This is how to turn a decrepit listed building into a studio with a guesthouse

Herefordshire, England – When designer David Connor and architect Kate Darby decided to build a new office next to their home in rural Herefordshire, an English county that borders on Wales, the obvious choice was a site occupied by a completely overgrown, partially collapsed, 18th-century cottage originally with stables that they deemed beyond repair or restoration. Fast-forward four years and the cottage has been encapsulated in a new structure and preserved perfectly – rotten timbers, withered ivy, old bird nests, cobwebs and all. Instead of hiring a professional contractor, Connor and Darby chose to oversee the build themselves and to hire skilled workers as and when needed. ‘Doing it slowly gave us more control,’ said Connor. ‘We were able to make a lot of small adjustments.’

When you moved here eight years ago, did you think that one day you’d be converting the overgrown ruin next door?
KATE DARBY: We didn’t consider doing anything to the existing building until we had a conversation with the local conservation officer. The cottage was completely overgrown, difficult to get into and dangerous. We’d always assumed it was beyond repair and that we would demolish it.
DAVID CONNOR: It was in such bad shape that it was almost invisible – totally wrapped in ivy. People used to come here regularly and never even realize it existed. It looked like an ivy-covered wall.
DARBY: Since we are both drawn to contemporary architecture, we saw the project as an opportunity to make something exciting and new. Things changed when we learned that certain people thought the building was valuable. That was an interesting moment.

When the conservation officer said you couldn’t knock it down, were you crestfallen or did you immediately see it as an opportunity?
DARBY: David and I remember this slightly differently. I don’t remember him saying we couldn’t knock it down. He claimed it was worth keeping and said: ‘If you disagree, make an argument for it.’ For me, that conversation led to the idea of encapsulating it, which became an interesting solution and made me see the value in it as well. Neither of us wanted a situation that meant taking down the timber frame, repairing it in a shop and putting it back up again, only to end up with something that’s lost all the patina of age.
CONNOR: What we really liked was the quality of the surfaces, and by preserving the building, we could keep that quality. If we had tried to repair the surfaces, they probably would have fallen off, leaving us with something that looked like a restored pub.

You would have lost a lot more than just surfaces if you had repaired it...
CONNOR: Oh, a lot more. We would have had to build new roofs, rip out the windows, put new ones in – a horrible job. What we did was quite straightforward.

I’m intrigued by your use of ‘straightforward’ for a structure that’s sort of a folly, too. Isn’t it?
CONNOR: It is, but it’s fairly straightforward as well. In some ways it’s even a one-liner. You have a ruin and you put a new building over the top of it. That’s it. Sounds easy, but it’s difficult to do and quite expensive. It’s worth it in the end, though, because you get something that’s layered with history.

It was a joy seeing it all unfold as the contrast between the old and the new become more and more evident

What were your biggest technical challenges?
DARBY: One that was quite tricky involved the precision needed to fit a perfectly rectangular steel frame around the wobbly irregular rectangle of an old building. We had to decide how close the fit should be and how much tolerance we should allow. The prefabricated steel frame couldn’t be adjusted on site. We had to get it right the first time. Another challenge was where to place the foundations, which needed to be very close to the existing building. One advantage of a steel frame is that we didn’t need a strip foundation, and that meant a lot less disruption to the existing walls.

Was the project unusual in other ways as well?
CONNOR: Apart from the former stables – where there was nothing left and we were free to build in a conventional manner – we often did things the wrong way round. Normally, for instance, walls are built from both sides, but in this case we had to build new walls around old walls and could only work from one side. The builders had to use electric screwdrivers that went round corners. We installed all the plumbing and electrics in the gap between the two walls. There was a lot of expensive fiddly and manual work.

Why did you choose corrugated iron for the shell?
CONNOR: When we moved to the countryside, I looked around to see what building materials the locals used and discovered an awful lot of corrugated iron. Most people associate rural areas with thatch, but I saw sheets and acres of corrugated iron. In a way, our choice was just about using a local material. We had it rolled down the road from Leominster. The town is famous for steel and shedding, so we got all the flashing details specially made there, too.
DARBY: Leominster’s nine steel fabricators have grown out of an agricultural heritage marked by farmers who diversified by building big sheds. We saw steel as a new vernacular material and liked the story behind it, which is one of the reasons that we were keen to use locally made corrugated metal and to insert a steel staircase – also produced locally.

Can you recall a highlight or a surprise that emerged during the build?
DARBY: I definitely remember being excited by the idea that came out of our initial meeting with the conservation officer – the idea of encapsulating the existing structure. Afterwards, it was just a question of following that logic. There was also the joy of seeing it all unfold as the contrast between the old and the new become more and more evident.
CONNOR: We added two large pieces, the bathroom and the staircase, that had we got them wrong would have completely ruined it.
DARBY: I remember being excited by the solutions. For the bathroom, I wanted to do more of a box that floated out, but Dave really pushed for the idea of tucking it all under that purlin in the roof so that it’s recessed. Now you read it as a wall of cupboards. The difficulty was that what was there before was just as beautiful, so it was painful to decide which bits to sacrifice or to cover up.

You purposely made your insertions quite neutral, keeping them in the background and preventing them from competing with the texture of the old.
CONNOR: We took the view that everything we wanted to build had to be straightforwardly plain, because what was here was so good. We experimented with putting floorboards down and using tongue-and-groove panelling on the walls, but that gives you a lot of lines. We ended up choosing new stuff that’s flat and either black or white – materials and colours that do their job neatly and don’t draw attention to themselves.
DARBY: It was the same with the kitchen. It’s just a plain Ikea kitchen, but we wanted to reinforce the fact that it floats free, detached from the walls.

Have you grown to love the old structure?
CONNOR: Yes. I’m surprised by how well it’s worked for us on every level. But when a project imposes limitations or constraints on a design, it often make things better. Our lives aren’t supposed to be only about function. They’re also about making things a little bit more interesting.
DARBY: What I especially like about the interior is all the new things I’m still seeing as time passes. We both spotted this rusty tin in the kitchen the other day – an object we’d never noticed before. We didn’t add decorative touches, and I find that unpredictability delightful. I also like the mortar snots squidging through the wall and hanging down the other side. That’s what keeps plaster on walls, and you normally don’t see it. It’s a bit like sectional drawings, which I always find beautiful because they reveal what’s otherwise hidden. Here it’s like we’re seeing the section the whole time.

This piece was originally featured on Mark 71. You can purchase a copy here.

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