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