Supporter's Column: Nick Edler

With hurdles at every corner, what does it take to retrofit your home?

Digging a Hole 


It all started with a dream. Doesn’t every architect want to build their own space? Maybe not. But an opportunity presented itself that was too good to ignore.

A former cow shed, small, cramped and damp but with plenty of opportunity for improvement. A humble rural building, heavily butchered in the 1970s leaving it a shell of its former self.

The original building is not listed or in a conservation area. It could be argued that it would have been quicker and cheaper to pull it down and start again. The ongoing stance of the treasury frustratingly supports this viewpoint as it continues to charge full VAT on refurbishment and extension, whilst demolition and replacement would be VAT-free.

But there is a value to the existingbuilding; their typology, scale, memory, and appropriateness. Built from sandstone, no doubt quarried just a few hundred metres away, the structure represents the efforts and energy of previous generations. What right would we have to wipe away that history? That is before we even begin to consider the embodied carbon associated with demolition.

The building appears on title maps dated 1750; at that time an L-shaped plan showing a larger structure that formed a farmyard – turning its back on the surrounding forest. The evidence of a much larger former footprint convinced the planners of the validity of a reasonably generous extension.

In preparation for the extension, we needed to move our neighbours’ water supply pipes and whilst investigating the mysteries of pipework from the Victorian era and later we discovered a small hole. That small hole grew larger, revealing its hidden treasures such as 1950s cigarette tins and discarded car parts. To cut a long story short, the small hole that we uncovered was a gateway to our discovery of a Victorian rainwater cistern with a capacity of 61,000 litres – no doubt abandoned when mains water arrived in the 1950s.

A challenge had been presented to us that was both costly and time-consuming to empty and fill. We rejected all helpful suggestions of ‘make it into a wine cellar’, and ‘wouldn’t it make a great fish tank’ as our tight budget would no doubt be used up in fabricating the staircase to reach the bottom!

It’s a privilege to be able to build or adapt a home and as such we are trying to do the right, most sustainable thing where possible even though we are faced with VAT obstacles. Woodfibre insulation, triple glazing, air source heat pump and whole house ventilation with heat recovery – of these only the air source heat pump is VAT-free. Whilst the temporary relaxation of VAT on certain installations that result in a thermal upgrade to domestic properties is welcome, I would suggest that the timescales are too short and really ought to include domestic extensions. Surely the incentives to not waste existing resources should be made more compelling? We’ve opted for using deep, insulated clay blocks as our structure and thermal envelope – aiming for low-maintenance longevity and thermal mass in our damp woodland environment. Whilst more carbon-intensive than timber frame, it is a whole lot better than the default solution of concrete blocks and cavity wall insulation approach that is seen in much of the UK’s house building.

Buildings evolve over time – they grow, shrink, take on new lives, and this is absolutely how we need to be thinking, rather than presuming to start afresh. Despite the pain, I know that this has been the right approach for us on many levels – if only policy made this the obvious path to take.


Nick Edler is an Associate Director at Conran & Partners .