PROPERTY / Restoration Stress Syndrome: A derelict house that cries out for renovation could damage your health and your wallet, reports Caroline McGhie. Is it all worth it?

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The Independent Culture
GARY KENNEDY and Nicola MacWilliam are suffering from that very British middle-class disease, Restoration Stress Syndrome. They have a large Edwardian mansion and a new pounds 20,000 kitchen, yet for the past 16 1/2 weeks they have been living in a single room with a gas ring and a fridge. In the rest of the house, meanwhile, the builders have been having a field day.

When Gary and Nicola bought the house, in the village of Ipsden in Oxfordshire, it was in a neglected state. The 26 acres of land had been haphazardly turned into a nursery. The roof had gone, the interior panelling and the oak floors had dulled, and the house had been sliced in two, with a staircase piercing the black and white tiled hallway straight through the middle.

But the views were astonishing, and it provided all the space they needed to run their knitting book business. It wasn't the modern country house they had been looking for, and it needed pounds 150,000 spent on it before they could even start thinking about decoration or style. But, like so many others in the restoration rat race, they were prepared to pour everything into it.

The national preoccupation with taking on unloved old buildings and bringing them back to life soon had them firmly in its grip. 'We knew that whatever we bought, we would want to change to our own taste. It has been good - or, rather, will be good. But it is painful,' says Gary.

Once the obsession has taken hold, the house often starts to call the tune rather than the owner. It opens up its Pandora's box of secrets, not all of them pleasant. 'Once you open up one thing you find another. One job always seems to lead to two or three others,' he says.

For instance, they wanted to put expensive German fittings into their kitchen, but found that they needed a special pump to create the necessary water pressure. This in turn required major surgery to the drainage system. 'So we had to dig a great hole outside the house and run the drains in different directions and put in new ones.'

Such things are never quite straightforward. 'If you want to change a door you break the line of the architrave, so you have get a new one made or have a huge fiddle with the old one,' says Gary. 'If you want to move a cupboard you find the floorboards that were inside it don't match those in the rest of the room, so you have to find somewhere to buy some that do match.'

Then the builders linger, like party guests overstaying their welcome until deep into the night. 'They knock at our bedroom door when we are in bed. It is like being imprisoned in our own house. And all hope of doing our own work goes out of the window.' But the floors have been machine-sanded and polished, original tiles have been replaced, every wall and ceiling has been replastered, the Sixties wings demolished, four marble bathrooms installed, black granite floors laid, and the panelling now gleams as it should.

'We only have two more weeks and the house will be empty of builders. Then it will be great,' says Gary. He has also mastered a small tractor to cut the acres of grass surrounding the house, and has joined the National Union of Farmers.

To conservation officers, such activity sometimes appears a misguided waste of money - it does so often go wrong. 'Oh] The gutting brigade,' said David Baker, conservation officer for Bedfordshire County Council. 'They always seem to fall for timber-frame buildings, then they get in builders to strip them out and in the end we find we are left with a skeleton waving in the breeze.'

He is very exercised at the moment by the number of housebuyers snapping up two-up-two-down cottages in order to attach disproportionately large extensions. 'People should always talk to conservation officers at the earliest possible opportunity if they are thinking of buying a listed building. So often they put demands on a house which are much greater than it can ever meet,' he said. 'The conservation glow backed by sufficient cash can be quite a menace. There is always a great head of enthusiasm at the beginning, which isn't backed up by expertise or experience.'

Home-owners are sometimes completely defeated by the cash-thirsty work that mounts up before their eyes. One very frail medieval timber-frame farmhouse that has aroused conservationists' passions around the country is Sinai Park, which stands on an escarpment close to Burton on Trent in Staffordshire. It has now managed to see off its most recent owner, Rod Butcher. He obtained a grant from English Heritage to help him, but after repairing only one wing he has been forced to put the project into receivership and the house is back on the market, again through agents John German.

Philip Hickman, adviser on the local heritage trust, believes that large amounts of money - and eccentricity - are essential qualifications for stewardship of this particular house. 'You need a nutter to do this sort of thing. Anyone who thinks about it too long and too hard won't do it.'

The after-effects of traumatic building work can be quite severe. Elaine Cantwell moved into a large Victorian house which had to have its walls and ceiling replastered and part of the roof renewed. The roofing work was carried out with the wrong materials, and rain leaked on to the new plaster. It then transpired that there was dry rot, and three upstairs walls had to be removed and the house propped up while the repairs were carried out.

It was enough to send her fleeing into a new house. 'We've since sold the house and bought a new one that looks Victorian,' she said. 'We will have to recover but it will take a few years.'

There is an alternative approach to restoring old buildings, but it requires a different mind-set. Peter Scupham and Margaret Steward, both writers, have bought an intriguing Tudor house at South Burlingham, Norfolk, that had been in the hands of the county council since the war. It had been subdivided, let to tenants, and finally boarded up and left to rot. 'The surveyors said we needed to spend pounds 100,000 on it before we could live in it. But we discussed it with experts on ancient buildings and they said why not get an old man and his dog? So we did,' says Peter.

'We have heard that people ruin houses by throwing money at them. The more you have to spend, the more you ruin them, really.' They have had a wonderful time making limewashes (instead of inappropriate water-based products) and befriending craftsmen, repairing bits of the house when they can. 'Most of the work we were advised to carry out was entirely unnecessary. In fact, we don't like to use the word restore. People who care about buildings conserve, they don't restore.'

The house has rewarded them by revealing a secret that it had kept for centuries. 'Margaret picked off a piece of plaster in the long gallery and found the claw of a dog underneath. We realised we had Elizabethan black-and-white hand-painted hunting scenes all over the room. There is also a painted chamber that we haven't uncovered yet.'

Restoration Stress Syndrome is to him an abomination. 'This concept of ownership and displaying your wealth all over your house and getting in the Rottweilers is crazy. One is a temporary custodian of something which is very valuable, and which one hopes will be appreciated by generations to come.'

(Photographs omitted)