The word ‘serendipity’ comes from the Arabic language, and means ‘to chance upon something beautiful unexpectedly.’ 

Renovating an old house can open you up to moments of serendipity. When you strip back layers, it can reveal hidden stories and connection to a place. It can wake up memories, for a person and also for a community.  

As the great teacher of Architecture Vincent Scully said, “Architecture is a continued dialogue between generations, which creates an environment across time.” By renovating an old building, you are taking part in that dialogue. 

So working with older buildings as a starting point can be very satisfying, both for the house owner and the architect. But how can you prepare yourself so that you can enjoy the process and end up with the house you envisaged?  

This article will give you a practical overview of the key things to consider, from how to approach the collaborative design process to budgeting, planning permission and more.  And it’s not all chat about VAT. We’ll also talk about what a rich and satisfying experience renovating an old house can be. 

But first, let’s get straight into VAT.  

Although reading about VAT might not make the heart sing, according to Neil Stephen, Co-founder and Partner at Dualchas Architects, it’s the first thing you should look at before embarking on a renovation project. 

“The first thing you have to do is establish what the level of VAT is. So if a building has been lived in and has been in use within the last two years, if there's been council tax paid on it, the VAT is likely to be 20%. If it hasn't been in use for a couple of years, it can be seen more as a building that’s just four walls. So the VAT might reduce to 5%.” 

This one element can have an enormous impact on the budget. This is something which the client has to research themselves, as an architect can’t establish it. Although it’s the builder who has to pay the VAT, it’s ultimately a cost for the house owner and so it’s essential to research this at the beginning of the project. 

That’s the VAT chat over for now. But it brings us to a second key part of the process.   

Brief and Budget Alignment  

According to Neil, one of the main drivers a successful project is making sure the brief and the budget align. 

Neil says “One thing I always say to clients at the start of a project is that the most important thing to do now, before we set off on this project, is to make sure the budget and the brief align. If they don’t, people don't have the right expectations of what things cost. Because it is so costly to build you can sometimes end up taking on a bigger project than you think.” 

Assessing Building's Condition 

The third key element to consider then, which is closely connected to this, is to gather as much knowledge as possible about the condition of the building. With an old building, a Structural Condition Survey from an engineer is essential, giving you a proper overview of the existing fabric and structure of the building. 

For example, what is the condition of the walls and the timbers? Is there damp proofing? What's the element of insulation? Is there wet or dry rot within the roof structure? 

If some of these elements are present, it could mean that you have to strip the building out, taking it all the way back to four walls. Generally, if you're having to strip a building out, you're having to look at re-doing the heating, the wiring and the building fabric itself.  When you're doing that level of works, the cost will be a lot higher than if you're just doing repairs or changing things around within the building.  

But if the structure is in good condition and you’re not having to do major work like remove the roof, you're working from the inside of the building fabric. So it’s clear that these elements, (and plenty of others not covered here), can really make a big difference to the overall cost. Having this knowledge at the outset will enable you to establish a budget and see if it's realistic. 

The survey helps protect you from surprises down the road and it allows you to get a clear picture of what you are working with and again, it allows you to align expectations with brief and budget. 

Neil says “the most stressful point of a project will be if an architect has been developing a design and then the costs come in further down from the contractor, and it's completely beyond the budget of the clients. The responsibility there is on the architects, because even though the clients may have made demands on the brief, it's the architect's responsibility to make sure that there's honesty and truth brought in from the outset. So you don't end up with that waste of time and effort and that stressful moment when reality strikes.”

Ah yes, reality. On that note, let’s talk a bit about... 

Planning permission 

This is actually an area where there can be some benefits to renovation. Planning for renovating or extending an existing building is generally more straightforward. The key thing being that permission to use the house is already in existence.  

An example of this would be, if access for your car doesn’t meet modern standards, because it’s already established, you should still be able to use the existing drive.  

In discussions with Neil, one can see the depth of his thinking about the subject and how for him, working as an architect to bring new life to a building is tied in with his thoughts about community and respect for what has gone before. He has a desire to add to that dialogue of the built environment over time in order to create something truly special.  

Neil says “let's say you've got a family cottage on a croft. There’s a story behind that cottage. There's a family story, and there's the story of the community. And you know, rather than just knocking something down and replacing it, I think there's something respectful about trying to continue that, trying to connect to what was there before.” 

That can take the form of having an awareness of the embodied energy that already exists in a building, where people have often used stone they have had to handle themselves, building a house through their own labours, often without machinery.  

There’s also an appreciation that the original buildings were often quite beautiful and that this is a strong base from which to start repairing a building, both visually and in its fabric, in order to make it work for a family or its new purpose.  

The Dualchas Approach to Renovating Old Buildings 

I asked Neil to talk about the ethos that Dualchas Architects bring to their renovation projects. 

“Our tagline is “the architecture of restraint”. I think restraint  means not doing too much. It’s very easy for architects to be showy, trying to do architecture that stands out. And I think when you're doing a renovation, the restraint is tied in with respect. So, respecting what was there. But also trying to transform the experience. Looking at ways you can get light into the building, the way it can retain its warmth so it's more efficient. But also to create new spaces, which give a bit of variety and can open out to the views. People have a different way of living now. So you have to think about it differently, but the same time, respect the original intention of the building.” 

All of the elements we’ve mentioned so far are important to bear in mind when embarking on a renovation project. They feed into what Neil believes is the key to a successful outcome. That is, getting the idea and the strategy right. The reason for this being that if you can get agreement on this element, everything after that is an incremental process where information is layered onto what was originally agreed.  

This can give some degree of protection for the client when the project moves to being on site. Because there are more unknowns in a renovation project, the contingency for renovations is generally higher than that for new builds. That means that good communication between the architect and the client is key, spending time on the initial design to make sure that both the client and the architect are happy. 

Neil says “I mean, design is a collaboration, it's not the architect saying, here you are, this is what you're doing. Really the first role of the architect is to listen to the client's ideas, but then also to discuss ideas and allow new ideas to emerge. And sometimes it's the simple idea and the instinctive idea that you have on site after talking it through with the client that is quite often the best.” 

Our Ethos  

Talking with Neil, you can see how much he enjoys the process of bringing life back to an old building, and using the unique blend of insight, talent and craft that it takes to do that. His thoughtfulness when it comes to the place a building occupies, not just for the person renovating it, but for their wider family and community, and also how that plays out across time means that Dualchas Architects very much bring an awareness of that continued dialogue across generations to their work. For a homeowner to take on such a thing, it’s work with real value.  

“You’re doing something which is important, which is prolonging the life of an existing building, bringing the building back to life, you give something to the community. Particularly when it's a beautiful building, it deserves to be respected and deserves to be cared for. It's an important thing to do, because it shows that you have respect for the building and respect for the people that built it. It's about continuing the story.” 

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