Land Wars in Asia, Sicilians, and Buildings in the UK

29 May

You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – the most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” – but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”1

-The Princess Bride (Movie)

My wife and I have got hooked on watching shows on the idiot box2 about restoring old buildings in the UK. There’s Restoration Home, which we like, and Restoration Man, which we like even better. (The first seasons of the latter have this cool Monty Pythonesque animation, that is, sadly, absent in later seasons.)

animation

Gotta love that animation

North America lacks any really old buildings, but the UK apparently has scads of ‘em, some of which date back to before the time of Shakespeare. Now, some UK folks with more enthusiasm than sense (or money) fall in love with one of these derelict, falling down hulks and vow to restore them, turning an old ice house, or water tower, or church, or mill into the home of their dreams. We’ve watched multiple episodes of these shows, and this next bit is for you if you’re one of those UK folks bitten by the “I can restore this old ruin” bug:

This next bit:
Run away! This will make you crazy! It will cost more than you ever dreamed, take far longer than you thought, and the UK planning commission folks will be arbitrary- they’ll impose rules that make absolutely no sense! Build a new house or buy an existing one – it’ll cost less! Take a cold shower! Sober up! Run away!

OK, if you’re not one of the UK folks bitten by the restoration bug, I can explain. Watching a few of these shows doesn’t make me an authority, but patterns have emerged. The restorers frequently say the same things:

1. “We have budget of X thousand pounds to complete the project.” (Double it!)

2. “We will be in by Christmas.” (It’s not gonna happen!)

3. “I think the planning commission will accept my proposed design and extension.” (These folks are bonkers! They’ll reject stuff for no apparent reason!)

OK, I’m not against preserving the past – I like the fact that there’re folks willing to take on these arduous projects. However, if preservation comes at the cost of peoples’ mental and economic health, then some of these old structures can sink back into the bogs from whence they came, in my humble opinion.

Many of these old structures are “listed”, which means that they’re part of a national registry of old buildings. You can’t do anything you want to these buildings – a commission has to give the go-ahead. Some of these commissions seem reasonable, while others seem downright despotic. An episode we watched recently (shot in 2008, I think) showed a couple with four daughters who restored a building that dated from 1632. The timbers were in good shape, and they’d installed a beautiful new thatched roof. The rub was that the existing structure was inadequate for six people, so they’d designed a two-story extension to be connected to the original building. (This is apparently not uncommon and such additions are often approved if something, say, a glass-enclosed corridor, separates the old from the new.) For no discernible reason, the planning commission dictated that the extension’s size be reduced by 40% and that it not be as tall as the existing structure. If this were, say, Tokyo, where every square foot of space is precious, this might make sense. However, this was a rural part of England, with no other buildings in the vicinity. Go figure.

This couple were lucky in that the original timbers were still in good shape. Many of these folks find to their horror that deathwatch beetles3 have eaten the wood, or the house is plagued with ‘rising damp’ (whatever that is) or some other unforeseen calamity.

Having said all this, the restorers are often amazing. Experienced builders may find themselves in over their heads, while novices determined to make a go of it often learn quickly and do the work themselves.

For me, the appeal of these shows is in seeing several years of hard ‘graft’ (in the UK it apparently means ‘work’, but in the US anyway, it means ‘corruption’) distilled down to about 40 minutes of screen time in which we follow a couple (usually) from the rapture of finding their dream ruin, though trials and setbacks (on the job site, in the pocket book, the relationship, and/or in the bureaucracy) to the payoff where we get to behold the completed structure. Or not – in several episodes (a Restoration Man with a hapless chap trying to restore an ancient tower comes to mind), the work never even gets off the ground.

As usual, I don’t know where I’m going with this, except perhaps to say that I find the concept of a “dream home” a bit dubious. Having a nice view, or energy efficiency, or clean tasteful lines all make a house a more pleasant place to live. However, in the end, it all comes down to the people in it.

1. Only slightly less well known than that is “Never restore a listed building in the UK when your sanity and finances are on the line.”

2. A lot of these episodes are on You Tube, but we’re watchin’ You Tube on our idiot box. Is this You Tube stuff bootlegged? I have no idea.

3. Xestobium rufovillosum, if you wish to be pedantic. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deathwatch_beetle

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