One thing that has often puzzled me about British society is the obsession with preserving old buildings.
Some things, regardless of age, are certainly worth keeping for posterity. To be admired and enjoyed by future generations.
St Paul’s cathedral.
Other things were silly when they were created and then preserved as a monument to human folly.
The Cerne Abbas Giant, with its eleven metre long tribute to viagra.
The Lloyd’s of London building, serving as an expensive maintenance reminder of why the innards of a building go on the inside for a reason.
The London stone, that underwhelming monument to ignorance and fleecing tourists. Famous for being famous, but nobody can explain why.
One thing I’ll never understand about British culture is the obsession with “character” properties.
This expression doesn’t refer to a one-of-a-kind masterpiece designed by an architectural genius like Frank Lloyd Wright or Antoni Gaudí. Architectural creations designed by masters of their craft, exhibiting truly unique characteristics.
Instead, it typically refers to the common design features typically observed in mass-produced housing styles named after the reigning monarch at the time.
In other words, seeking to conform to the fashions of times long past.
Single glazed sash windows, once state of the art, but now often draughty energy-inefficient indulgences.
Multiple fireplaces, invariably sealed up, having long been rendered obsolete by gas central heating.
Mock-Tudor cladding. Even in times long past fashions sought to recapture the “good old days”!
People find reassurance in nostalgia. Their homes looking and feeling similar to those they grew up in. Or, more often, representing the homes that their parents or grandparents aspired to all those years ago. Except now featuring big-screen televisions and multiple bathrooms.
To somebody who wasn’t raised in this environment, it makes little sense. Yet it is what the local market demands.
Living in a space ship
A couple of months ago I was inspecting a property that the estate agent disparagingly described as the “space ship”. He was one of those insecure agents who feels compelled to escort punters through every room, offering a constant prattle of inane commentary about “period” features interspersed with salacious gossip about the dire financial circumstances and poor taste of the current owners.
Or in this case, about where the period features had once been, before the uncultured current owner had torn them out as part of a renovation that transformed a once dark and cramped mid-terrace house into modern open plan home. It looked like an interior design magazine brought to life.
In the eyes of the agent, a travesty.
A crime against taste and reason.
Irreparably destroying the traditional character of the property.
To me, it looked like a big improvement on the comparable properties I had viewed in the neighbourhood.
Based upon the asking price, it appears my view was in the minority!
The property had been on the market for some time, which was unusual in those pre-pandemic days where supply was scarce and demand was strong.
The asking price had been originally set at market price for the area. Calculated based upon comparable recent sales in the neighbourhood. Using those figures it is usually possible to figure out a rough price per square foot guideline as to what a given property could be expected to fetch on the open market.
Location plays a key role in how this guide price gets adjusted for an individual property.
Close to schools, shops, or public transport is a plus. Too close however, and these become a minus.
Nobody wants a bus stop in their front yard. Or to live above an underground railway tunnel.
A location directly over a curry house or below a fishmonger may discount the price.
So too would living next door to the delivery bay of the local supermarket, where those noisy early morning deliveries of delicious baked goods would be a daily occurrence.
In the case of the “space ship”, the asking price had been dropped.
The sellers had discovered they would need to offer the property at a discount to entice prospective buyers to look past the lack of “character”.
Their design choices seemingly offending the collective sensibilities of the market.
Their poor choice of estate agent certainly didn’t help their cause!
Cookie cutter convention
One of my guilty pleasures is occasionally viewing the property porn highlighted on Wowhaus.
Sometimes the properties are genuinely amazing.
More often they are simply carbon copy examples of a given architectural style.
Prettier variants of that same “character” theme. Adhering to a fairly strict set of rules governing what is acceptable for a given style of property. The accompanying write-ups often resemble those of the incompetent estate agent, either gushing effusively about faithfully conforming to expectation, or decrying attempts at innovation or modernisation that may in some way of compromise that “character”.
I remember once inspecting a fantastic example of this in action.
The property was a three-story end-of-terrace Edwardian house, located in an upmarket west London neighbourhood.
The neighbours were bankers, lawyers, and C-suite executives. Vehicles parked on the street were mostly posh family cars, Porsche Cayennes and Range Rovers. Randomly scattered amongst them was the occasional new Mini or midlife crisis supercar.
The local shops were organic butchers. Ethically sourced plastic packaging-free independent grocery stores. Expensive wine bars. Anyone seeking a McDonald’s or a Wetherspoons pub would need to learn to live with disappointment.
The estate agent met me on the street a couple of doors down from the house.
Slicked back hair unmoving in the strong breeze, capable of making television talking heads envious.
Tightly fitted shiny suit designed to highlight a body possessing the jockey-esque physique of a pre-pubescent teenage boy. Fashionable today. I couldn’t help reflecting that had someone worn a similar outfit to my high school of many years ago, the bullies wouldn’t have let them survive the day.
It is funny how some societal attitudes can change so completely, while others, like seeking “character” properties, remain steadfastly constant.
The estate agent started his patter with an apology for what I was about to see. Nothing that couldn’t be put right by a buyer interested in a project. The opportunity to add real value.
After that build up, I was fully expecting to see a disaster. A murder scene or meth lab. Maybe a half-assed DIY disaster. Perhaps a hoarder’s paradise. Possibly a former squat or a dormitory for illegal immigrants. Over the years I have seen them all.
It would certainly explain the asking price, well below what a property on that street should command.
The agent approached the front of the house, then continued around the corner and down the sidewalk along the cross street.
Puzzled, I followed him, soon realising that there was no door where the front door was supposed to be.
Halfway along the length of the house, there was a door in the brickwork. Unusual placement for a house that had not been subdivided into flats. Perhaps that was what the apology had been about, a flat conversion partially returned to a single-family home?
