How to Work with a Listed Building: Chris Dyson

Despite living and working from one of London’s most beautiful Huguenot homes in Spitalfields, architect Chris Dyson is at pains to point out that your home must be ‘fit for purpose’ and not simply a museum piece. He has worked hard to adapt this early eighteenth century building to successfully accommodate his architecture practice, a gallery space and a family home. The courtyard garden has now become a glass studio for his practice and the ground floor of the house has become a contemporary gallery ‘Eleven Spitalfields’, specialising in architecture, fine art and design, while the top floors are family living spaces.

As far as possible Chris Dyson supports restoring historic homes, both for reasons of practicality and sustainability, but he is also renowned for his sensitive modern interventions, such as contemporary bathrooms or kitchens or glass walls.

Do you have any advice for someone thinking of buying a listed building?

To think twice, as it is not a straightforward option and will definitely cost more than a new build or unlisted building…

Is it more complicated to get planning permission for a listed building?

Yes it is! – you will also need listed building consent – I would always advise on making early meetings/discussions with the design and conservation officers to see what is possible with aid of the architect and utilise his loose free hand sketching abilities

Are there any tax advantages for restoring historic homes?

Only if a change of use is granted and/ or the building has been empty for a period of years. It is best to check with HMRC as the VAT rules change from time to time…

How do you decide which parts of a building to keep and which ones to restore? For example, would you try to repair a damaged wooden floor with new or reclaimed timber?

It can look great to leave the patina of time and make an art form out of this change in texture of new against old, however sometimes this maybe too fussy for a small space – take advice from a sensitive architect with proven track record.

Describe some of the challenges of working on a listed, terraced house and is it more complicated than working on a detached house? For example, would a Georgian terrace originally have had a uniform look, or would there have been some variation?

Many of the Georgian houses we have worked on have evidence of changes effected over many years, and often we argue that our iteration is just another of those well considered adaptions to bring the building forward in usefulness to the 21st century, as the adage ‘fitness for purpose’ still applies… A good historical appraisal of the building is essential before forming fixed ideas, as often one needs to negotiate change, even if it seems blindingly obvious.

What are your thoughts on modern interventions into old buildings?

I generally think this is the best way to go allow the new to compliment the old for example our project at Whites Row where the glazed observatory forms the new dining room – this is only possible with frameless glazing and allows the clarity of the original Georgian plan form to read.

Are there any groups that you would recommend contacting for advice on historic listed or Georgian properties?

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and the Victorian society, the Georgian, and the Twentieth century society, to name a few.

With your experience of Huguenot homes in Spitalfields, what are the key points to look out for in terms of planning?

Respect, repair and restore are the key tenets, where adding new making it clear try to avoid pastiche, although re-instatement of old if accurate is acceptable.

Can you explain some of the extra costs of working on listed buildings?

Consultant fees for architects and engineers are higher, as frequently one finds unforeseen items when the works commence on site, so a good contingency is advisable of say 10-20%.

Can you talk us through some of the costs of specialist paint-work or lead work?

I would advise using well-made paints in all cases and to avoid the cheaper end of the market. In some cases lead based paints are still allowed and these do weather very well, giving a patina. Lead works are usually complicated and very necessary, I would advise talking to specialists always, to make sure the water is kept out of your home.

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