Conservation vs Restoration

So what are we doing with Stronvar? Are we conserving a building that’s performed many functions over the centuries? Are we restoring the original building or are we transforming it into a modern home, albeit one with a very obvious history?

In conservation circles restoration is often frowned on due to the poor standard of many past restoration schemes, where work has often been based on the most vague concept of what a building might once have been, in the process removing any later features, irrespective of their subsequent historical interest.

Mediaeval buildings in particular suffered at the hands of Victorian architects who ‘restored’ features which had never existed in order to create a retrospectively-imagined Gothick (with the ‘k’) aesthetic. So much of the time, restoration is best limited to the bare minimum, so that the authenticity of the building or object is not compromised and we retain the ability to ‘read’ the history of the building.

For example, where crumbling stonework has to be replaced, the new stonework might be carved to its original profile where it is clear what this would have been: where the original design is unclear, however, a new design may be preferable to conservationists since work which imitates the original can look fake, casting doubt on the authenticity of original elements and detracting from their historic value. On the other hand, repairs which stand out can also detract from the enjoyment of original architecture, so a balance is required where new work can be distinguished from the old without harming its character.

All that is fine for a building whose modern purpose is simply to exist, beautifully and historically. It’s a little different for a private home such as Stronvar, where we need to end up with a property that is a fit modern living and working environment, where we must therefore tread the line between changes that are sympathetic to the building, those which satisfy our own aesthetic judgement and functional need and those which bring the building as close as we can to modern standards of energy consumption and comfort.

So we’re trying to decide just how much, if any, of the 20th century alterations we keep. In fact, it’s been pretty easy: most of the alterations were of either of poor quality, structurally dubious, or both. From the beginning, we’ve been intent on removing the blockwork partitions that divided the upstairs hay loft into three bedrooms plus a hall: finding out that they were simply built atop the original floor with no structural support below simply made the decision that much easier.

At the other end of upstairs, the old coachman’s accommodation is little changed, this forming the current living room and kitchen/diner. At some point though, the original stair well has been partitioned off from the kitchen and a large boiler cupboard installed. Our plan is to remove the redundant boiler cupboard, open up the stair well, restoring more of the original space and then taking it a step further by gallerying the kitchen into the stairwell. That last is very much a 21st century notion, but so be it.

The existing outside doors are standard early-80s Wickes glazed jobs, with the frames packed out to fit, so they can go, to be replaced with modern takes on the original style of doors that would have been fitted.

The vast quantity of pine cladding that turns much of the house into a 1970s time-warp must go: Yes, I’m sure that 70s retro will come back at some point, but we’ve already been there once and it’s an aesthetic that we’ve no wish to revisit. So that goes, with the exception of a bathroom ceiling, with that to be painted.

At some, point, the large byre has also been partitioned along its length, into a bedroom at one end, a large central living room and an entrance hall with adjacent shower room. All of that was used by the previous owners as a self-contained holiday let. The stone wall that divided the byre from the dairy  has been fitted with a curved arch and pine doors, beyond which is another small entrance hall leading to the dairy (now two bedrooms and a bathroom) and the stairs.

This makes for two unsatisfactory halls, neither with much room for the storage of outdoor clothes and the putting on/removal of boots & wellies, all of which are local essentials. So this is one of the few places where we’re making any changes to the original fabric: removing the added arch and doors and then enlarging the doorway to merge the two halls into one large entrance area. We’re keeping the hall and bedroom partition in the byre, just adding an en-suite bathroom to the bedroom.

At the other end, we’re taking out the partitions that divided the dairy, to leave one large bedroom and en-suite bathroom.

Back upstairs, the current living room in the east wing, which is to become the master bedroom, has had a couple of Velux windows installed over the years, with the roof beams raised at one end only to accommodate them. That leaves a rather intriguing structure, one that we’re going to leave as is, albeit thoroughly insulated and painted.

The main roof has proven interesting: much of the whole roof space has been inaccessible due to several levels of false ceilings that have been introduced over the centuries. In the westernmost third of the north wing, it appears that there are only high-level tie beams which, if we were to board above them, would give us a new living room in the restored hay loft with something like a 4.5m ceiling. The eastern 2/3 of the north wing has horizontal tie beams at about 3m from the floor, with then something over 2m clearance to the roof ridge – with removal of the upper tie beams being subject to the workings-out of our structural engineer, we might have the basis of a very usable roof space.

So, to return to the questions of my somewhat rhetorical opening paragraph, what we’re actually doing is a bit of everything:

  • Restoring many of the original spaces of the building, albeit with a new purpose.
  • Conserving original features where possible, revealing them in places where they’ve been hidden for decades.
  • Transforming the whole into a house that works for us (see previous post) and which will hopefully take it forward another couple of hundred years.

We’re both heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement: not just the visual simplicity of the era but the ethos of commissioning hand-made craft products that are not just fit for purpose but whose quality is satisfying in its own right. In John Ruskin’s own, albeit slightly pompous, words, “There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey“. So our focus is on quality and simplicity over tawdry bling – we’re not renovating the place to make a fast buck: we’re doing so to live our life here, with a nod to future generations who will have to live with the quality (or otherwise) of what we’ve done. Of course, any job with a finite – if currently indeterminate – budget will have compromises along the way, but we’re hoping to keep those to areas that can readily be upgraded as future funds permit, with the core work being done to the best quality we can afford. So it’s time for a deep breath: Here goes…


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