Me And My Home: The tower lights the way

Russell and Jannette Harris ditched the chintz for an uncompromisingly minimalist lifestyle
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Former daytime television presenter Russell Harris, 47, runs a TV production company from his home in Lymm, Cheshire. He lives with his wife, Jannette, 35, and their two children, James, 15, and Sophie, nine, in a 19th-century water tower, transformed into a model of 21st-century minimalism by the architectural practice that designed the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts in Gateshead. Next month, Lymm Water Tower will be up against the Barbican, among others, in the finals of the British Lighting Awards

Former daytime television presenter Russell Harris, 47, runs a TV production company from his home in Lymm, Cheshire. He lives with his wife, Jannette, 35, and their two children, James, 15, and Sophie, nine, in a 19th-century water tower, transformed into a model of 21st-century minimalism by the architectural practice that designed the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts in Gateshead. Next month, Lymm Water Tower will be up against the Barbican, among others, in the finals of the British Lighting Awards

Exactly eight years ago this month, I rode past the tower on my motorbike and stopped to have a closer look. We lived in a farmhouse nearby and I knew that it was owned by North-West Water, that it was Grade II listed, that it had been derelict for 20 years. I also knew that the roof was used by three mobile phone companies to anchor their masts.

But if I'd known then what we would go through, I would have revved up my bike and ridden away. We gave up an idyllic lifestyle, moved into temporary rented accommodation for much longer than expected, went without a holiday for seven years, and put a severe strain on our wellbeing and our bank balance.

A builder friend had done a back-of-a-fag-packet calculation and worked out that to renovate the tower would cost about £75,000. The final figure was closer to half a million. And that was on top of the £136,000 we paid to buy a crumbling pile of stones. I remember saying to Jannette at the time: "At least we'll have a rental income from the masts on the roof." In 2000, one of the phone companies offered to buy the tower for three times what we'd paid. By then, we'd owned it for three years and done nothing with it. Not that there was any shortage of plans. Wrapping it in timber cladding and putting a copper roof on was one idea. Building a cottage in the garden and keeping the tower as a folly was another.

The turning point came when I bumped into Barry Harvey, northern regional chairman of Redrow Homes, who lives locally. He came to have a look and told me that he knew just the right architects to do something very special. Ellis Williams had designed the Baltic building in Gateshead and one of the directors, Julian Baker, was soon coming up with some startlingly ambitious plans for our tower. We decided to forget about selling up. As a TV person, I'd already seen the possibility for a series and started some speculative filming. I was eventually commissioned to produce a 15-parter for UKTVStyle.

Julian's masterplan involved wrapping a glass-and-steel extension around the base of the tower. It's a very complex piece of structural engineering that manages to blend in beautifully with the 130-year-old stones which we've had re-pointed. Our old farmhouse was almost chintzy by comparison - lots of pine, dried flowers, knick-knacks and pictures. Thanks to Julian, I've become a real convert to modern minimalism. I love those sleek, curved lines. No clutter. Even light switches and plug sockets are kept discreetly hidden.

There are no pictures, either. The house is like a work of art in itself. Look through one of those wall-to-ceiling windows and you see a fine English landscape. The view is particularly good in late summer when the field beyond is a golden ripple of ripening wheat. White is the dominant colour inside - on the floors as well as the walls. Even our sheepdog, Molly, has to wipe her feet before she's allowed in. I could easily become a bit obsessed with tidiness. Sophie has a menagerie of furry toy animals which don't quite go with the decor. But she also has lots of storage space in her bedroom, and I'm hoping she'll use it.

Julian built into his plan ways of accommodating subtle forms of lighting, inside and out. I read in one of the Sunday supplements about Kate Wilkins, who lit Tate Modern, and managed to get her phone number. Being shortlisted for the British Lighting Awards is fitting testimony to the work she's done here. As for heating, our bills are offset by the warmth generated by the phone masts. The safety aspect did worry us at first. But every year we have a full test report to ensure that the limits are well within the European guidelines. We've had a small extension tower built to accommodate the masts and laid out a roof garden around it. When the kids were staying away one weekend, we sat up there in our hot tub at two in the morning. It was a sharp, clear night and the stars were sparkling overhead.

What I really love is taking a gin and tonic on to the roof on a Friday evening in summer. You can see Manchester one way and almost as far as Liverpool the other. Six lanes of stationary traffic are usually queuing on the M6 over the Ship Canal. When I see those poor devils trying to get home, I feel thankful to be where I am. There were so many times over the past eight years when I thought we'd never make it.

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