Towering over all their neighbours

A water tower must be the ultimate in high living. But converting one is no easy matter. Lesley Gillilan looks at two award-winning skyscrapers
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The Independent Online
FOR SALE: Freehold water tower, circa 1915. Hollow red-brick tube, topped by a 225-cubic metre steel tank. Approx 100ft tall. Edge-of-village site at Coleshill, near Amersham, Bucks. Vacant possession. Fantastic views.

If Coleshill Water Tower were advertised like this, the sale particulars should also point out that the redundant building has no floors, no stairs - apart from ladders linking a series of stepped internal platforms - few windows and no planning permission for change of use. A stark, utilitarian example of wartime industrial architecture (constructed, incidentally, by German POWs), Coleshill is also beginning to show signs of structural fatigue. Though the building is not listed, its green-belt location suggests applications for conversion may meet opposition.

Nonetheless, when the tower is offered for sale this month, the chartered surveyors Freeth Melhuish (acting on behalf of Three Valleys Water plc) expect to be inundated with DIY dreamers in a frenzy of deposit-waving excitement. When the agent marketed two similar properties last year, each one attracted more than 100 applicants, and much of the interest came from potential buyers longing to turn a tower with a tank into a tall, skinny multi-storey home.

Water towers are hot property. Along with windmills, water mills and warehouses, they have become a part of the current vogue for creating houses out of industrial relics. Water towers are particularly appealing because they are invariably tall and handsome and built on elevated sites with splendid views. Designed to support the colossal weight of a full tank, their construction hints at Cylopean strength; because they were built to supply a variety of communities, there are urban, suburban and semi-rural water towers to suit all tastes. To add to their mystique, converted towers have had a lot of good press lately.

First, Gerry and Susan Goldwyre's Victorian water-tower home, which is near Edinburgh, won last year's Ideal Home Exhibition Conversion Award. Then, the South-east region's 1994 Royal Institution of British Architect- ure Award went to another water tower: Elspeth Beard's Munstead Tower in Godalming. RIBA described Beard's converted Surrey landmark - built in 1898 and more than 130ft high - as "one of the most unusual homes in the country."

When Munstead was featured on BBC1's Home Front in May, viewers were entranced by the sky-scraping Gothic structure, fairytale turret, double- height bedrooms, mezzanine en suite bathrooms, and a vast galleried living space which made use of the original tank. But while oohing and aahing over this impressive piece of design, it is easy to gloss over the realities: Beard laboured five years on the project; before she can enjoy her rooftop view, she first has to struggle up 141 steps. Water-tower conversions are not for amateur, the unfit or the faint-hearted.

Gerry Goldwyre is none of these things. His career has swung from bricklayer to professional architect and on to becoming last year's Masterchef. He thrives on meeting challenges and the discovery of an empty, semi-derelict water tower on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh was, he says, "like fitting the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. I'd been looking for an interesting conversion project for years." He has always had "a bit of a fetish about tall buildings". It was love at first sight.

The tower, built in 1878 at a cost of pounds 6,000 (roughly the equivalent of pounds 10m today), once fed mains water to out-lying Dalkeith and Eskbank. When in use, the steel-framed tank stored 80,000 gallons of water, held aloft in a structure 120ft high. The octagonal building - red brick and dressed with pale stone - was lit by louvred vents and topped by a low- pitched slate roof. But by the time the Goldwyres arrived to look it over in 1986, the Grade-B listed (Scotland's Grade II) tower was a dark, leaking shell, inhabited by rats and pigeons and in danger of collapse.

The ruin was offered for sale with a guide price of pounds 5,500. The Goldwyres tendered a bid, along with a detailed plan for conversion - and waited. It was another year before they heard that their proposal had been approved and the tower was theirs for pounds 8,000. That was just the beginning. For the next two years, they spent every minute of their spare time working on the restoration. The work was fraught with problems, most of them connected to the height and shape of the building.

The steel stanchions for the spiral staircase - in essence, a fire-escape with style - had to be lowered in from above; bricks, joists and cement for the floors had to be hauled up from below. Once the stairs were installed, the Goldwyres slogged up and down 96 steps between basement and attic carrying bags of rubble. To build the external balcony - six storeys up - Gerry had to erect a scaffolding tower and gradually move it around the octagon as each section was completed. Much later, a pair of sofas had to be winched up to the living room and hoisted over the balcony's wrought-iron railings and through a set of French windows.

Now completed, the Goldwyres' home consists of a stack of seven rooms, one on each floor. The stairwell occupies two sides of the octagon, leaving odd, vaguely semi-circular living spaces. The layout, too, is unconventional. "We sat down and analysed the way we live, and arranged the rooms accordingly," says Gerry. The bedroom is on the first floor (above a basement and ground- floor reception); then comes the dining room, kitchen and bathroom (in that order); and finally, the large tank-level living room and rooftop attic.

The Goldwyres have grown used to the constant ups and downs of tower life. "The steps don't bother us any more," says Gerry. "And it's wonderful to have a different view from every room. As you walk up and down the tower, the aspect, the atmosphere and the angles change." The 360-degree view from the balcony takes in a panorama of Edinburgh rooftops and countryside stretching to the Firth of Forth. In the bathroom, the Goldwyres capitalised on the outlook, by setting the windows at floor level. "You can lie in the bath and see down, out and across."

The use of windows was one of the elements of Gerry's design that was praised. Originally, there were 14 stone-framed vents set into the brickwork; they were easily adapted as windows, but most were in the wrong places. Gerry carefully removed eight of the frames, re-sited them and filled the holes with the reclaimed brick. It was not a simple exercise, nor a cheap option.

"You don't get two shots at a thing like this," says Gerry. "Getting it wrong would have been madness. It's not worth cutting corners." By using their own ideas and labour, the couple did manage to reduce costs. Had they used outside contractors, the conversion would have cost around pounds 150,000.

Now their investment is worth more than pounds 200,000. But the Goldwyres have no intention of selling. "I might be tempted if somebody offered us a really fat cheque," says Gerry, "but where do you go from a water tower?" !