How Ugly is Ugly?

It’s very easy when you drive around the same areas repeatedly to not see the buildings you pass by. In the new Channel 4 programme ‘Ugly House to Lovely House,’ George Clark and his team of architects take the eyesores and turn them into individual and unique homes. What I had thought was different about this show was the emphasis on the exterior transformation. I’m not an architect. I’ve always thought that I really only understood how internal spaces worked but watching this programme, I don’t think they’ve gone far enough!

before and after - but they've forgotten the porch and the front door

before and after – but they’ve forgotten the porch and the front door

By definition if your home is referred to as ugly, that’s an opinion based on appearance – so, what is seen from the street. If your house looks ugly from outside then surely that is where you would expect the bulk of the budget – and the attention – to be focused. But no, it’s really just another refurb show. The inside is ripped to bits – and the bulk of the money is spent there – and then the outside is the wrapping that finishes the scheme off. On all three episodes I’ve watched so far, I’ve felt that the exterior didn’t meet expectations. They have local residents giving their opinion of ‘progress so far’ (and of course they can only see what’s happening outside) and their criticism really reflects what I felt to be lacking – a transformation of the defining parts of the house as seen from the street.

neighbouring properties

neighbouring properties

but still with their own touches

but still with their own touches

So let’s strip it back to basics. If you’ve bought a house for reasons other than aesthetics as many of these people did, you’ve bought it because it ticks other boxes: close to children’s schools, affordable, within an easy commute to work, close to family or countryside that you enjoy. At that point, how it looks isn’t the focus. But when you’re living there – and the purchase is just part of the history – aesthetics do become an issue. If you refer to your own house as the ‘ugly house’, then you too have a negative opinion of your own space. And this has an impact on how you feel about living there. Do you love something that you think of as an eyesore? Or does it make you feel protective? Would you defend it if someone told you they thought it was the worst house in the street? Or have you just stopped seeing it? Do you even care anymore?

attention grabbing

attention grabbing

Can you see the apathy building up? It’s so easy to just make do and ignore the things you don’t like. But why should you put up with living in a space that isn’t what you want? Especially since it is probably your largest financial asset.

a modern 'between the wars' house

a modern ‘between the wars’ house

Exterior transformations are not as difficult as one might think. They’re not always straightforward, but none the less changing how the outside of your house presents itself says that you care in BIG capital letters. I changed the colour of my house about 18 months ago – it is now a grape-grey and I’ve had so many positive comments about it. The word most used is LOVE. “I love your colour; I love your house; I love that it’s different to the others, more individual.” I’ve also been told it’s bold and different, but hey I quite like that too!

defining the property with colour

defining the property with colour

highlighting the features you want to accentuate

highlighting the features you want to accentuate

Not every house suits being painted, of course, but changing the colour of the window frames adds a distinctive feel that really opens the windows wide, a bit like mascara on the eyes. And then there are the more remedial approaches – porches and roofline updates, pillars and new front doors. Many of these things come as kits and provided the measurements work can be installed fairly easily by your building contractor which not only cuts down on cost, but allows you to plan exactly how the new exterior will combine with the old. And let’s be honest a transformation will leave traces of the old building intact as with this building below, if you look closely the brickwork around the front door hasn’t been disguised.

simple updates

simple updates

doors and windows - contrast to the house next door

doors and windows – contrast to the house next door

And that’s the point when an exterior refresh has to acknowledge what was there before. Short of tearing down the original structure, you will be working on top of someone else’s vision. It is easier to say ‘what have I got to work with?’ and plan to enhance the bones of the building than it is change a street frontage – especially if it’s in a terrace. Adding porches and incorporating the details gets around this neatly though and again many kits are available for this type of job. The house below already had a porch – but to create a more modern and individual look they’ve opened it up, stripped the wood and enhanced the timbers for a more handcrafted feel.

modern mock tudor

modern mock tudor

Ugly doesn’t have to be the defining feature of you home and transformation isn’t something to be scared of. The resulting property will make you feel so much better about living there and that in itself is reason enough to take the plunge.

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Detective Work

Let’s be honest, some houses get mucked about and others don’t. When all the period features have been removed, a house doesn’t look ‘modern’ it looks unloved. And I’d go so far as to say its a violation, like ripping out someone fingernails! In any era of building, there are signature features that give you clues to how the blank canvas of your home should look. If you have a hankering for a period fireplace, or replacing cornicing or even doors to return some of the character it once, finding a starting point is not as difficult as you might think.

victorian features

There will always be someone in your street who hasn’t done a thing to their house in all the time they’ve lived there! I was lucky enough to live in a house like that a few years ago; every room had a fireplace, all the ceiling roses were intact, all the panelled door were in place, every window was a sash window, even the hallway ceiling had its corbels and bosses. We felt very lucky to have so much of the original fabric of our home intact – and we had neighbours traipsing through to see what their homes should have had! It was a real talking point, we got to know a lot more people in our street and it was fun to know that they too, wanted to look after the history of their home, while creating a functional interior suitable for twenty-first century life.

