Do Something Constructive
With property prices outside London falling and idle contractors eager for work, you can take advantage — just tread carefully if you’re looking for an architect, says Clive Aslet
HOW HAS THE recession been for you? I’m not sure I’ve taken proper advantage of it. This ought to be the ideal time for me to buy a country house or — even better — build one.
As it is, I haven’t even commissioned an architect to do over property we already possess — although investing in the home or homes you live in has become a popular activity in these cash-strapped times. I’m missing out. House prices are low in many parts of the kingdom, and building work, which was inflating at a rate of eight per cent before the credit crunch, has become considerably more affordable as contractors try harder to find work.
Admittedly the message on price hasn’t entirely got through to prime central London, where a friend succeeded in selling a house in Belgravia within a few weeks of its going on the market, despite the fact that it was next to a pub. Strangely, despite painful inflation, the presence of so many super-rich people is having the effect of making London more expensive than ever. But be positive: there is also an opportunity here. Why aren’t more people taking it?
Part of the reason is that property can be such a hassle — and at a time of stock-market turbulence, the last thing one needs is to have one’s home taken over by builders. Employ an architect, you say, and the get the job done properly. That’s easier said than done. You must first find your architect. There are over 30,000 of them practising in the UK. If you happen to know one of them, you may be lucky — or not.
One woman of my acquaintance built a large, new country house, in a barely accessible location: ‘I know it is hideous,’ she told me. ‘Such an embarrassment. But you see, the architect was at university with me. I felt I had to use him.’
A property guru told me that employing a top architect could add fifteen per cent to the residual value of your house. Employ a dud, however, and the result might be visually or financially painful: if the person can’t get your project through planning efficiently, the house of your dreams may take years to construct. Time is of the essence. The couple wanting to create a house, in a suitably wholesome environment, for their young family may find it is not ready until the children are teenagers, reluctant to spend their leisure time more than a tube ride from the King’s Road.
No one could have loved architecture more than the late Andreas Papadakis, who spent his whole life publishing architectural books. He knew most of the leading architects of the world and collected their drawings, as well as those of the Pre-Raphaelites. When I saw him in Wiltshire some years ago, he said he was prepared to put a lot of money into rebuilding the missing wing of a country house he’d bought.
His new wing was simply to have been a replacement for one that, at some point, had been demolished. He’d hoped to work and entertain, while his equestrian daughter Alexandra wanted a stable for five horses. But after battling for two years, they gave up — not least because, in that time, Alexandra had had to sell three of the horses because she had had nowhere to keep them.
Another man with great knowledge of old buildings wanted to restore an ancient West Country farmhouse. At every turn, his efforts were blocked by the conservation officer, who, to his fury, was considerably less knowledgeable than himself. ‘At one point, she wanted me to keep a chimney stack built in the mid-20th century, although the fireplace had gone and it was now pressing down on one of the main beams of the house,’ he says. ‘I was ready to throw in the towel,’ sighs the owner of a Grade I listed country house in Dorset. ‘I said to my wife, “Let’s just sell and get somewhere without all this hassle.” It was two years before one brick could be laid on top of another.’
Sandy Mitchell upgraded a listed farmhouse in Berkshire. First he asked around, among family and friends, and commissioned the architect whose name was most frequently mentioned. I’m told that his first design, to convert outbuildings, not merely lacked all pizzazz but was also rejected by the planning committee — bad news for the householder, who will carry the stigma in the eyes of the planners for the rest of the project. Result: misery. That man was sacked.
Mitchell had a more thorough trawl of the profession and found a replacement: not only an inspiring and creative individual, but also someone who seemed to speak the same language as the conservation officer. Result: happiness. Mitchell has developed a mission to share his experience, and this autumn he launched the RedBook Agency, enabling potential clients to be put in touch with architects who suit their tastes and budgets.
The business takes its name from the books of drawings, bound in red morocco leather, which the landscape architect Humphry Repton gave to his aristocratic clients in the Regency period to demonstrate what he might do for their parks. Mitchell is equally committed to improving the domestic surroundings of the rich, in the best possible style. You have to wish him well.
Clive Aslet is a contributing editor of Spear’s and editor-at-large of Country Life