Although loft-living is the current vogue, for some, shunning the constrictive anonymity of the semi-d started long ago. But can you really imagine taking on an architectural curiosity and converting it into a home, without the resources of a property developer, or the experience and teams of skilled craftsmen of the Landmark Trust? Jonathan and Patricia Knight did just that. In 1980, the newlyweds bought a disused water tower. Their verdict? "It was incredibly hard work."
Eighteen months is probably longer than most of us could reasonably tolerate being deprived of home comforts. The resilient Knights, however, have spent the past 18 years making their water tower first inhabitable, then comfortable, then a thing of beauty - at the same time as earning a living and raising three children, David (13), Julia (11) and Frances (eight).
The Knights were living in a modest flat near the Oval in south London when they came across a small ad for the tower. Trish was a recently qualified nurse and Jonathan, who was working as an engineer for an oil company, had just decided to change career entirely and launch himself as a furniture-maker. They were therefore free to move out of the city.
The building that had grabbed their attention was a five-storey octagonal water tower on the edge of Finedon in Northamp- tonshire. It had been built in 1904 to service the sanitary needs of the expanding local population, but had long been out of use. Now Grade II-listed, the tower, technically Edwardian, has all the ornamental panache more usually associated with the Victorians: red-and-cream striped decorative brickwork, projecting corbels and buttresses, and an extravagant pitch-roofed entrance porch. Some of its features, particularly the tiers of Romanesque arches around the top, were inspired by early medieval churches. Architectural historians have, rather grandly, described it as "freely adapted in the Norman style".
On one side of the water tower there are houses, shops and amenities, open fields on the other, and a garden behind. Finedon is a settlement halfway in size between a village and a small town, within easy reach of hospitals for Trish and not too far from Jonathan's parents' home. The water tower provided the ideal facilities for Jonathan's new furniture workshop, with more than enough space for accommodation above. "We had always envisaged this as a family house," says Trish.
Although listed, there were no grants available for the conversion; but despite limited resources, the Knights were determined to make the tower into their home. They knew the refurbishment would have to be gradual, with Jonathan doing as much of it as possible. The plumbing and wiring, as well as the basic building work, are his - he learnt as he went along.
When the Knights moved in, living conditions were primitive and the pair struggled to survive those first few months. Initially camping out on the first floor, they lived on bare boards surrounded by exposed brickwork, with a minimum of furniture and virtually no facilities. They'd only had access to the tower during the week before they moved in, which barely gave them time to clear out the skip-loads of junk inside. The huge water tank on the top floor had never been properly drained, which made the whole place very damp, and they arrived to find it full of stagnant water. Ironically, though, given the building's original function, there was no mains water supply nor any drains, deficiencies they had to put up with for nine long months.
During this time they relied on a chemical toilet, and their only water source was the old tank above. Trish took showers at the hospital where she worked, while Jonathan had to make do with regular hosings-down at the local sports centre, and combining social visits with quick baths.
Three-phase electricity was laid on fairly quickly, thankfully providing illumination and a power supply for cooking and carpentry. But it was a further five years before central heating was installed, and in the meantime the Knights kept themselves warm with gas-cylinder and electric fan heaters.
While there were no bats, rats or other rodent infestations in the tower, woodworm was rife. This meant that the Knights had to replace most of the existing timber. Listed Building Consent had to be obtained before this, or any work, could be under- taken, and no alterations were allowed to the exterior or to the original characterful - but somewhat drafty - cast-iron windows. Fire regulations were also stringent, and meant replacing the basic open flights of wooden stairs, which ran up the walls in between the windows, with fully enclosed central staircases, complete with fire escape doors at each level.
Because of its size, the tower gobbled up building materials. "It took 350 sheets of plasterboard to line all the ceilings and walls," says Jonathan, and he should know, having carried out most of the work himself with help from Trish after a hard day (or night) on the wards. "The dry lining made the house much warmer and dryer," says Jonathan, "but it was after we'd installed the central heating that the house became a home."
In a tower, vertical living is the order of the day, something which the Knights' teenage son David says he finds rather a bore at times. The family occupies three floors in the middle of the building, with Jonathan's workshop below. An attic and the remains of the old water tank are on the top two floors, so there is still plenty of room for expansion, should they outgrow their present quarters - although after their 18-year marathon, Jonathan and Trish agree that they have achieved most of what they intended.
The main living area is on the open-plan first floor which is double height in the centre, giving this vast interior a dramatic quality. It is lit on four sides by large windows with arched lintels, making the space wonderfully airy - when I first entered this remarkable expanse, my impulse was to pirouette. The reason for leaving this floor open rather than carving it up into segments is obvious: to preserve a sense of the octagonal form of the building. Instead of conventional rooms, there are four "activity zones": for cooking, eating, playing and for reading.
The kitchen area immediately attracts your attention, mainly because of its exquisite wooden cupboards. More like cabinets than kitchen units, they were custom-made by Jonathan. Most of the furniture in the house is his own, and although he modestly refers to these pieces as "left-overs" - work from exhibitions rather than commissions - most of us would be more than happy to give them room in our homes. Particularly impressive, not to mention extremely practical, is the large elm dining-table in the centre of the room.
The second floor is a mezzanine built around the soaring walls of the first floor, and is reminiscent of the balcony of a theatre-in-the-round. Whereas the first floor is very much a family zone - a place for playing games, doing homework and eating meals - the balcony area above is "for best", the open-plan equivalent of the old-fashioned front parlour. From there you can look down over the octagonal wooden balustrade (Jonathan's handiwork again) to the activities arena below.
This second floor is the Knights' own creation, inserted into the first floor and propped up by four huge wooden columns which rise majestically through the interior and support some equally mighty beams. Whereas the activities zone downstairs has a practical polished-wood floor, the mezzanine has a more luxurious feel, with white carpet, cuboid armchairs and pink velvet curtains.
A calm, restful, gallery-like space, it acts as a foil for some of the best examples of Jonathan's furniture. He is self-taught, and his work falls into no obvious stylistic category, ranging from fine cabinet- making to naturalistic pieces in the John Makepeace vein. Jonathan is a member of the Society of Designer-Craftsmen and works mainly to commission for people who appreciate individuality of design and quality of workmanship.
The two spiral staircases linking the first, second and third floors are his tour de force. Jonathan is especially proud of the top one, which combines pale green-stained timber and natural wood. This staircase leads from the mezzanine area to the sleeping quarters, which were installed eight years ago as the family burgeoned. Builders were brought in to slice the third floor into four "pieces of pie" (one bedroom for the parents, complete with custom-made bed, and three smaller ones for the kids), with a bathroom placed in the central well. This radiating bedroom arrangement, and the perfect geometry of the water tower as a whole, seem to symbolise the unity of the family which has chosen to inhabit this strange but inspiring building.
While the Knight children take living in an octagon for granted, in the early days their unusual home gave them a certain kudos at school. Julia was particularly proud when, at the age of six, her class was brought on a group visit to see her unusual home. "She insisted on being treated like everyone else," says Jonathan, "and being taken on the guided tour."
The children may not recognise how unusual their home is now, but in the future when, like the rest of us, they will probably end up living in a box, they will surely appreciate their parents' remarkable achievement.
Jonathan Knight can be contacted for commissions on 01933 680 807, or at email@example.com