The blog

Roger Hunt is an award winning writer and blogger specialising in sustainability, old houses, housebuilding and traditional and modern building materials. He is the co-author of Old House Handbook and the companion volume Old House Eco Handbook.

Restoration Home

Restoration Home

This is not my first blog about old buildings and television but the new BBC2 series Restoration Home can’t be allowed to pass without comment. For those who missed the first episode the series is presented by Caroline Quentin, who “has a deep passion for old buildings”, with the help of architectural expert Kieran Long and social historian Dr Kate Williams.

“As the new owners transform the buildings into their homes, the family trees of these crumbling ruins start to emerge” and “as each building is rescued from the brink of dereliction by its new owners, secrets long since forgotten of previous ones will be revealed,” explains the BBC press release.

This sounds good: a programme which raises the profile of old buildings and the need for them to be saved. The down side is that what Restoration Home, like so many other programmes of it genre, doesn’t understand is that saving an old building for the long term is about more than a passion for DIY and exciting discoveries – it’s about context and careful execution. There is the very real danger that the wrong signals are sent out to all those people who are contemplating doing their own ‘restorations’.

Quite simply, it makes it seem as if owners can do anything they like to an old building. The church featured in the first programme is grade II* listed and, while I vaguely heard reference to listed building consent at the start, it was made to seem like a formality with no further consultation once the work had started. Building regs weren’t even mentioned.

For dramatic effect the final pieces of the history of the building were conjured up in a concluding Agatha Christie like summation, when all the protagonists were brought together. Wonderful that there was some archival research but this should come at the beginning of a project so that it can help guide the decisions taken in the work that follows. And please note, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott did NOT design St Pancras.

As was acknowledged, churches are notoriously hard to turn into homes. Good that this was mentioned but it would have been useful to have discussed why. Towards the end Quentin got excited about the ‘rooms’ that had been created. She should have been questioning the loss of volume to the building’s interior, how the new mezzanine floor might have been designed to avoid the proportions of the windows being obscured and how services are brought into a building such as this.

Conservation advice was apparently lacking. It was good that an area was tested and that work stopped when the chemical stripper ‘liquidised’ the decorative paintwork but not so good that a scraper was then used.

Heath and safety can be overdone but I do worry when I see wrongly erected scaffolding and no face mask when cutting MDF. And on the subject of MDF, those ‘Gothic’ arches; what would the original architects have thought? The only plus point is that the couple’s falling out over the design elicited the best line of the evening: “It’s a change, I’m perfectly happy to make in exchange for conjugal rights”.

There were serious omissions: breathability, the use of lime and, except for the example of secondary glazing, no mention of energy saving measures. The cross head screws used to fix the ‘gothic’ details were horrible.

All in all this was very much a surface exploration of old buildings which cobbled together other popular TV themes – property makeovers, heritage and genealogy. What can’t be denied is the enthusiasm, energy and dedication of anyone who teaches themselves all the skills needed to undertake such a project and who replaces 7,000 slates singlehandedly.

I’ll be watching the next programme, if only because its subject – a pumping station in West Sussex – is just down the road. If the owners chance to read this, I’d love to be invited round to see their achievement!

Image credit: BBC/Endemol

29 Responses to Restoration Home

  1. Well said, Roger. You are better at controlling your anger at this than I am.

    I was undecided whether to put myself through it again for Ep 2 but you’ve persuaded me to give it a go, if only so I can make informed comment afterwards.

    Maybe Ep 1 was an aberration and all will be well but there was so much cause for despair that I can’t hold out too much hope.

  2. I imagine tonight hasn’t made you feel anymore positive – what a shameful waste of a building, made worse by the fact the owner is a member of the built environment profession

  3. I’m just glad I wrote this blog about last weeks programme, at least I could find some good things to say. Tonight’s was not restoration, it was new build and shocking vandalism of our built heritage – BBC2 should be ashamed.

  4. To be glib about this – well, I’m not at work after all – I would say two things – one is, as an atheist I do rather enjoy watching churches being messed with, architecturally important or now. On the other hand it’s hilarious to watch the car crash which was their design sensibilities. Was the kitchen unit really supposed to look like a font or what? Secondly, remember that TV shows really struggle to get people to do this sort of thing. We had a C4 indy producer visiting recently at work begging us to help supply them with a couple like this for some silly prog idea they’d thought up.

