Archived Argument

I am going to try not to use this blog as a sounding board to expunge my rants about the delays in our house renovations. However it has been the most frustrating summer, with the builders having moved on to another project instead of waiting for the interminable process of hanging around for Lambeth Planning Department to get their act together.

While the house lies empty, and the front garden grows evermore jungle-like with weeds sprouting through the brickwork, I have been busy behind the scenes. I’ve been hidden away in the Archive Library for Lambeth, digging out old plans of the houses on the road in order to put together our argument for our second application.

We want to renovate the house and three of the four phases we are intending to carry out require permission from Lambeth. The decision for two of the three phases are not down to the discretion of the planner and therefore should be straightforward – they merely require a certificate for Lawful Development which is a standard permission given under the remit of Building Control. However the first of our straightforward applications was – to my chagrin – rejected. Lambeth decided this on the basis that the side of the house is the principal elevation, because its front door is on this side and about 50 years ago someone changed the address of the house to the side road instead of the front road.


Unfortunately the decisions for all three phases are going to hinge on this one interpretation of “principal elevation” and unless I can persuade Lambeth that the front is the main elevation, then we are going to have a string of rejected applications from here on in. If, however, Lambeth actually bother to pay attention to the fact that we are a bit of an anomaly and they allow common sense to determine their next move, then we’re onto a winner for all three phases. It really is an exasperating all-or-nothing situation.

So I have been taking copies of every relevant plan from the late 19th century archives when these houses were built. And it has been a fascinating process, not least because one starts to get a sense of the Victorian property speculators building these houses. Census returns between 1801 and 1911 show that the population of Great Britain almost quadrupled, rising from about 10 million people to 36 million. It is no wonder then that property speculation became big business, eventually creating a glut of houses for the more well off. Often living locally, these property developers would put up the funds for three or four adjacent houses. Thus you might get a terrace of nine houses, like ours, but with three different owners and displaying slightly different styles in the window, door and internal detail to show the individuality brought by each architect. The two end houses for the terrace might have the same overall architectural proportions, but will naturally be designed to a different floorplan and roofline because they are the two semi-detached bookends on the run of houses.

Our house is just one of those bookend properties with a matching house at the other end of the run. Both the bookends on this terrace have their front doors on the side but only ours carries a different address than all the others on the terrace. Going back through the census records to see how people have recorded their addresses, I could pinpoint the change of our house from Dodbrooke Road to Thurlestone Road in 1963. But why? Unfortunately the census does not record reasons, simply the results. What might seem strange is that there was a number going spare in the middle of Thurlestone Road, just at the point where our house was. In fact it seems that the owner of our house got their idea for changing the address from the house across the road, which a decade earlier had given up the number we eventually inherited.

As a result the records for our house are a bit of a muddle with the Ordnance Survey maps to this day showing the old number with our current number being shown on the house across the street, which is mightily confusing. And yet, one might have thought that at some point in a period of more than 50 years, Lambeth might eventually twig that the two addresses relate to the same property, but no! When we bought the house, I was the one to bring their attention to this discrepancy in their records. How I wish now I had never been so efficient, as I probably could have got away with having every application rubber stamped under the original address and Lambeth would never have realised that it no longer existed.

Oh well, we live and learn.

In the spirit of learning, I went back to the Archive Library to research any information that might help me argue the case for treating the house as part of the terrace to which it is is so obviously the bookend and hence conceding the bleeding obvious – that the front is the front.

drain plan

The Victorians were the first to introduce the beginning of what we know now to be Building Regulations. And it turns out that, while they were not interested in the look of the building or the integrity of the architecture, they were obsessed by the drains! From the middle of the 19th century, there was an increased importance placed on sanitation in properties and by the end of the Victorian era, hot and cold running water was available in the majority of homes. Outside toilets were constructed and enclosed sewers were built under the property. And one can see that by 1897 – when our house was built – the most important document for the local authority was a plan of the drains. This quite clearly shows the drains in line with all its the other drains on that terrace and joining to the main sewer on the front road not the side.

Well, this all adds up to what I think is a convincing argument that, despite having its door and address on Thurlestone Road, the historical documents (as well as common sense) tell us that the house is clearly part of Dodbrooke Road. Having done all this work myself, I then employed a Planning Consultant to make the application for me, assuming that an expert would know all the procedural requirements and how to state the case in a presentable form.