ceiling rose, cornicing, picture rail and skirting

ceiling rose, cornicing, picture rail and skirting

The two are not mutually exclusive. Any home can be a state of the art example of modernity, but why should it lose its history to become one? What I’m talking about is placing our modern life within a frame of the past. It’s a bit like the saying ‘take only photographs, leave only footprints,’ we can choose to tread lightly on our homes and to leave them with the sense of identity that they had when they were created. Having that sort of respect for our built environment doesn’t stop us creating a modern home, but is does preserve our architectural heritage – and reduces the amount of waste destined for landfill – because there are builders out there who have no interest in sharing the ‘wealth’ and will simply jettison anything removed from a site regardless of its value to other homeowners.

1 cornicing, 2 picture rail, 3 dado rail, 4 skirting, 5 panelled door

1 cornicing, 2 picture rail, 3 dado rail, 4 skirting, 5 panelled door

So what clues can you find simply by looking around your home? Does the wall have ridges at waist height? If it does, then at some point in its history, it had a dado rail. If the wall has ridges higher up, above the door frame, then it probably had a picture rail. Are there ridges lower down, just above the skirting board? If there are, then the skirting board has been replaced with something of a narrower width.

Have the doors got a thin layer of hardboard tacked to the face of them? At some point someone might have decided that they didn’t like the panelled doors and covered them over.

Does the ceiling have ridges running around the edges of the room? If it does then at some point your room had cornicing. If there’s a circular ridge in the centre of the ceiling, then it had a ceiling rose too.

Does the carpet sit unevenly in front of the chimney breast (the shallow ‘boxed’ area that comes forward from the main wall) then you may have an original hearth underneath, letting you know that there was once a fireplace in this area. If the wall sounds ‘hollow’ when you tap it above the hearth, you probably still have the fireplace opening intact as well. Does the surface of the hall floor feel very ‘hard’ under the carpet? You may have a tessellated tile floor underneath.

half glazed internal doors, corbels and parquet flooring

half glazed internal doors, corbels and parquet flooring

None of these features may be to your taste, but they can provide you with the evidence of the period details that your home should have – and within that remit, you’ll probably find a style that will be to your taste – and give you a lead to follow.

So, if an interior had a dado and a picture rail, panelled doors, cornicing, ceiling roses and tessellated tile floors, you wouldn’t be too far off the money to think you should start looking for Victorian period details.

As it’s a very common era for buildings in the UK, this is where social history starts to overlap with the identity of our homes. The Victorians were becoming more prosperous and wanted to display their status in the decoration of their dwellings. And happily replacement pieces can be found in a myriad of places – ebay for one, but the downside of ebay is having to collect the items from the vendor! Most will insist on collection only and that puts the pressure on you (I wrote a post last summer about reclaimed radiators that we sold on ebay, watching those buyers manhandle the rads into their cars – and we had builders on site to help out – was not a thing of beauty), also most people selling domestic salvage know very little about the items in practical terms, so if you want to know about its ‘working order’ they will only be able to give you superficial information. In most cases this isn’t a problem, but with anything electrical, I would always suggest you have a purchase checked over for compliance to the current regulations and rewire as necessary.

Generally you will find the prices more reasonable out of town too, so when you consider reintroducing period details, take a trip to the country – Suffolk and Nottinghamshire are two areas in easy distance of London that have a wealth of small dealers and also junky type places that you will have a wonderful time hunting through – and they’ll arrange the carriage of any big pieces!

stained glass door using original central roundel with a modern setting

stained glass door using original central roundel with a modern setting

Refurbishment, like any new interest or passion, can take over your life! And it’ll influence the choices you make for your home. Watching any television restoration programme will show you that.

Channel 4 the Restoration Man

Channel 4 the Restoration Man

On The Restoration Man, http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-restoration-man every episode, George Clark shows a homeowner that is so passionate about their building that they can’t quite balance practicality with affection, or finance. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as this and in reality, it usually isn’t – so don’t be put off – breaking your project down into smaller chunks is a good way to get used to the refurbishment process.

The important thing to remember is how you will live in that space. There is no point being a slave to your home if you will find the care and attention you’ve paid to it limits the way you now use the interior. For example, a period bathroom is not going to measure up to our current ideas of comfort and efficiency – after a trip to Burgh Island some years ago (the Art Deco island hotel off the coast of Devon http://www.burghisland.com/rooms/matthews.html – stunning place) I quickly decided that period bathrooms were less than fabulous, and for that to be my lasting memory of a wonderful weekend is a shame.

some images from freshlocations.com – with thanks