  5. I felt the owners of the pump house in tonight’s programme lacked creative vision in retaining some of the building’s historical fabric, ie. staircase and balcony. The altered external appearance of the building with the bright white render had an adverse effect on the buildings contextual setting in relation to other brick buildings around it which probably date from the same construction period. I fully appreciate the need to update the building in relation to energy saving, however this could have been adhered to the buildings internal walls. Retention of the buildings roof-lights would have been good too.

    Although the presenters researched the buildings tangible and intangible historical, and architectural evidence, what the owners created is unidentifiable to this and a great loss in terms of local significance.

    A simple conservation statement would of gone a long way in understanding the building’s history before any work had begun…would be great to know what the local conservation officer thinks!!!

  6. Enough is enough now. These “restoration” programmes are positively dangerous to our built heritage. They set back the good work of the building conservation movement a full decade or more and send out completely the wrong message to the public at large, even encouraging those with some odd desire to ‘do up’ an old property in whatever way they see fit. English Heritage, the amenity societies and the heritage profession itself need to take a stand, starting with (I might suggest) an open letter to both the BBC and Channel 4 (in particular) expressing disgust at the way this subject is handled on TV in the search for ratings. I might even go so far as to suggest that ‘Restoration Home’ be pulled completely, or at least renamed to something more appropriate to the content.

  7. 12 July pump house.
    Why? Fell in love with the building, I dont think they did.
    what a wasted oppertunity and a sad end to such a interesting building. This was not restoration but major alteration to the buildings detrement. Such a dissapointing conversion, a big but boring family home lacking any charm or link to its past. Wish it had been listed as its destruction is now complete.

  8. A fair summary, very well put Roger.

    ‘saving an old building for the long term is about more than a passion for DIY and exciting discoveries – it’s about context and careful execution.’

    Unfortunately, there is a common theme that pervades the current run of ‘restoration’ programs that focus on the achievements of the DIY’er and don’t highlight any of the consequences.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of your comment that the home owners’ ‘enthusiasm, energy and dedication’ was inspiring, and, he did manage to complete the project.

    However I question whether he has become ‘skilled’ in anything he has taught himself. Having had much experience working on old buildings myself, I know that each of the skills required to complete a project to the level of expertise necessary for this type of conversion takes many years to perfect, not months; which is why specialist professionals should have been brought in to work on this listed building to get the job done properly and to an acceptable standard. A specialist was brought in to restore the stained glass, but what about everything else?

    People with traditional craft skills have many years of experience and knowledge, often handed down through many generations. We need to publically promote their expertise or this knowledge will be lost forever.

    As regards the 2nd installment, Richard seems to have summed it up well.. ‘These “restoration” programmes are positively dangerous to our built heritage.’

  9. Now seen Ep 2. Oh dear! I’m with Richard & James on the damage this kind of broadcasting might do.

    How did this programme get into a series about “restoration”? It was clear the only feature of the building the owners had any interest in was its size. I sensed even they started to feel a bit guilty when confronted with the craftsmen and the concept of their pride and attention to detail.

    At least KL was appalled, though he seemed able to overcome this feeling when he thought about his fee. I have a faint hope that the attention lavished on the single door handle salvaged from the wreckage was intended as a veiled condemnation of the rest.

    One assumes Mr Sweet (who’s most honest contribution was to describe himself as smug) hoped the exposure would be good for business – may he get what he deserves!

  10. I don’t want to appear too cynical, or smug for that matter, but are we not expecting too much from these TV programmes? From my experience, the short attention span of the audience and the agenda of the producers will always result in an unsatisfactory programme. Invariably they are more interested in personalities – whether playing up the personal mannerisms of the presenter (e.g. whispering or plain over-the-top eccentric), acting as a grandstand for TV ‘personalities’ from other fields or making a victim of the protagonists. If one can persuade someone to dress up in period costume, so much the better and real brownie points for attempting to force a rather stiff (and clearly reluctant) architectural historian to dance a gigue.

