With glorious views across Somerset apple orchards towards the rolling Mendip hills beyond, the three-acre plot that surrounds the home of sixtime renovators Lesley and Steve Baker forms a bucolic scene. However, it could not have been more different when the couple first viewed the property in May 2006: the orchard was overgrown, while the house, four small former peat cutters’ cottages built in the mid-18th century from local stone, was so dark from tasteless light-stealing extensions that the pine-boarded interior presented a sorry sight.
In addition, the outside was covered in a heavy eye-offending render; but by far the most unpleasant sight was the ugly timber conservatory that extended all along the east-facing front façade. “It completely obliterated all the character of the cottages, which were extremely narrow one-up one-downs, so typical of this area 260 years ago,” says Lesley, an interior designer.
- Name: Steve and Lesley Baker
- Build Cost: £280,000 (£982/m²)
- Build Time: 2 Years
- Build Route: Self Managed
- Region: Somerset
“We wanted to restore light and life to the tired old building,” says Steve, an electrician. “The far end had been converted into a holiday let and was a very strange arrangement. By the time we stripped it all out – along with much of the rest of the building – we started work with little more than four walls and a roof.”
There was one main difference between this project and the six previous renovation projects the Bakers had carried out, backed up by their architect colleague John Blake, over the 12 years they lived in their former house near Bristol — this property was old. “John had worked on old buildings before, but we had not,” says Lesley. “However, we felt we were ready to take on a period project like this — only this time, to make it our home.
“We had been looking for a suitable old house or building to convert in a quiet location for at least two years when we found this. The price was about right and the size of the plot was perfect. In addition, this village, which is near Glastonbury, gives us good access to Bristol and other parts of the West Country,” she says.
However, though in love with the property, it was already under offer. It wasn’t until the prospective purchasers were unable to find the funds immediately, and Lesley and Steve came in with an improved offer and a pledge to confirm the deal within four weeks, that they were able to secure the property.
“The house gave us the opportunity to undertake just about as much as we knew we could take on,” says Steve. It was a massive task. However, they both had plenty of experience, and as well as being a qualified electrician Steve is also a very competent plasterer and a reasonably skilled carpenter. He gave up two years to the project, and Lesley the same.
Two years proved to be a very sensible time to allow. The couple went to great lengths to find a local building company, Boley and Skuse, who gave them a fixed price of £160,000 for the main demolition and building works, including repairs to the roof and chimney stacks, installing drainage, supplying and fitting the new staircase, insulating beneath the flagstone floors and building the new double garage.
It was a long list, but then there was a crisis in the company: a director became ill and had to retire, so the project fell behind. The bad summer of 2007 turned into winter and Steve and Lesley found themselves sleeping in the upstairs of the cottage nearest what was to be the new kitchen, and descending in their bathrobes to take a turn round the corner of the building, in order to use a bathroom that was disconnected from the rest due to building the work. This went on for several months.
“It was not what we expected but we all know how common overruns are in this business,” Steve says. “There were no hard feelings on our part and it was an amazingly happy site considering there were 22 people working here at one stage. We knew our builders were capable of first-class work — we just had to be patient.”
Once detailed planning permission for the alterations to the building was granted, the couple decided to buy a small strip of land to the rear. “We had planned in a new conservatory and our architect John stressed the importance of this land — it was badly needed if the new conservatory was really going to work as the property stretched right to the boundary,” Lesley explains. “Steve and I knew the project would be perfectly viable in any case, but we also knew that if we could obtain a strip at the rear it would make all the difference.” For £4,000 they succeeded, and it has provided them with a sizeable area of lawn outside the large conservatory.
John has added carefully calculated openings in the rear wall, so that light floods in through the conservatory to join light coming in from the front windows and illuminate what was previously a very dark interior. “These peat miners’ cottages must have been really dark as they had no upstairs windows at the rear and were very narrow,” Steve says.
Next to this a new two storey extension in cavity-walled masonry has solved the upstairs problem so common in old cottages and converted terraces of how to access all the bedrooms without passing through others. At the top of the stairs, some careful calculations were needed to ensure there was headroom for the fullsized bathroom that serves three of the four upstairs bedrooms. The new main staircase has also enabled the creation of a front hall and the removal of a staircase in the third and fourth cottages, formerly the holiday let.
To the right of the staircase up a small step is the largest bedroom, which Lesley and Steve may ultimately let as a bed and breakfast. The other three bedrooms all run off from the top of the new stairs. The masterstroke is a completely new large opening on the first floor at the rear which brings in masses of light to the landing and also acts as a balcony that overlooks the new conservatory, helping to tie it in to the rest of the house.
During the project, John had several anxious moments, including the couple’s decision to remove the front render and leave the blue Lias limestone bare. “We have repointed it all and because the house faces east – most of the weather here comes from the west – I don’t think much rain will penetrate,” John says.
Getting cottage windows right
The type of windows found in cottages has varied over the centuries, with different styles having more prominence in different regions; however, the most traditional style is a small casement window made of timber (sometimes small paned) or cast iron (small paned with square or diamond leaded lights) set in timber or stone frames — although during the 18th century, double-hung sashes were adopted in more substantial cottages. Where possible, restore old windows, but if they must be changed, or you are building new, there are a few principles you should follow. In old cottages, the windows tend to be a mix of sizes and styles (including both sashes and casements) — cottages were the homes of some of the poorest members of society and practicality ruled over fashion and consistency when windows needed to be replaced. Openings were also on the small side, so you may have to compromise on quality of natural light. Unfortunately, it is difficult to comply with Building Regulations without fitting double glazing, resulting in a less-authentic ideal of small-paned windows with fine glazing bars. However, there are more elegant versions available, where thin bars are bonded to both sides of the glass.