Russell and Jannette Harris have overcome eight years of personal and financial hardship to transform a water tower into a stunning minimalist home, their personal Everest and Overall Winner of the 2005 Homebuilding & Renovating Awards.
During the eight years it has taken the Harris family to transform a derelict water tower into their home, they have endured both physical and financial hardship, sold their possessions to boost dwindling funds and relinquished holidays and even friendships in order to fulfil their dream. “What began as a whim turned into our own personal Everest, and there were times when we thought we might never move in,” admits Russell Harris when he talks about what he terms “the great-granddaddy of all make-overs”.
Russell, his wife Jannette and their children had lived in the picturesque Cheshire village of Lymm for a number of years and were familiar with the tower a crumbling 130-year-old landmark straight out of a fairy tale which had been redundant for 30 years and was serving as a platform for a number of mobile phone aerials. Russell, a television presenter and producer, would walk his dog along the footpath by the side of the tower and, when it came onto the open market in 1997, he impulsively put in a bid of £138,000 and bought the stone structure.
Suddenly he and Jannette found themselves the owners of a Grade II listed building and had to decide exactly what to do with their new acquisition. Intent on creating an inspirational family home within the tower they battled with planners and local opposition over a period of five years, during which time architects came and went and the couple almost lost heart. However, a chance meeting with Barry Harvey of Redrow Homes gave them the inspiration they needed to get their dream back on track.
Barry introduced the Harrises to Ellis Williams Architects, where Julian Baker took on the project and became not only an inspiration but also a family friend producing drawings which focused on blending contemporary design with the buildings traditional features. In order to convert the tower into a practical family house it was necessary to build a wrap-around extension, which follows the shape of the octagonal tower and consists of a series of outward-looking living spaces.
The high-level convex glass faade creates the impression that the roof is floating above the structure, which has been designed so that the sun rises on the kitchen and sets on the dining area, with the summer lounge positioned in the middle, facing due south. A double-height entrance lobby opens into the reception area, and a ramp leads into the main living room, with changes in level defining the functions of the ground floor spaces. The narrow upper floors of the tower accommodate bedrooms, above which a decked roof garden with a teak hot tub enjoys views of the Cheshire countryside to the outline of Manchester 20 miles away.
Planning permission for the conversion and extension was eventually approved in 2002 and building work could finally begin. The tower was in desperate need of substantial restoration and a detailed structural engineers report found the existing water tank to be expanding, due to corrosion, which had caused cracking in the stonework. Additionally, the turret at the top of the spiral stairs had been damaged by movement of the original flagpole.
An unsightly selection of antennae on the roof of the old tower generated rentals from various telecom operators and were, therefore, essential in contributing to the funding of the Harris conversion, but blighted an otherwise stunning historic building. The solution has been to rehouse the antennae in a purpose-built extension to the existing stone turret, which effectively conceals them from sight, and to recycle the heat they produce back into the underfloor heating system of the house.
The main tower was sandblasted and the original water tank removed, with new holes punched into the thick stonework. Huge steel frames were then hoisted into place to support the concrete floors, and argon-filled double glazed units fitted before foundations could be laid for the extension of rendered blockwork and structural self-cleaning glass. Around 25 tons of steelwork has been used in the construction of this additional living space and for the floors and roof in the original tower, with Russell paying day rates to many of the tradesmen because of the sheer size and complexity of the project a factor which sometimes made it difficult to keep track of costs.
Over 60 partnership companies were involved in the construction process, with Russell giving up work to take on the demanding role of project manager. Dramatic problems occurred at almost every stage, costs spiralled and spirits plummeted. If something could take three weeks instead of a day to complete then inevitably it would, and the family watched dispiritedly as recently applied render washed off the walls in the rain, effectively setting them back yet another week.
“When we were first considering the project we estimated the cost of the build at around £75,000, but the last time I looked at the quantity surveyors report I needed therapy for a fortnight!” Russell laughs. The latest figures indicate a total closer to £550,000 a sum so large that the family sold their possessions and bought a clapped-out old car in order to secure enough funds to complete the work.
“Our tower was built in 1870 and was sponsored by the local landed gentry, which is why it is so beautiful – the classic romantic Rapunzel tower – but it also has a tremendously utilitarian feel to it,” says Jannette. “Since taking on this project we have become passionate about modern, contemporary architecture, and wanted the interiors to be as simple and uncluttered as possible. We chose seamless white liquid resin flooring for the main living spaces and added colour with the lighting, which was designed by Kate Wilkins who was responsible for the lighting scheme at the Tate Modern.”
Every detail has been carefully considered and the end result is both contemporary and luxurious. The winter lounge within the base of the tower is a modern, minimalist snug, wrapped inside a curving wall which acts as a screen for projected images, and is simply furnished with two modular Italian sofas, a low white table and two dramatic lights hanging from the ceiling to either side. In contrast, the summer lounge forms the heart of the open plan living space, and enjoys a breathtaking vista through glass doors across the garden. Two red sofas face each other across a low table and a wood burning fire sits centrally in front of the glazing.
Steps lead down to the open plan dining area, overlooked by a gallery, a striking transparent pendant light hangs over the circular white table. To the other side of the summer lounge stands the double-height kitchen, where curtain wall glazing looks out onto decking, bamboo and a shallow black pool. Enclosed in white rendered walls, this water feature produces wonderful reflections of the tower when the early morning light hits the water.
Frosted glass stairs behind the kitchen lead up to the first floor, where the opulent six-metre-high master bedroom contains a low, modern bed standing against a back-lit headboard. Three fabric panels hang down to create a more intimate space and an oak staircase leads up to the gallery, where a bath supported on oak blocks and twin basins perched on an iroko table form part of the en suite bathroom.
Such luxury was in stark contrast to the rented accommodation where the Harris family lived for four years. “We didn’t go out for dinner or on holiday and lived in our work clothes,” says Russell. “One night I came back from the site caravan to find a strange man in our rented house – then I realised it was our son whose voice had broken. If I wanted to be flippant I would advise other self-builders not to put themselves through it. Sometimes I wished we had never bought the tower, but the camaraderie of the team kept me going, and the first time we soaked in the rooftop hot tub with its 360° views I knew it had all been worth it.”