It’s always frustrating waiting for something — and it always seems the more you want something, the longer it appears to take. That is a bit like the planning process. As an architect, you would think applying for planning permission and listed building consent for your own house would be straightforward.
However, finding the time to make the application is challenging and paying clients always come first — plus we are perfectionists and want to make sure we get it right.
The positives are that we are getting to know the house, which is critical when renovating a listed building, as the application process can demand quite a lot of detail. The negatives are we may just have to last a winter without hot water or heating!
There are approximately half a million listed buildings in the UK, ranging from castles and cottages to public toilets. The oldest are over 2,000 years old and the youngest less than 50. Mabel’s is a Grade II-listed building, the category that makes up 91.7% of the listed building stock, with Grade II* making up 5.8% and Grade I, the rarest, at just 2.5%.
When it comes to undertaking work to a listed building, Historic England’s guidance is: ‘Listed building consent is required for all works of demolition, alteration or extension to a listed building that affect its character as a building of special architectural or historic interest.’
It is a common misconception that only the exterior is listed. When a building is listed everything is protected and consent must be sought to make any alterations to the fabric. It is an offence to make unauthorised alterations to listed buildings and the penalties can range from fines to custodial sentences. This is to protect them from a layperson removing something, which at first glance may seem quite ordinary, but an expert may consider to be of great significance.
Sometimes, an item’s significance is clear, for example our 18th-century elm-boarded staircase, which is a rare survival, is mentioned in the listing description for Mabel’s. Other items such as original plasterwork, architraves and door handles may not be mentioned but all contribute to the atmosphere and authenticity of the building so cannot be removed without consent.
It is a bit of a minefield, and conservation is a specialised area, so it is always best to consult an experienced professional or make enquires to the local conservation officer before making alterations.
Another urban myth is that you are not responsible for alterations made by previous owners of the building. Unfortunately, the conservation officer can request that you reverse or reinstate features and fabric that have been removed without consent, even if you were not responsible for the change. This can be extremely expensive.
Imagine having to reinstate an ornate, rare plaster ceiling or a beautiful marble floor to match a remaining fragment? At Mabel’s, unauthorised and unsympathetic work has been carried out by the previous owner, which ironically was Warwickshire County Council.
Our strategy, in order to mitigate the risk of expensive remedial work, was to carefully photo-document the building after the exchange of contracts, in order to demonstrate our lack of culpability. Conservation officers are only human and their concern is to protect our built heritage and not to make our lives a misery — we hope!