I was rather discombobulated to be charged a hefty £2000 for the Planning Consultant to copy and paste my argument (almost verbatim) onto her letterheaded paper for the application. It was rather mortifying to be charged for every six minutes of her time when I had to write three emails back to her listing all her spelling mistakes and grammatical errors; more horrifying still that on the third draft she was still spelling “principal” (as in the “principal elevation” at the core of our argument!!!) erroneously as “principle”…

Still, if her logo and letterhead lend the necessary weight to my argument to convince Lambeth, then it will be money well spent. We find out their judgement on the 18th of October.

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Splutter Splutter

No one wants to read about the intricacies of someone else’s torment.

So I shall just keep to a minimum this diatribe about my ordeal at the hands of almost every window supplier/installer in London.

I have literally never come across an industry which is serviced by such a load of incompetent idiots.

I have spent SEVEN MONTHS being messed around by one contractor after another. Apparently there is ONLY ONE company in London that is actually able to take correct measurements, follow clear written instructions and provide a meaningful quote….. the reason I didn’t go with them was that they were charging £35,000 (yes, you read that right) for me to replace my windows.

The situation is represented in the following Venn diagram:


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Dismantled Panel

I’ve got two stained glass panels from the new house to renovate. They are potentially beautiful Victorian windows with some pretty painted sections, but various things have ruined them.

Stained Glass panels

Firstly there are lots of breakages all over the place and some bright spark has used araldite to glue completely different pieces of glass over the cracks. Secondly there are some odd discrepancies, like painted pieces which don’t match in colour or style or positioning, or painted pieces that were clearly made for other areas of the panel and then repurposed. This hotchpotch may have been done by the original Victorian artist using old scraps of glass, but I suspect these panels have been rehashed since then as there is also glass in there that does not look Victorian to me. Thirdly the colour balance has been so messed around with that it’s actually difficult to see the original scheme. Annoyingly it appears that the remedial work done to it was so unprofessional that the results are worse than the original problem… this is beginning to sound much like our house itself, the building from which they were taken out.

Once they were removed from the building I looked at the state of the lead to see if I could work with it, but it was so battered up I decided to dismantle the panel completely and start again with just the original glass.

This film shows the first stage of remaking one of these panels in which the lead lines are traced before the panel is dismantled. I’m working super slow these days given that everything is done during baby naps, so it felt good to use the magic of technology to speed everything back up to my pre-baby levels of efficiency!

Lambeth Rant


RANT ALERT!  Our house renovation project has been put on hold for a month now and it’s looking like the delays will continue. That is a month of the builders not being there, which means a month longer (and counting) that this project is going to take and that we are going to be stuck in limbo, not knowing when we will be able to move in.

And why? Because Lambeth Planning Department is not only jaw-clenchingly incompetent but hair-wrenchingly inefficient. I have just had an excruciating 60 day wait on some written planning advice that should have been delivered to us back in March!! And the advice that Lambeth finally got round to bothering to write, informed me that because the front door is on the side of the house they have decided that this side is the principal elevation of the building. This, despite the fact that the architectural terrace it is part of, the layout of the drains, the original address it was assigned when it was built in 1897 as well as that small thing called COMMON SENSE would suggest that the front of the building is in fact the FRONT and not the SIDE. But because Lambeth have now decided that the side is the front, that means the front and back are now the sides and Lord only knows where the back now is!

But this decision has major implications for pretty much all the major building works we were planning on doing including, depressingly, the new hoped-for glass studio. The planning regulations for a principal elevation are quite different from those that concern other elevations on a house. And yet Lambeth want to have their cake and eat it too… I said to them if the front is now the side, then I should be allowed to make changes to that elevation – but, no, because it faces the street, I am similarly constrained on that side.

In an act of petty retribution for my endless delays, I put in a formal complaint about the planning officer who was dealing with my case, and demanded my money back. Typically – as if to rub salt in the wound – Lambeth complaints department builds in a delay to their response time so, frustratingly, I had to wait another month to find out that they had at least agreed with me that it wasn’t a good enough service and sent my money back. This has been little comfort when facing the seemingly insurmountable problem of how to proceed with my plans with this major spanner in the works.

I am now wishing that I had read the planning laws cover to cover before buying a house with a front door on the side….

