07 Oct Creating The Dream Character Home
The One And Only Bid At The Auction
It was Wednesday the 19th of September 2018. The day was apocalyptic with thunder and torrential rain storms sweeping across the race course.
I was sitting in a small hall at Uttoxeter Racecourse at a property auction. The lot numbers were crawling up, hundreds of thousands were being pledged for farms and land across Staffordshire. I just about held my nerve until the bidding got to the Brinsford Farmhouse lot.
The auctioneer started his usual mantra: “Do I hear half a million for this classic farmhouse set in green belt near the M54? Come people it is cheap at that.
OK, well let’s start at £450,000.”
There is a pause – the crowd wonders where the bidding will actually start. The auctioneer carries on downward and I’ve had enough, I raise my hand – fully expecting the auction price to rise again. There is silence – no one else bids!
Seconds later the gavel descends and I sit in stunned silence knowing that in moments I will have to walk across the floor and make good on the promise I have just made to the lawyers, who are sitting like expectant hens on the far side of the room.
Finding The Property
It had started only the day before I was looking for a property development opportunity – but I had been looking for months – driving around stunning English scenery and talking to the strange assortment of characters who regarded their land and property as a golden opportunity – but only for them not for any buyer. I had been repeatedly told that I only had to lower the floor by 2 feet and raise the roof and then I would own a stunning redevelopment opportunity. I had begun to think that anything that was for sale was not worth buying.
So, it was about 4.00pm on an overcast day when I drove down Brinsford Lane and saw the for sale sign above some barns and Brinsford Farmhouse. I stopped and pulled into the yard just as a car was pulling out. It turned out that it was driven by Christine – the estate agent for the sale. She asked if I’d like to look around and it seemed like a good idea. We walked around the barns and I was hooked – they seemed like a great opportunity. She asked if I wanted to look around the farmhouse and I said not really. However, whilst I was there – why not?
When I went in the house had an atmosphere of decayed grandeur with period features everywhere. There was some rudimentary central heating fired from a coal stove. The previous owner apparently didn’t trust this new fangled gas, apparently. There were two safes that the house clearers hadn’t managed to shift. The wallpaper was peeling. It needed a total refurb but there was a warm feeling – it spoke of the families that had grown and thrived in the countryside. It had clearly been created for a Victorian gentleman farmer. to prosper in with his family – to enjoy the fruits of harvest and celebrate the festivals of the year. I felt that I wanted to carry on that continuity.
I asked Christine how it would be sold, and she said that it was up for auction the next day! She emailed me the documents at around 6 o’clock and I spent the evening reading the provisos, terms and restrictions until I pretty much understood the legals.
Any proceeds from the sale were to be distributed amongst the local charities – which was a nice touch.
So now there I was walking across the hall and sitting down to sign away an awful lot of money to recreate a dream home. At an auction the deal is done there and then and within a month they hand you the keys.
Now I Own It
I travel over to the farmhouse and Paul appears and hands over the keys. Paul has worked on the farm since the 1960’s and knows everything there is to know. He asks me what we intend to do with the house and I tell him truthfully that I don’t know.
Over the next few weeks I talk to the builder we are partnering and the architect and a plan emerges. It’s not just the house though the outside space needs thinking about.
As we are mulling over the new design the insurance rep for the house appears and describes how scary her previous visits had been. The dog of the house was vicious and on a chain, which permitted a two feet gangway for anyone wanting to visit. Apparently, it snarled ready to pounce only to be choked back as the chain restrained the charge.
We decide the internal layout of the house needs to change radically. A modern house cannot have a rickety set of stairs leading up to a spider’s web encrusted attic. It needs to have new windows and insulation. We decide that we want the house to be simply the best.
All the paperwork has to start to ensure that we can get a structural warranty and building regs approval. There are health and safety concerns and documentation to be addressed and utility companies to be talked to. Everything takes longer than you expect and inevitably you can’t do one thing until another is done and the person that should do the first thing is on holiday. If we ever doubted that government agencies and utility companies only exist to serve themselves this process convinces us.
Eventually we agree with the architect the new improved layout for the farmhouse. We never want to lose sight that we are creating a unique home – one with luxury of course but also one with history and style.
There is going to be light flooding through the entire house showing off the views over the paddocks that will come with house. There are going to be innumerable real oak beams and features.
So, for the windows there are three ranges – good, better and best with prices to match and we need at least 17 of them. Of course, we choose the best and the costs start to mount. The staircase is going to be a masterpiece of premium oak – but it tests the skills of the architect and the joinery shop to the limit as it twists and turns ascending the building. Even then when it is finally delivered it needs a lot of careful modifications to finally slot into place.
