PROPERTY Restoration dramas

Regional preservation trusts have done splendid work in rescuing and restoring crumbling listed buildings. So why won't anyone buy them, asks Lesley Gillilan
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The Independent Culture
A SCRAPBOOK of before and after pictures shows that the transformation of the Brew-house, in the grounds of Kingsweston House, is nothing short of a miracle. When the Bristol Historic Buildings Preservation Trust took on this 18th-century building in 1988, it was a roofless shell patched up with rusting sheets of corrugated iron and in an advanced state of decay. One of two wings had been demolished, and behind the black holes of empty window cases, an impenetrable jungle of vegetation thrived among the wreckage.

Time was running out for the Grade I listed building, but a Sir Galahad arrived in the form of the Bristol trust, which stepped in with a posse of experts brandishing feasibility studies. The outcome? The Brewhouse is now a beautifully restored, four-bedroom "family dwelling house"; and, like dozens of other historic buildings currently on the market, it is a bargain.

Bought from the local council for just £1, the house has had £350,000 lavished on it. On completion, though, it was valued at just £270,000, illustrating that no sane developer in the private sector would have given it a second thought. Though it has been on the market since 1993, the Brewhouse has yet to find a buyer. The price has now been reduced by a hefty £100,000, to just £175,000.

This project is typical of the worthy causes taken on by regional building preservation trusts. Broadly speaking, they are independent charities run by small bands of volunteer experts and enthusiasts who devote spare time to rescuing the community's ruined architectural history. Most trusts concentrate on one demanding project at a time, raising grants from English Heritage and borrowing capital at a low simple interest rate from the Architec-tural Heritage Fund (another independent charity). If the project goes according to plan, they sell the completed property's leasehold on the open market and re-invest the profits in further schemes.

When a building doesn't attract any buyers, however, a trust's revolving fund ceases to revolve - and those that are operating on small and crucial margins cease to be effective. Restoration schemes take time, and trusts that made optimistic projections in the late 1980s have been hit hard by the recession. For the first time since 1976, the Architectural Heritage Fund recently agreed to underwrite a loss when the Warminster Building Preservation Trust was forced to sell a completed scheme at considerably less than the sum it borrowed.

The same fate may await the Bristol trust if it has to reduce the price of the Brewhouse further. But the economic climate may not be the only reason why the building has failed to sell. The way it has been restored may not be to everybody's taste. As a ruin, it offered little remaining evidence of the 18th-century interior, so the architect, Niall Phillips, had free rein. While he retained the integrity of the original space, he had to balance this against providing a practical end use.

The Brewhouse is part of a group of buildings constructed in the grounds of Kingsweston House, a former country estate designed around 1715 by Sir John Vanbrugh (of Blen-heim Palace and Castle Howard fame). It is a two-storey structure, built from giant blocks of pink limestone - quarried from the estate - and clearly evokes the Vanbrugh vogue for theatrical mock-medievalism. Its last known use was as an electrical sub-station in the 1920s.

What Phillips did was retain the old brewing hall itself as an uncluttered and voluminous single space, while containing the living areas within two wings on either side. Accommo-dation is linked at first-floor level by an elevated gallery which bridges the double-height central brewing hall like a massive piece of sculptural furniture. This light oak and glass-sided structure sits on a matching internal lobby designed to fold away like a screen.

Phillips says his intention was to "complement Vanbrugh's dramatic accentuation" - but his solution is unashamedly modern, which may not appeal to everyone. An imaginative buyer, however, might view the hall as a kind of baronial dining space, an in-house art gallery or a superb party venue. No such purchaser has been found, however.

The London-based Industrial Buildings Preservation Trust (IBPT) has a similar story to tell. Its most recent preservation project, a former granary in rural Herefordshire, has been on the market for nearly three years. The trust paid £75,000 for the GradeII listed outhouse, thought to have been built around 1730 as a cider apple store but adapted as a granary in the 19th century. It used existing capital, raised from previous schemes, and hoped that a rising housing market would take care of the investment. It didn't. The granary has been on the market since 1992, and remains stubbornly unsold despite a cut in the price from £l55,000 to £116,000 last year.

The property was in a reasonable state when the IBPT bought it. It had a Welsh slate roof, a sound brick shell and the remnants of French leaded lights (now restored). When the trust learnt it was being offered for sale with planning permission for a conventional three-bedroom house, they stepped in with their chequebooks. "The development would have destroyed the building's intrinsic features," says the trust's spokesman, Vivian Church.

The IBPT resolved to create living spaces without compromising the building's raw, barn-like qualities. The restorers have made a feature of exposed internal brick, stonework and roof timbers. The second floor is cut away so that you can peer up into a roof-space gallery, and a woodburner and gas hob - and terrific views - are included in the price.

"It's a unique property for a unique person," Church says, but so far this sympathetic buyer has failed to materialise ."The unusual configuration of the interior could have contributed to the problems we've had in selling," he adds, "but we are conservationists, not developers."

The total bill for restoration and conversion could be £65,000, the IBPT estimates, in addition to the £75,000 paid for the property. But despite the high figures, unsold projects like this and the Bristol Brewhouse cannot be regarded as failures.

"At the end of the day," says the Brewhouse architect, Niall Phillips, "we have saved a Grade I listed building designed by one of the finest architects in British history. The project should be judged on the quality of the work." !