    I have had many brushes with such productions; from a Kevin McCloud episode where his victims were setting out to restore a North London shop with the thickest pair of rose-tinted spectacles imaginable, to a day spent on a Janet and John hunt for pigments in rural Oxfordshire. “Oh look” what’s this that we have stumbled upon?”

    Some months ago I was approached by a TV team who wanted advice on ‘restoring’ an Etruscan dining room in a 16th century house where it had never existed. They didn’t bother answering my email asking for more information. Yet, two months later, the same researcher approached me for advice on “wacky” 17th century marbling for another room. Oh and there’s never any question of being paid for ones time.

    Several times bitten, now very shy, I avoid watching many of my colleagues being made to appear fools on these ridiculous programmes.

  11. classic hypocrisy from the bigots of Blogsphere…they cut the part where we insisted it was not a Restoration project but rather a Renovation. The building had lost it’s function and had blighted the neighbourhood for 30 years. Others might have demolished it but we wanted the spaces it gave us….which would never have achieved planning consent as a new build

    Good grief

  12. To be fair to Nick Sweet, he’s right about no editorial control.
    A pal of mine was restoring an old French farmhouse a few years ago. He was approached by some programme makers, but once they realised he was experienced and knew what he was doing they lost interest. They were looking for a car crash.
    Regarding the pump house, personally, I’d like to have seen more of an Art Deco vibe about it, but then, it’s not my money or my building 🙂

  13. The Pumping Station episode was an absolute travesty. The pompous windbag husband should be hung drawn and quartered for crimes against architecture and the ugly building he created should be bulldozed. This project was as far removed from ‘restoration’ as it is possible to get. Perhaps the programme should be renamed ‘Conversion’ and not trick viewers into thinking that any actual restoration is taking place. Oh, and Caroline Quentin’s inane chatter is just offensive. Go back to dreary, no-brainer sitcoms love – that’s what you’re good at.

  14. So…we all agree…the misnomer is ‘Restoration’…otherwise it is my money and my building which would otherwise be rubble

    An interesting snippet this though: the Sussex Heritage Trust awards committee, who had the courage to visit and inspect the building and use their own names, presented us with their award
    For best small residential project last week

    Perhaps it just takes all sorts eh?

  15. It was not a renovation nor a restoration. It was hugely insensitive conversion, stripping out or covering over all that made the building interesting, every piece of history junked, turning it into a bland and boring box. It could have been so much better. Such a pity Mr Sweet did not engage a skilled architect with some idea of conservation, re-use of historic buildings and with sympathy for industrial heritage.

    Kieron Long said the right things, showed where the building stood within its period and architectural context, but that didn’t feed into what happened to the building.

    Sadly, so many will now wish to copy the Sweets, as this was on the telly and called ‘restoration’. Years of hard work by so many in trying to educate people in how to deal with historic structures wrecked in one hour on BBC.

  16. Nick Sweet

    Firstly, the people that have added comments on here are not hypocrites. If you take a moment to look them up and review a cross-section of their work, you will see that they are not pretending to hold beliefs that they do not themselves apply. Instead, there is a fair cross-section of people who practice what they preach, and who have experience in achieving a balance between what a building needs for its owners and users, and that which is sensitive to the heritage of the building and it surroundings.

    It is distressing to note that the editors and producers of the programme cut your differentiation between restoration and renovation. I also understand your general point about the building function and the impact of empty properties on neighbourhoods. I think it fair to say that all those who work with restoring buildings understand that without a useful function, no building can be maintained and kept as part of our heritage. I also understand that we cannot keep buildings preserved ‘in aspic’ for their own sake – in my eyes, that is of the same degree of waste as letting a good building crumble to ruin.

    That said, there are many people out there who have learned many tricks to help homeowners and developers get the most out of a building – in terms of space, value, build cost etc., but also in terms of quality, letting the history of the building guide and influence. This has led to fantastic feats of design and architecture, and led all concerned along a voyage of discovery, which are restored for future generations to enjoy.

    I hope there are lessons we can share with other homeowners looking to do the same to their own projects: take your time; find the right people to help you who’ve done it a few times themselves; research then adapt/repair/build/modify.