It is obvious that the exterior needs to be restored – so the scaffolding goes up and as the winter comes on men toil to repoint each one of the 15,000 bricks and replace any damaged ones. They work in the bitter cold as the wind whips around the building, but we are fortunate – there is no snow.
The building is stripped down to it’s essentials and walls disappear in clouds of dust as new steels are put in to create a large open plan living space and kitchen.
We ponder long and deep about the kitchen – it has to be premium quality and we tick off the wish list, premium cabinets, American fridge freezer, range cooker, quartz worktops, a Belfast sink, copper effect handles, premium mixer tap, twin Belfast sink, central island. We hire a premium manufacturer and as the weeks pass they seem unable to deliver on their promises. It’s one problem we can do without and one that the courts will have to decide for us.
But, the heating system goes well with underfloor heating being needed on the ground floor. The pipes snake out from the manifold like roots from an Oak tree gone wild. Then they are screeded in and the screed floated.
The electric cables snake in superabundance across the house with multiple switches and sockets everywhere. There is feature lighting with many chandeliers. Our customer is going to expect Sky, Wi-Fi, Cat 6 Cabling, CCTV, Alarm Systems and all of the modern facilities – so we chose the best and get them installed.
If the kitchen was super important then so are the bathrooms, ensuites and showers. We choose an ultra-high end power shower with a wander head and then we need to buy 6 of them. In their turn they need premium shower enclosures which then need high spec tiles. All of this needs a water system which can cope with the high demands that we have specified – so twin massive pressurised water tanks have to be fitted.
As we near completion more choices need to be made. Where do we include fitted wardrobes? What doors do we select – they obviously need to be premium wood but to what design?
Floor coverings, carpets and paint finishes need to be chosen, all with premium finishes but on trend and on style for the modern family.
The craftsmen work long hours as the winter fades into spring and the summer approaches. The house starts to take shape as the luxury residence we have dreamed of.
Designing The Grounds
If the interior was important, we couldn’t neglect the grounds of the house. It had always been set in its own garden, but this was now overgrown and needed a complete redesign.
I had always been a firm believer in getting a garden designed by professionals. Finding a professional was difficult and but eventually we found a designer. The brief that we gave him was for a palace pleasure garden and the design that came back was one that was so intricate and so full of plants that were unobtainable that we had rethink big time.
We decided that we should devote a lot of thought and effort to designing the external spaces for entertaining and chilling. So we converted the existing 19th century privy into an outside pizza oven and kitchen complete with sink.
The outside entertaining areas were all clad in premium stone walkways, as we visualised the lucky owners walking out through the bifold kitchen doors to watch the sun set over their paddocks whilst sipping Sangria.
Their privacy and seclusion were all to be guaranteed by the massive wall that already surrounded the garden but was now crumbling and cracking. Well it was over a hundred years old. We reinforced it – repaired it and then finally rendered it with multiple coats of premium cream render. I fondly imagined nectarines and peaches growing against the wall ripening in their south facing aspect with the heat reflected from the smooth cream surface.
The new owners would clearly need a herb bed – so we created one complete with a premium Yucca at its heart.
In our minds we were now getting quite skilled at what we believed our new owners would need. So, when the main gates arrived that had looked so regal in the brochures we decided they were not sufficiently grand to lie between the magnificent gate pillars that we had created from the stones which the 19th century owners had recovered from a local church. So, we designed massive gates and had them made by a local carpentry company. Then, of course we installed power controls, CCTV and an intercom to go with the new gates. Nothing was going to be left to chance.
We designed a turning circle to adjoin the stone paving and edged it with granite sets – so our new owners could drive in comfort to their front door. It was built once and then redone as we continued to insist on the highest quality.
The whole of the garden area was now churned with the heavy machinery that had been used creating the turning circle and so we imported some hundreds of tons of soil and turfed a lot of the area with, of course, premium turf.
Then, finally we did some basic planting in the beds we had created – the annual beds glow with the bright shades of the begonias we have planted and the trees we planted sigh in the breeze.
Would I Do It Again?
Finding a home in a situation where such expenditure could be justified is a fairly improbable scenario. It costs a lot more to sympathetically restore an existing 19th century building and bring it up to 21st century standards than you would possibly imagine and far, far more than creating a new hoe from scratch. The reward of course is that you get a house full of character.
The process of conversion has relied on the combined efforts of a team of skilled tradesmen and it is good to know that they still can be found in this era of mass production.
I would recommend that if you embark on a project such as this that budgetary control should play a greater part than it did for us – but if you are creating a dream then it will be expensive.
Overall the result I think is an amazing amalgam of the ultra modern with character – a home that truly provides continuity in the countryside.