George Clarke Talks about The Restoration Man
George Clarke, architect, explains what the series is all about, why he feels so strongly about it, and how restoring an old building is one of the most stressful - and most rewarding - things you can do.
By Benjie Goodhart
What's Restoration Man about?
George says: 'It stems from me wanting to come up with a series which was an accessible restoration series. There was a restoration series done by the BBC a few years ago, presented by Griff Rhys-Jones, which was much more of a national campaign of people lobbying to save prestigious public buildings. But actually, there are thousands and thousands of very small, humble architectural gems across Britain which have been completely neglected. There's something like 5,000 buildings on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk register. On top of that, you've got all the ones on the Scottish, Irish and Welsh registers, so you've got thousands and thousands of these buildings at risk - and when I say "at risk", they are genuinely about to collapse, or be completely beyond repair if they're allowed to deteriorate any more. On top of those buildings at risk, you've got tens of thousands of other buildings which are very old and beautiful, which have been neglected, but aren't necessarily in danger of collapse.'
'So I wanted to make a series that showed people the plight of Britain's architectural heritage. Not your Blenheim Palaces and St Paul's Cathedrals, not these flagship buildings, but buildings that maybe people wouldn't normally be aware of. I want to make people aware of this fantastic collection of amazing buildings that are just sitting there redundant, being lost.'
The series involves people restoring old buildings. Is it a sort of Grand Designs for historic architectural treasures?
George says: 'It's different from Grand Designs in the sense that some of the Grand Designs' budgets make your eyes water - which is great, I love what Grand Designs does, and Kevin is brilliant, but the budgets can be incredibly high.'
'Most of ours are much, much lower. We've got one or two, to be honest, which are quite high. We've got a couple which are mad. One couple bought a mansion in Wales for £1.5 million. So that gets us up to the Grand Designs crazy levels, but most of them, to be honest, are very affordable, very accessible buildings that most people who are able to get on the property ladder can afford to buy. One of them, the chapel in Wales, was £55,000 and he did all the work himself. The total cost of raw materials was £40,000 to £50,000. If you think the cost of the average house in Britain today is £160,000 and Gareth has got his dream home for £100,000, that's amazing. And in another of our stories, there's a guy who's got an old ice house in Scotland, by a loch. He bought it off the farmer for about £10,000. He's got about £100,000 to do it up. But this is a building that's an amazing piece of architectural heritage. This amazing guy has turned it into a fantastic place, one of the most unusual two-bedroom houses you could ever imagine.'
What kind of buildings do you feature?
George says: 'We're giving these buildings a totally new lease of life, because nearly all of them are old industrial, agricultural or military buildings that are being converted into homes. We've got one or two that were already residential, we've got the mansion building and one called The Medieval Hall. But all the other ones, The Ice House, a windmill, and old coach house, an old bath lodge and so on, they were all used for other purposes. We've got a Martello Tower as well. They're towers that were built as military defences on the south coast in the early 19th century to protect against invasion by the French. They look like windmills without the top on them.'
How do you find people to take part?
George says: 'The first series is always difficult, because people don't know that we're out there. But we had a fantastic team of researchers, and those researchers contacted all the planning departments across the country. A lot of it's word of mouth - you may call up a library somewhere in Scotland and they'll say, "We know a guy down the road who's bought an old ice house." We scoured the country for what we called restoration warriors. These are really brave people. Take Mark, who did the Bath Lodge. He was in the building game, so he was a pretty experienced guy, and he still went through the mill, to the point where he had a heart attack. And most of them had never done any building projects before. These are people who really want to live in unique and unusual buildings. And these buildings have such a history. Some of them we were able to trace the history and story of the building back to the 1300s. And now they were being given this new lease of life. These people were saving pieces of British history.'
You're less hands-on than during The Home Show. Was that frustrating?