    Oh, and the other lesson. There’s allot of crap TV out there!

    David Sharpe

  17. Wrong again NR (why is it that you need a pseudonym? Be brave)

    We would have built a white box of some description on a clear site because that is our thing (and presumably a taste we are entitled to). The problem here is that a clear site would have been twice the price and beyond our budget. This site was marketed for years before we saw it and nobody took it on. Whilst the pumps and pipes were still there when we bought it, pretty much all detailing of any interest had been stoked or vandalized

    I think that if the building had previously been a residential use we would certainly not have bought it…rather leave it for someone wanting to live in an Art Deco house

    The thing we appreciated with the building was it’s frame…which was all that was left of any use

    The HDC Planning and Conservation officers were very happy to see the neighbourhood repaired and the blight removed

    Again, the misnomer is the term Restoration

  18. Who I am is not important, what I say is what many who spend every day involved with trying to promote sensitive re-use of interesting and historic buildings are saying. I can’t see where I am ‘wrong again’, having read my previous comment over, but presumably years of involvement with historic buildings and re-use clearly renders me unable to have an informed opinion.

    There is so much expertise available, so many publications about how to re-use industrial buildings, organisations which would have given advice, and this was in my opinion a supreme example of how not to do it.

    I think many (and the IHBC?) would be interested to read the supportive report of the local authority Conservation Officer for what was done to the fabric of the building.

  19. Nick,

    I have to say that I’m mystified that you still seem to be unaware that the programme was about “restoration”. It is in the title and repeated incessantly during Caroline Quentin’s droning on.

    I said above that I can’t understand why your project was included in the series. The thing is that it was and you can’t claim to be an uninvolved third party.

    The reason why so many of us who work in building conservation are so angry is because this project has been featured by a supposedly responsible broadcaster as a demonstration of how to restore a historic building.

    Because of the reach and influence of the BBC, one hour of very poor television has undone years of hardwon argument and education by many dedicated professionals. Most viewers, not well versed in architecture, conservation etc, will have taken away the belief that this is how restoration is done.

    I fully understand what you wanted to achieve and that you never considered it to be a restoration project. What I don’t understand is how you justify collaborating in the programme, knowing its declared restoration theme.

  20. Well aint this fun! I have no doubt that the pump house is a much loved home now and has been ‘saved’ from deriliction. I live in a modest 60’s semi and would have loved a oppertunity like this. Last week when i saw the trailer it filled me with hope, the space, the light, the different levels, those lovely aqua tiles……..unfortunatley most of this has gone. Did no one just say Stop look and listen……where is the green cross code man when you most need him?! I suppose its a question of taste and money. It is all too easy to be critical but this place could have been spectacular and kept its history. Didnt win the lottery this week, shame, but next week who knows i may be searching for a pump house and a film crew!!

  21. I have not before felt inclined to comment on a blog post, however, that Mr Sweet commented on the bigoted hypocrisy of what are perfectly well founded views upon a well written blog post, one looking at an initially underwhelming television program featuring his home project. One which appears to be setting an increasingly dangerous president, has incensed me to do so now.

    Putting the restoration/renovation confusion aside – of which, neither were apparent.

    The points made in the post and subsequent comments are well placed and correct, and seemingly, agreed by all. With the exception of yourself (interesting those points all made by those in the built heritage and conservation field, an area to which you purport to work).

    You state that you would otherwise have built a white box, however land for such a project would have cost you.

    You seem utterly oblivious to the fact that, instead of taking this direction, you chose to strip all feature and character from a piece of our industrial heritage, and reduce a building to suit your preferred white box. It is this act of mindless vandalism that has provoked this reaction from those who, possibly, as did I, immediately noted the potential this utility building held, glass partitioned walls, that stair railing, and not to mention a wonderful collection of ephemera relating to the history of the building, all of which available to you, and all of which removed by you.

    It is the lack of imagination shown in rendering over this building and its history that has incensed us bigoted hypocrites of the blogosphere to comment.

    Yours

    Livid.

