In these cash-strapped times, astute house-hunters are looking outside the box at ways of creating individual homes in the most unlikely places. Jon Du Croz and his partner, Emma Lally, are a perfect example, having transformed what was once a dark and dingy Oxfordshire public convenience and electrical substation into a bright, open-plan living space.
There's no denying that this impeccably designed home is a testament to the couple's tenacity and vision. Their efforts have culminated in a property that's been sympathetically converted into a stylish yet practical home that has not only retained but also enhanced the period features, such as the stone mullioned windows, mellow Cotswold stone walls and solid oak doors. When Du Croz, an architect who works at Berman Guedes Stretton in Oxford, began hunting for a suitable plot in Oxfordshire, he quickly became disillusioned. "I was hoping to find a piece of virgin land to build on that we could afford but I rapidly discovered that such a plot didn't seem to exist," he says.
With his first option ruled out, Du Croz started investigating the possibility of renovating an existing property. "I looked at around 20 buildings, ranging from a houseboat to a flood-damaged home and redundant commercial properties," he says. "Developers were pouncing on all the easy projects and I wasn't getting a look-in because properties were being snapped up by those who could afford to pay cash. It seemed to be taking a very long time to find anything. One day, I was listening to the local news and heard about someone who had applied for planning permission to convert the public conveniences beside Oxford railway station into a flat. Suddenly I knew that I was missing a trick and realised my thinking had to be more tangential to see the potential in something that nobody else wanted."
Du Croz then began searching for old industrial and municipal buildings that would be too awkward or difficult for most developers to tackle. Six months later, he couldn't believe his luck when a design challenge appeared right before his eyes – in his home town. "I was sitting on the upper level of a double-decker bus on my way to work when I spotted a 'For Sale' sign which had just gone up on the public loos in Witney," he recalls. "I thought, 'If that's large enough to turn into a home for Emma and me, then I'm going to buy it.'"
Purchasing the £36,000 building in the thriving market town, which was owned by West Oxfordshire District Council, proved much more difficult than either Jon or Emma could have ever believed. "Inside the building lay a fully operational electrical substation, owned by Scottish and Southern Energy, that powered the local district's supply," Du Croz says. "Whoever bought the property would have to build a new substation and stone enclosure on the site."
Confident that he could surmount these problems, the enterprising architect spent many hours carrying out thorough research and painstakingly drew up designs for an innovative contemporary dwelling. "When the negotiations went to sealed bids I knew we'd lose out because there was a fair chance that other potential buyers would not have realised exactly how much moving the substation would be and wouldn't have included this cost into their budget," he adds.
Du Croz was right and not at all surprised when, six months later, the estate agent for the property rang up to inform him that the original buyer had, indeed, pulled out of the sale. Having bided their time, the delighted couple seized the opportunity to renegotiate and finally managed to purchase the property in October 2005. "In the lead-up to the building going on sale the first time, I'd had detailed meetings with the conservation officer, who seemed happy with our proposals," Du Croz says. "Unfortunately, when we were later in a position to apply for planning permission, the application landed on a different planner's desk, and he was going to recommend refusal. This was potentially a massive disaster and very stressful."
Undeterred, the disappointed but determined couple submitted a more detailed planning application, which was finally approved in April 2007. Next came the job of moving the substation – which took until Christmas to complete and cost £75,000. To save on costs, Jon not only managed the project but also carried out a lot of the build himself, helped in the early stages by an old school friend who is a builder and by RMD Builders of New Yatt, and from friends and family members.
"RMD were fantastic," Emma says. "They were really friendly and good, hard-working traditional craftsmen who took a lot of pride in their work. We were also very lucky that my uncles own a local glass firm, and very kindly helped us out with all the windows and the toughened glass for the staircase, which Jon and I designed with their input. I'm really pleased with the way this project turned out. We have both always had a passion for design and it has been a privilege to get the chance to design our own home." Indeed, this flair for design and the couple's attention to detail are obvious from the moment you step into this unique three-bedroom home.
Jon says: "Emma and I had a fair idea about how we wanted to use the space and we both agreed that our home had to have a contemporary feel but one that would be easy to live with. The one thing we took a bit more time to agree on was whether to have two large bedrooms or two fairly large and one smaller one. Now that our baby, Mabel, has arrived, we're particularly pleased that we chose the second option. After everything we've been through, I have to admit that finishing the project initially gave me a feeling of total relief rather than elation. However, since we've settled in and the memories of how difficult the whole process was are gradually fading."
The couple, who spent £155,000 on the renovation, have been wise enough to retain some of the original features, including a dressed stone arrowslit window in the living room, stone lettering from the substation, and cast-iron "Ladies" and "Gentlemen" signs. The couple had even intended to salvage the 1930s urinals as a garden water feature but had to admit defeat after struggling to remove them without damage.
Anna-Marie DeSouza, editor of Build It magazine, says: "Over the last year or so, I have seen the revival of some buildings that would previously have been disregarded because of their size or former use – this ranges from chapels and boarding houses to electricity substations and utility buildings. The resultant homes are fantastic and totally transform what may otherwise just have been knocked down. What a project such as this one does is to keep our neighbourhoods eclectic and interesting, rather than uniform and dull, mixing the old with the new and the unconventional with a conventional use.
"There's no doubt that the recession struck a devastating blow to the home-building community, leaving many potential self-builders with plans for a grand design that they couldn't get finance for. This, coupled with a serious lack of available land to build new homes on, has left budding self-builders looking further afield for their potential dream property. What many people, including Jon Du Croz, have discovered is a relatively untapped resource – disused public buildings. Britain has a mass of disused and empty properties that should be lovingly restored."
Looking for a challenge?
The Isle of Grain, Rochester, Kent
Agent: The Houseboat Centre (www.houseboatcentre.co.uk)
Tel: 020 3287 2977
This is a 150-year-old gun emplacement, located around a kilometre from the Kent shore. The building, which is also known as Grain Tower Battery, can be reached by boat or, at low tide, by foot.
It includes an area of freehold land plus a vast area of river bed, 1,800ft long by well over 150ft wide. Just think of the fishing rights.
Symonds Yat, Herefordshire
Tel: 01600 890314
A partly renovated chapel in need of completion. The building is in an elevated position with far-reaching views of the Herefordshire countryside in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the Wye Valley.
The chapel was built in the early 1800s and a school room was constructed in 1906 on the site of a smaller room. The school room has already been renovated and has an open-plan layout including a mezzanine living area reached by an iron spiral staircase.
Elston village, near Newark, Nottinghamshire
Tel: 01636 525596
The mill tower is 50ft tall and has five floors. The ground-floor dining room is 20ft wide inside and the top bedroom has a diameter of 13ft. The first floor is being used by the owners as a living room while the remaining three floors are all currently bedrooms linked by a staircase.
Attached to the mill is a single-storey extension with a kitchen, utility room, bathroom, separate lavatory, hall and large garage, which is currently being used as a workshop.