Normally this style of house are all configured pretty much the same. You know what you are going to get. Unimaginative mass-produced cookie-cutter clones.
A long narrow block with a postage stamp-sized front garden, usually paved and containing a couple of rubbish bins and not much else. Front door on the short side of the block, opening into a small foyer with a staircase upstairs running along the length of the long side wall. Living room off the foyer. Kitchen behind the living room. Sometimes a powder room under the staircase.
If the property had been extended into the backyard there would be a conservatory or second living room.
Upstairs there will be a bathroom, two mid-size bedrooms, and a small study/box room.
If the property has undergone a loft conversion, there will be another staircase into the roof. At the top of the stairs there will be either a large master bedroom and an ensuite bathroom, or two further mid-sized bedrooms. Whatever the configuration, the space is typically compromised by the shape of the sloping ceiling the loft conversion nestles within.
The agent took a deep breath, shot me another apologetic glance, and unlocked the door.
I walked past him and entered the house. It was stunning!
The owners had turned convention onto its head.
Instead of running the length of the long wall, the staircase instead cut across the width of the property. Neatly separating the kitchen from the living area. With the need for a foyer removed, both rooms were able to extend the full width of the house block.
The kitchen sat at the front of the house, oval-shaped dining table nestled into the large bay windows. Built-in appliances lining one long wall, and a huge freestanding kitchen island in the middle of the room. It was spacious and felt very welcoming.
Towards the back of the house, on the other side of the staircase, was a huge light and airy lounge room. My eye was instantly drawn to the back windows, which extended a full three stories high to create an atrium.
The sense of space it created reminded me of the British Museum’s Great Court, or Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
I walked to the huge glass panes, then turned around towards where the traditional back wall of the house would have been. The owners had removed the entire wall, replacing it with glass to create an effect more normally seen in upmarket office buildings or shopping centres.
Upstairs above the kitchen, a bathroom and large bedroom faced the street. Two further large bedrooms, one configured as an office, basked in the sunshine streaming through the huge atrium windows. The back wall of both bedrooms had glass partition at the bottom, like you might see on an apartment balcony. Huge concertina picture windows sat above each balcony railing, able to be thrown open to provide a mezzanine view over the lounge room below.
Upstairs again into the loft. The glass sided staircase opened out near the middle of the master suite. On the street side was a walk-in robe that ran the full width of the house block. Hanging racks and cupboards on the tall wall. Shelves and drawers nestled into the sloped angle of the roof. In the middle was a large make-up table, natural light provided by an overhead skylight.
On the other side of the staircase was a huge bed that looked out onto a balcony, and beyond towards an amazing view towards the City of London. An ensuite bathroom was located at the end of the bedroom, containing a large sunken spa bath with its own window providing a equally impressive view.
The house was a triumph of imagination. Taking the bones of a traditional terrace house, then reimagining it into a very liveable space where all the rooms were spacious and flooded with sunlight.
In the summer I suspect it would have got very hot, though the owners appear to have thought of this, with panes near the top of the atrium windows that could be opened via remote control to let hot air escape.
The skinny estate agent emerged up the stairs to stand behind me on the top floor balcony.
He shook his head in dismay, decrying how the current owners had crassly destroyed all the period features and “character” that typical buyers of houses in this neighbourhood so actively sought.
I looked at him in amazement. This was easily the most interesting and liveable terrace house I had seen during all my years residing in Britain. It was the sort of space I would have happily lived in, had my long term plans involved remaining in London.
Earlier this week, during our daily lockdown allotment of exercise, I dragged my kids on a long walk that ended up wandering past that beautiful house.
Or at least it should have done, except I couldn’t find it.
After doing a couple of laps up and down the street I worked out where the house with the atrium windows should have been.
In its place was a freshly painted period property. A well-presented clone of its neighbours on either side.
An older lady was washing her car further down the street. She had eyed us suspiciously as we searched up and down the street, before eventually demanding to know whether she could help us.
I asked what had happened to the atrium house?
Her eyes lit up.
“New owners bought that monstrosity for a song, but couldn’t afford all the structural work required to restore it. Then they went on holidays, and while they were away, it burnt down. Electrical fault or some such nonsense. Turned out to be a blessing in disguise, the insurance money allowed them to rebuild from scratch. They spent months searching through antique stores and builders yards to source all the period features that these properties are supposed to have.”
I thanked her for her help, then walked the kids home.
“That was a lucky break for the new owners” commented my elder son.
I glanced at him. After working with many insurance clients over the years, it sounded suspiciously like a friction fire to me. Caused by vigorously rubbing together two insurance policies to start a merry little blaze that conveniently solves all of the insured’s financial problems.
Either way, the owners got what they, the estate agents, and seemingly most of the population desired. A period property possessing all the “character” features one might expect.
Imitation in this case, but after a couple of year’s worth of accumulated pollution it will no doubt blend in nicely with the rest of the virtually identical period houses lining both sides of the street.
I was saddened by the demise of the house. I could only shake my head once more at the desire for conformity and lack of imagination exhibited by the general population.
- Gaudí, A. (1904), ‘Casa Batlló‘
- Mason, D. (2019), ‘How to tell if your property is Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian‘, Foxtons
- Murphy, J. (2020), ’13 Of London’s Oddest Buildings’, Londonist
- Wowhaus (2020), ‘1930s Gradna House coastal art deco property near Looe, Cornwall‘
- Wowhaus (2018), ‘Apartment in Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, London W10‘
- Wowhaus (2017), ‘Huf Haus for sale: Four-bedroom property on the Wentworth Estate, Virginia Water, Surrey‘
- Wright, F. L. (1936), ‘Falling Water‘