  22. I too have never felt the need to comment on such programs, turning them off seems to work well for me. Now I dont work in this field or any qualifications on the subject but this has made me mad with anger and disgusted at the lack of local interest in this building. We should be treasuring our industrial heritage and can live along side it, not wipe it out in such a disgusting way. Its too late for this building……..was any thing salvaged, those lovely ships railings etc or was it just all taken to scrap? Mr Livid above has put it so well. Thanks, I cant believe how angry this has made me. Think if kevin McCloud had been involved it would have been so different, he would have stopped the madness.

  23. Not only was this a blatant rip out job where those massive feature industrial pipes were unceremoniously dumped and every other character piece seemingly thrown in a skip, the crude white box and interior was typical off the shelf modern living with nothing new or imaginative. It was Grand Designs of 10 years ago at best and the smug couple who thought they were being cutting edge and creative were even more annoying than Ms Quentin. It could have been brilliant but was sadly… Well… Sad.

  24. Fantastic debate so far and great to see that so many people share my opinions. Restoration Home has nothing whatsoever to do with restoration and any attempt to claim otherwise is harmful to the future of our built heritage and the profession that seeks to protect it. Such high profile and misguided coverage of this topic is cringe-worthy and I would support our learned societies in contacting the BBC to raise their concerns.

    Even our misguided Victorian restorers of the past with their conjectural makeovers believed that what they were doing was in the interests of the buildings. There was nothing on display in last night’s episode to demonstrate an ounce of consideration for the physical or industrial heritage of the building.

    Granted, the building wasn’t Listed but surely that was an oversight; the historical research identified sufficient significance to warrant some form of statutory protection.

    As a professional I would be ashamed to put my name to such a programme in the name of ‘restoration’ when the project so clearly demonstrates a complete lack of awareness of the philosophies of conservation. The building could quite easily have been adapted for alternative use without such dereliction.

    The end result may be pleasant to some, and congratulations on the award, but the building may well have been constructed new. Any claim that the building has been “saved” is pure fallacy.

    Lee Meadowcroft

  25. What would be worse? The complete ruin and demolishment of the building altogether (which it was headed for), or the conversion of the building into something completely different but still useful? I’d suggest the latter. While I agree that some of the details of the building (e.g. the original skylights, or a piece of pumping equipment as a sculpture in the front garden) would have been nice to maintain, at least there is the shell of the history of this building and not an empty lot in its place.

    Should it have been listed? Maybe, but it wasn’t and therefore was the owners to do with as they pleased. I think the finished product is quite nice outside the context of a “restoration.” The issue here is that the conversion belonged on a show like Grand Designs or somesuch, and not on a show that purports to be about restoring Britian’s heritage. Therefore, the argument shouldn’t be against the owner who did what he was entitled to do but the BBC for parading it as “restoration.”

  26. What an interesting read this makes…

    I am the son of an architect, who during his career was in charge of the restoration of the Tower of London, Greenwich Royal Naval College and the Chelsea Hospital and as a result of his passion I too have a passion for buildings. 

    I live in a 600 year old listed house and I am thrilled that many of the original features have been retained. I feel privileged to be the custodian of a small part of this country’s history. 

    However, conservation officers often live in a dream world where budgets are limitless and it is better to have the building collapse than have the wrong plaster or mortar used. 

    Where possible we should salvage what we can but it isn’t always possible. If the choice is dereliction and complete loss or a slightly tasteless renovation. Give me the latter every time. 

    Recycling these buildings means that they haves new lease of life and if some of the “features” are lost, well that’s the price we pay. 

    The Tate Modern lost it’s terrines and had the addition of a glass greenhouse roof and internal bracing…but as a result it will be there in 100 years, Battersea PS isn’t so lucky. 

    So to sum-up, we need to find a balance between saving something or watching our heritage rot, but let’s not forget not everyone likes Art Deco, Brutalism or Tudor and beauty is in the eye…

  27. Fantastic pictures, the building has such elegence…….sorry had.
    At least the pictures still survive. When you look again and review comments/thoughts I still just come up with one word ‘why’? Do the owners regret the drastic changes or are they oblivious to what has been lost? Their home is just what they wanted/planned and if unaware of the structure before you would probably admire their conversion but look again.

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