George says: 'Oh God yeah. It's the thing I hate more than anything, to be honest. I'm not very good at being hands-off. And some of the projects in this series go badly wrong. Some of them never get planning. Some projects never even get started. Getting the right design done, getting planning permission, getting listed building consent, getting the conservation officers on board - believe me, they don't all go swimmingly. So if you're used to Property Ladder where there's always a reveal at the end, or Grand Designs, when 90% of the time the build is there or thereabouts, we really paint a much more complex picture of restoration.'
'You start off wanting to promote old buildings and show people how to save them, but on some stories, you're showing people just how difficult it can be. I'm hoping it doesn't put people off. We need to educate people to really understand what they're taking on.'
Did the people taking part properly appreciate what they were taking on?
George says: 'I don't think any of them did, to be honest. I think some people, like Gareth, bought out of necessity. For him to go and buy in the local town where he lives would have been about £140,000 and he didn't have it. This was his one affordable option. Let's face it, most people don't really understand the building game very well, so to think about the level of complexity we're talking about on top of just the building process, it's a different matter entirely. It's more complicated than any new build could be, from beginning to end. People haven't got a clue. The stress on everybody involved was enormous.'
'I would have loved to have been on site with them every day, because I know as an architect I could have helped them. But there's no way, logistically, I could have done that. We were filming in so many locations all over the country. And also, a lot of them wanted to do it themselves. I helped them out with a few designs, or whatever they needed. Sometimes I was very hands-off, sometimes I was a bit more hands-on, but I was never hands-on enough for my liking.'
Did any of them end up doing work that you really didn't like?
George says: 'I have to walk a very fine, careful line. I'm not there to be their enemy, I'm there to help them, and hopefully they'll take that on board.'
What mistakes cropped up regularly?
George says: 'Planning was the big one. Planning restrictions are enormous when it comes to these buildings. But people also massively underestimate the condition of these buildings. Some of them are in a terrible state. It's easy to walk round a building and say, "It's been here for 300 years, it's absolutely fine." But once you've stripped off all the ivy, you hack off all the old plaster, you get rid of all the bits that hid all the cracks, you realise all the timbers have got wet rot behind them, the truth emerges. There's a good reason sometimes why these buildings are so cheap. On a normal build, you would always include a 10% contingency into the budget. But for a restoration project, you might as well put in 25%, minimum.'
And presumably these places also have no utilities?
George says: 'Exactly, you've got no electricity, no water, no gas, you've sometimes got no track or any access. They're the most essential things to get a building project going. It can cost £10,000 just to put a track in. Getting services into places is phenomenally expensive. To get your water pipe upgraded from the mains in the street to your stopcock on a standard English street can cost you £1,000 so imagine what it costs to get a whole mains supply from a mile away.'
Would you ever take on a restoration for your own home?
George says: 'Yeah, definitely, 100%. Wouldn't even think twice about it. In some ways, to be honest, I already have. I mean, I'm nowhere near as extreme as the guys in the series, but I bought a 1910 Edwardian house, which was a DIY disaster, which had been stripped of all of its period features, the old sash windows had been ripped out, they'd put concrete tiles on the roof which were starting to make the timbers collapse. It's in a conservation area, but all the work was done before the conservation laws kicked in, in the 70s. So even though it's a modern house on the inside, on the outside it's a very, very sensitive restoration project - new timber-framed windows, new clay tiles on the roof, repaired the bay windows so they looked all beautiful again. In a small way that was a restoration project. But the whole reason why this entire idea came about is because I am looking to buy different buildings in different areas to restore. I'm negotiating on an old, Grade II Listed building at the moment, which is an old pump house, a Victorian pumping station.'
Did you learn anything making this series?
George says: 'Yeah. I think the biggest thing I learned is that architecture isn't just about buildings. Architecture, and our architectural history, is all about people. Without these restoration warriors, we don't have anything. Buildings are for people. What I loved about this was that these people have such a passion for Britain's architectural history. They saw themselves as custodians for future generations, which is amazing in this materialistic age. They just wanted to save the buildings for future generations. I love that, I find it really quite humbling.'