates (Glendyne from Cembrit) , and we also researched and specified the oak front door (Jonathan Read, Malcom Neeve Joinery), the tiles and – with advice from lime specialists – the external plaster and paint, which was limewash from Ingilby’s of Glemsford.
This all meant some interesting weeks visiting suppliers in East Anglia, London and as far afield as the Peak District (for the stairs), comparing specifications and costs and double and treble checking every measurement. It was a relief to find that our paperwork combined with Terry’s accurate sizing of window, door and stair apertures led to an exact fit for everything we had ordered. Terry had earlier shown his measurement skills by accurately pegging out the foundations, which was particularly tricky because the extension is at a lower level than the old building, and at a slight angle to it, so that it looks straight down the middle of the pond.
Our project has taken a long time, but we have no regrets about the delays, which gave time for reflection: as a result, we were able to change our minds for the better on a large number of issues, most notably the extension, where the original proposal just wasn’t ambitious enough. If we had charged ahead and finished the project in one go, it would have produced a much less satisfactory result.
Our revisions of the plan to add a much bigger extension meant that the project was much more expensive than we foresaw when we first took it on. The two big hits were the extra expense of the foundations and the loss of zero VAT rating for extensions to listed buildings in the 2012 budget, which affected phase 2 of the work. Our early difficulties getting planning permission were also expensive and time consuming to resolve through the consultants, but it was worth every penny, or we could have had an unusable farm service building on our hands. Overall, we spent about £1,275 a square meter in building costs before VAT for the conversion and extension taken together, which is in line with many of the examples given in Homebuilding and Renovating magazine. Including VAT at full rate on the later work, the average for the project was £1,450, which is on the expensive side, but then the product is a quality extension combined with a fascinating mediaeval building.
Here are some more photos.
And here is a link to a post showing what it looked like when we arrived.