Owning a listed building is a dream for many and it can also be a daunting responsibility, especially when renovations are needed. Juliet Colman is a RIBA accredited Specialist Conservation Architect who has carried out repairs, alterations and extensions to a variety of historic and listed buildings and private homes throughout the country and abroad.
Written by Lisa Proffitt | 3rd May 2019
MICHAEL GRAHAM MEETS: Specialist Conservation Architect Juliet Colman
Here she talks about her love of period properties and offers advice to anyone planning on buying a listed building.
How did you come to specialise in listed buildings?
I was always very artistic and my first job post degree was designing steel and glass office blocks. For me that was just too sterile so after a month I left and assisted Sir William Whitfield with his conservation work on the rebuild of the Savoy Theatre that had been damaged by a fire. Without a doubt he was my inspiration to work in heritage related conservation architecture. Now I work with listed buildings and also new builds in conservation areas, but everything I do has that heritage theme working through.
How would you describe your design philosophy?
When I’m restoring a house I like it to look as if I haven’t touched it. It’s very important to me to make sure it remains as quirky as it was before. The original core of the building must be kept as authentic as possible with any additional elements built with specified materials and timbers so the whole thing together looks timeless.
How do you view contemporary additions to listed buildings?
I’m all for them and love the contrast if they’re done sensitively. They can continue the story of how the building is used and how the use has changed which I think is really important. Some conservation officers want an extension to meld in with the original building but I think a crisp and contemporary addition looks fantastic because it’s telling the story of the building again. I also think a contemporary addition is a really good way of linking a house with its out-buildings. Five years ago any alteration to a listed building was VAT free but unfortunately the government has removed that incentive.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of buying a listed building?
In the uncertain times we live in listed buildings are tangible and wonderful places to live. I would say buy the house because you love it and do enough research and get the right advice so you understand what the important part is that can’t be touched and the part with the least historical significance that can potentially be remodelled. This is key when you’re buying a listed building.
A common misconception is that if a building is Grade II listed you can do anything you want to change the interior as long as you don’t touch the exterior. That is simply not true and can be a terrible disappointment when you get someone like me along! It all depends on the grading of the house. With a Grade I building doing anything at all to the house is limited. Grade II * is pretty limited and Grade II, which most listed houses are, is less limited.
There is usually room for movement in negotiations with conservation officers but it just has to be done sensitively with understanding. I went to see a house with someone who wanted to straighten the floors and smooth the walls and I thought why have you bought a listed house? That’s part of their charm and what makes them lovely places to be in.
Is it possible to make a new build look old?
I get brought in a lot to advise on interiors in a new build house that the owner wants to make look traditional and old. So for example, windows in the right position and designed correctly to be historical. For me it’s about getting the vernacular detailing absolutely spot on. A challenging project I was involved in was a pair of houses on the high street in Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire which had a fire rip through and raze both buildings to the ground. It had to be rebuilt exactly as a listed building and the particular challenge was that everything was destroyed in the house including photographs of the interiors. Fortunately it had been seen by a conservation officer so there were some historical photographs and it was a matter of piecing it all together. It does now have the air of an old house even though it’s brand new.
Has the demand for eco-friendly renovations changed?
When I left London and moved to Northamptonshire in 2003 everyone was looking for the Old Rectory or The Old Manor. Now the newer generation would ideally like to build an eco-friendly new house that looks old. People are very interested in energy consumption and would love to go green if they can, although the initial cost can be prohibitive. In all properties putting in effective insulation has been proven to be the most effective thing you can do to reduce energy consumption and even in a listed building it’s easy to insulate the loft.
What are your most memorable projects?
I’ve worked on extraordinarily beautiful listed buildings including Somerset House in London, converting the basement into an art gallery which opened in May 2000. Heritage Lottery funding was a miracle for conservation. Evenley Hall in South Northamptonshire was another wonderful project with so many elements. The porch was designed by Waterhouse who built the Natural History Museum and whose style was gothic revival. The porch wasn’t in keeping with the Hall so we took it off and reinstated it as a folly in the garden and rebuilt the porch as close as possible to the original Georgian portico.
Do you have a favourite style of house?
My favourite style changes, it used to be classic Georgian with the high ceilings and big windows but it is always something with a lot of history and original detailing. You can get lovely houses but you don’t often find a building that is completely intact. A lot of houses won’t have much of the original joinery left inside and I’m passionate about joinery, that’s probably my favourite thing. I love looking at it and understanding it and if I find a house with original joinery – skirting boards and beams - I get very excited about that. It’s not as common as you’d imagine, probably due to a lack of understanding of listed buildings and not appreciating it.
How do you overcome the challenges of working with planning departments?
With listed buildings you’re dealing with a heritage planning officer and a conservation officer and although the planning officer has the final say, they rarely go against a conservation officer’s comments. A sensitive approach showing that you understand the process is important. I’m lucky I have specialist conservation accreditation which means I’m accredited to work on Grade I listed and very special buildings and that helps when broaching planning departments.
What has been your most challenging project?
It’s always a challenge to align expectations between the client and what they think they can get through planning versus what the conservation officer will agree to. It is very much a team effort which is true about anything to do with buildings. Finding trades people at the right price is another challenge as these projects are inevitably cost driven. The process is both fascinating and stressful because you’re dealing with people’s dreams and the dream is always to end up with something beautiful, executed beautifully. With listed buildings you’re buying something interesting and historical with all the charm and that for me is why they’re such wonderful places to live.
For a selection of Michael Graham town and country homes to buy or to rent, including the three listed houses below, head to the property page on the website. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter or instagram.