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House of Horrors

Some of the rooms in our house renovation seem to be coming to the completion stages, so it was a bit of a shock to go upstairs the other day to go and look at the progress in the bathroom and to discover that the entire ceiling on that floor had disappeared! This is a ceiling that was drooping as a result of stupid decisions that the previous owners had made in the loft above, namely installing a water tank (weighing literally about a tonne) on an unsupported loft floor. So at some point this ceiling had to be replaced, but my builder evidently got fed up with waiting for the local building authority to come and inspect the site, and took it upon himself to remove the whole lot!

You will see that I took the photo on the left standing in the bathroom and I looked up above the beautifully constructed parts of the bathroom cupboards that had just been built to see right up another floor into the roofspace! A board had been left over the construction, just on the off-chance that it could prevent anything falling from above.

The hatch that used to be the only access point to the loft (before, above left) had been ripped open to reveal a gaping hole (after, above right). Every joist that had previously been holding up the ceiling to that entire floor had now been sawn off and removed.

I stood in awe-filled admiration at the cathedral vault of a space that had opened up above my head, when I suddenly realised with utter horror that the entire roof was now resting on one wooden column which, as far as I could see, was using nothing more than gravity to balance on the wooden innards of the original Victorian wall below. And that line of wooden pillars had no side to side bracing, so if anyone were to fall against a pillar, the whole lot would have come tumbling down!

It was Good Friday and the builders were gone, so I spent the rest of the long Easter weekend living on a hope and a prayer that nothing would slip before the builders returned on Tuesday to put in a few reassuring  RSJs.

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House Appearing

The building work on our house renovation project continues apace. The rubble and chaos are slowly being cleared to reveal parts of the house which seem to be forming before our eyes. Having witnessed the house being ripped apart and stripped down to the bones, it is now exciting see at least a couple of rooms being built up again.

It strikes me as slightly mad that we had to decide which internet provider we will be going for, before we even finalised the layout of the walls, but when one has to embed cables in walls these are primary considerations. I’ve not just had the builders constructing new walls but also false walls, such as the fireplace wall which was brought 8cm forward to accommodate cables. And my builders are quick – they can construct a set of shelving faster than I can design it! I’ve been frantically measuring the spines of books to work out the size of living room shelves (above left) and all manner of shampoo bottles have been compared for height to ascertain the best distances to space shelves in the bathroom (above right).

Partitions seem to rise from the floor as if self propelled, and the next time I see them they have acquired a lovely new skin of tiles, like the shower enclosure above which is pictured before and after. Even just keeping the builders clued up as to which type of tile goes where is complex, given that there’s a pile of £5,000 worth of them sitting in the yard waiting to be used.


Ordering all the materials for the job while juggling a new baby has been a challenge, to say the least. Calculating that I need 153 metres of skirting board, 64 metres of picture rail and 58 metres of architrave, and coordinating the delivery and storage of these five-and-a-half-metre lengths of wood (when our longest room is half a metre shorter) has been fraught with problems when I’ve only had the duration of a newborn nap to concentrate on the figures!

But one or two rooms are now looking a little better dressed!

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Miles and Wilde

I’m finding the whole process of renovating our house fascinating but, now we are at the rebuilding stages after having stripped everything away, it’s getting exciting. I’m really enjoying doing my research and finding companies to supply fixtures and fittings, and one of these such gems is Miles and Wilde who create cast plasterware from original features in residences dating back to the eighteenth century. They’ve been commissioned to install the fibrous plasterware for Bond Street brands such as Hermes and Cartier, and luxury projects such as the Berner Street Hotel.

I had been in two minds about whether to remove the plaster cornicing in our house as it was clearly original. However it had been so damaged with botched repairs that I decided in the end it would be simpler to replace it entirely rather than try and restore what was there. I didn’t have the same reservations about the ceiling roses which were B&Q horrors that were like the ugly cherry on top of the unattractive ceilings that had each been covered in textured wallpaper. It all came down with my blessing, so I then had to source plasterware that was appropriate to the age and style of the house.

Discovering that Miles and Wilde were a local company based in a warehouse in Peckham, I dropped by to see how they make their products. Their small team were busy creating casts for the numerous projects they had on the go and one corner of their workshop was stacked full of finished lengths of cornicing. It was a cornucopia of beautiful eighteenth and nineteenth century detailing.

