Don't move, improve: New tricks for old houses

Glass balustrades and cutting-edge kitchens can be perfectly at home in period properties
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Much of the work that we do in helping people to improve their homes involves taking out walls, enlarging windows or making old buildings meet modern needs. After all, most people who live in old houses still want powerful showers, effective heating and beautiful kitchens.

It is important always to be aware of the original building and the charm and elegance that might be salvaged or even restored to a home that is not in as grand a state as once it might have been. In my view there is absolutely no incongruity in principle to keeping and restoring the "good bits" while developing the less engaging elements of an old building in a contemporary fashion. It is a case of doing it well.

I am a great supporter of the idea of listed buildings. It would be tragic if our wonderful stock of elegant and historic buildings were unprotected. However, it seems to me that sometimes the spirit of preservation gets somewhat carried away. Forcing homeowners to keep elements of a building that contribute little to the quality of the original (and so preventing them from remodelling to meet their requirements) only serves to generate resentment of the whole process.

One project we were involved with several years ago in Islington, north London, was a listed town house. It was clear that the qualities of the building rested in its façade (which formed part of an elegant terrace) and some beautiful, high-ceilinged reception rooms. The house was not in a good way when the project was undertaken and our customer was committed to high-quality restoration of the grand rooms, with specialist craftsmen engaged to repair and restore cornices and fireplaces, and new folding doors made to an original design that was found after much research.

In the semi-basement, however, there were three rather dark and pokey rooms with low-ish ceilings and the family wanted to remodel this in a more contemporary way to give them a unified kitchen/ breakfast/family space. The trouble in getting listed building consent for this proposal was absurd and it was only agreed at the expense of incorporating meaningless original elements into the design. The result was that people who started with an enthusiasm for restoration, were left with a negative view and will probably avoid anything of the sort in future.

Dogmatic restoration-heads often regard anything less than the "original condition" of a building with disdain. The question often follows as to what is truly original. Lewes in East Sussex is one of Alec Clifton-Taylor's classic English towns. The buildings that define this historic town are all re-clad. The use of mathematical tiles to make unfashionable timber-framed buildings appear modern was – to 18th-century eyes – wonderful and anything but original.

One of my great architectural heroes, the Italian Carlo Scarpa, was unafraid of exposing and restoring history in his buildings and blending it brilliantly with modern design. The Castelvecchio in Verona was a 13th-century building that had been redeveloped many times before he converted it into a museum in 1952. His work restores and cherishes the elements of true value and peels back layers to reveal gems. In Verona he then injected modernist details to create one of the great buildings of the 20th century.

Barn conversions can be great examples of how restoration of original features can blend with new elements. A project we undertook in Oxfordshire to remodel a badly done barn conversion involved careful work to original timber and stonework, and included clean modern elements and forms that allowed the house to live and breathe in a way that supposedly authentic features would have precluded.

Hugo Tugman runs Architect Your Home,

Project: Restoring a listed building

How much will it cost?

Restoration can be expensive, often because the specialist craftsmen are scarce. Don't be put off, however. In many cases, if you take the trouble to do the research, restoration tasks can be undertaken inexpensively simply by getting a clear grasp of exactly what needs to be done.

How much hassle is it?

Restoration should be more a hobby than a hassle. Enthusiasts enjoy searching architectural salvage yards. But if the restoration is forced unwillingly upon you by a pedantic conservation officer, your outlook might well be different.

What's the first step?

There is no substitute for research. If you are lucky enough to own an old building, there is a huge amount of published work that will tell you what the original fireplaces or doors might have been. Failing this, see if neighbouring houses of a similar period have retained the lost elements.