One of the directors, Leigh Miles, showed me around and described how they make moulds from the existing plasterwork in grand residences in and around London, which can then be cast from only a handful of times before the detail starts to be lost. He showed me how the inconsistencies and imperfections in the plaster finish are part of the appeal of these plaster pieces and set them apart from the perfect but soulless commercial products. After casting, the plaster roses are taken to their drying hut and slowly dried out with a warm lamp, before being sent out.

I was sold! I went straight back to site and measured up and made cardboard cut outs of the ceiling roses I had my eye on to double check that the size would work in the space. The ceiling roses were ordered and a few days later I had these plus a huge pile of coving on site, ready to be installed.

By my next site visit the plasterware was up and I was delighted that I’d made the decision to start afresh. Seeing the ceilings taking shape immediately gave each room character and form. The dentil coving in the hallway could have posed problems in the corners and at the ends, but I was thrilled to see how well my builders had hand-cut and finished the cornicing. I am rather a perfectionist so seeing this first test of their finishing skills boded well for the rest of the project.

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New Year, Green Shoots

Over Christmas our new house was looking like a total building site, but now in the new year I can see a few things which feel like green shoots emerging out of the rubble!

Never would I have thought I’d feel that way about a plastered wall or an installed toilet, but it is wonderful to behold…. like seeing the promise of our new life!

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Christmas Shopping

Over the Christmas break the house lay in a state of suspended indignity. It had been stripped right down to the bones, and then left with all its innards showing! All the floors had been pulled up so the builders could to rewire and lay new plumbing in between joists. We had to tread very carefully as nothing was nailed down and all that was left standing was the stairs (minus the banisters).

While the builders were putting their feet up over Christmas, I was busy shopping. We visited so many bathroom showrooms, I started seeing shower attachments in my dreams, but the compulsion to get the best price we could while the January sales lasted was too strong to stop. I started making mockups of the main bathroom to make sure our decor choices worked before committing to the shopping list, and then the money was spent. Cash haemorrhaged out of our account as thousands of pounds were spent on tiles, taps and the piece de resistance, a very beautiful stone resin freestanding bath. Buying for two bathrooms, an ensuite and a downstairs wc became confusing when only trying to pay the lowest prices and somehow, despite my meticulous record keeping, the relentless website comparisons meant I slightly lost my mind and ended up ordering an extra toilet!

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Now You See It

As soon as we bought our new house, I felt the pressure was on not to waste a moment and get on with the business of finding a builder. I had seven different builders come over to give me a rough idea of costs for the extensive building works needed. Horrifyingly, the first builder quoted a cost so high we could have bought another house at that price! Interestingly, not one of the builders turned out to be English. I ended up going with my gut feeling and asked Jonathan – a Chinese builder who bizarrely had a hint of a Yorkshire accent – to start the first part of the job immediately.

I would have assumed that the demolition and stripping out of a house is possibly easier than rebuilding it, but when Jonathan brought only two men for the job – Ming and Lin – I had my doubts. Ming turned up with a trendy haircut and slim cut jeans and looked like he might have just graduated from a graphics or illustration course at Central Saint Martins. Lin, while slightly older and more robust, was nonetheless still disconcertingly small. How on earth would just the three of them manage to dismantle and rebuild a whole house?!

And yet within a few days, they had completely stripped back pretty much everything. I did not even have time to take photographs of the house before work started and half the house was in the skip outside! Layers of wallpaper, tiles, and plaster were stripped back to reveal the original lathe and plaster construction.

Entire bathrooms were reduced to piles of rubble and pipes…. above are pictures of before and after Ming and Lin had done their thing!

The bath in one bathroom was left plumbed in while the entire room was dismantled around it to reveal the fireplace and window of the bedroom beyond!

December turned into a series of surprises. Every couple of days I would turn up for a site visit to find new things. One time I walked into a room to find the bottom six inches of the wall missing (above, left); the next time I came in, all that was left was the original Victorian beams within the wall (above, right).

The back chimney was crumbling away so the builders removed the old chimney breast which connected three rooms at the back of the house. The brickwork left behind showed the shape of the chimney that had been hidden behind the wall all these years, but when I got too close I had the vertigo-inducing realisation that there was now a gap in the floor through which I was looking down three storeys to the ground (above, right).

Eight skips were filled with detritus from the house and the space was cleared for the next stage after Christmas.

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