Headingley, Leeds: Flagged on the internet as an imposing stone house in Headingley requiring full renovation, Cumberland Road was a prime example of a problem property.
The internet is a property redeveloper’s best friend and worst enemy. On the upside, you save hours of legwork. On the down, all potential buyers find the same properties and most (re)developers quickly get out bid by owner occupiers who have seriously underestimated restoration costs.
What’s left are the problem properties that most people, auctioneers included, won’t touch. For good or bad these rejects - suffering structural defect, legal problems and/or planning uncertainty - are VPR standard fare.
The first floor was a separate leasehold dwelling and the sale lot consisted of a sprawling basement and ground floor that had been shoddily divided into a warren of student rooms. The location – overlooking the woods of woodhouse ridge yet five minutes from the University – was superb. The layout was dysfunctional, the fabric decayed, a mammoth retaining wall to the rear was bulging dangerously over a public footpath, and to make matters worse the property had been repossessed by a bank.
The Legal Battle
First question: who had the freehold? The estate agent said it came with the property, the receivers didn’t know. Two months and many exasperated emails later the receiver’s lawyers were still clueless and it was beginning to look as if they had repossessed the leasehold and inadvertently left the previous owner with the freehold. Nightmare!
Finally, I went to confront the former landlord expecting a tough resentment fuelled negotiation with a hardened property baron. To my surprise, I was met by a mild mannered gentleman who derided the incompetence of the bank and insisted that they had the freehold. He also supplied a damning surveyors report and other ammunition that I used successfully to demand that the bank reduce the price still further. So after a further barrage of emailed exasperation and threats VPR finally took possession of the property, freehold and all, at a rock bottom price.
My first gambit - sub division to create ground floor and basement flats - received a negative response from Leeds City Council which had, correctly, concluded that there were too many damp insanitary basement flats in Headingley. I then proposed two duplexes which, following the planning officer’s advice, put the kitchens and bathrooms in the basement and the main bedrooms and reception rooms on the ground floor. This created a far better project and after getting a nod from the friendly planning officer I submitted a full application.
Time ticked, the Council only had three days left to emit a formal decision, I was told approval was imminent and we were poised to start work. Then the Conservation Officer weighed in with a barrage of objections ranging from refusal to allow porches to insistence that “historic” glass windows should not be double glassed. The objections were made on the grounds that the property was “a building of special interest” within the Conservation Area. This category has no legal basis as the law only recognises conservation areas and listed buildings. I had to resist the temptation not to wade into a protracted fight against these arbitrary and ill-timed objection. However, sullen pragmatism prevailed and I duly modified the project, got approval and cracked on.
After this interminable pen pushing getting to grips with the house’s structural problems was a relief. After consulting two engineers, it was concluded that the bulging section of the rear retaining wall would have to come down and be rebuilt. What no one knew was whether the foundations of the house went down lower than those of the wall – making the operation relatively straightforward – or whether the footings of the wall were lower than those of the house – in which case the house would have to be propped and underpinned. The only way to find out was to dig.
Deep excavation in restricted space is an art. As the piles of earth and stone mount space has to be retained to allow the digger to manoeuvre to and from the hole. We inched down keeping a close eye on the foundations of the house to ensure we didn’t go below the footings. Luck smiled and we got down to the new footings of the wall without undermining the house.
The engineer specified a huge concrete footing with steel reinforcement between the inner and outer skins of the new wall. The old stones and copings went back in exactly the same places as before and were dutifully pointed with traditional lime and grit sand mortar. The result was a wall that looked 150 years old from the outside but had enough reinforcement on the inside to withstand a direct missile strike.
Once the wall was rebuilt and back filled we were able to scaffold and engage in the more mundane chores of repointing the rest of the building and re slating the roof.
Inside: Restoration or unrepentant modernity
Property restoration implies conservation and/or reconstitution of original form and features. There are obvious limits to how far a Victorian town house can be simultaneously restored and sub divided into modern, self-contained apartments. As a rule VPR aims to faithfully restore the large ornate rooms. Dividing walls and false ceilings are removed to recreate airy high ceilinged splendour. Period windows and doors, skirtings, architrave, picture rails, dado rails, fireplaces, and fibrous plaster cornices and moulded ceilings are painstakingly reinstated or repaired. We also go to lengths to reproduce original colour schemes.
However, we never try to recreate period bathrooms and kitchens believing that these are modern functional rooms and attempts to disguise modern appliances and furnishings in period dress are, to put it bluntly, naff.
Likewise, previously uninhabited parts of a house like lofts and cellars should, we believe, be converted into modern studios that reflect not the moment the house was built but the contemporary moment that these were reborn as living spaces. If original features like exposed roof timbers or fireplaces can be highlighted so much the better. But the look we strive for in these parts of a house is unrepentantly modern. These principles were applied to Cumberland Road.
The Front Apartment
In the front apartment this was relatively straightforward. We were able to reinstate the original stairwell with its huge arched window and open the new front door onto the top landing. The spacious front drawing room with its bay window hadn’t been subdivided though the door to it had been rearranged and was too small due to the low ceiling in the hallway. This was rectified by dropping the floor in the hall and crafting a double step from the doorway up to the floor height of the main room. The original fireplace was in situ and installation of a wood burning stove was straightforward. The cornices and dado were repaired and the picture rail reinstated. Finally the box shutter window and concertina shutters were refurbished and returned to working order.
The Rear Apartment
In the rear apartment things were more complicated. The Conservation Officer had vetoed the construction of a front porch so the main entrance had to open straight into the living room which, in turn, had the two bedrooms leading off it. This role as thoroughfare would be exacerbated after I concluded that the only logical place to put the main staircase was in the middle of the room.
Nevertheless, we still removed the ungainly partition that had previously created a hallway and thereby reconstituted the original spacious room with the main features – fireplace and bow window – once again centred on opposing walls. This open space was effectively divided into three zones, a stone tiled porch area, a thoroughfare leading to steps up to the master bedroom and stairs down to the lower floor, and the main sitting area around the bay window which was fitted with a window seat. The result actually worked very well combining period spacious elegance with the circulatory requirements of the new layout. This didn’t convince everyone though and several prospective buyers complained that there was nowhere to put their three a meter long sofas!
A similar compromise between apartment layout and restoration was reached in the master bedroom. The space below this was effectively cut off from the main downstairs area. Access was created by installing a spiral staircase down to a huge en-suite bathroom. This became one of the projects most striking features which neatly juxtaposed period elegance above with sleek modernity below.
Four rules of creating a successful cellar conversion are: 1) maximize natural light, 2) waterproof effectively 3) insulate floors and walls adequately, and 4) generate plenty of usable space with adequate headroom.
After rebuilding the rear retaining wall the single biggest job on Cumberland Road was the opening of the window below the font bay window. The front light well had been dug out previously apparently in order to underpin the bay. This had been done in haphazard fashion and it took VPR’s stone mason several days to re-lay the lower wall in finished stonework. Before this could be done the immense stone members of the bay window had to be propped while the window aperture was cut out and a massive steel beam put across to support the structure.
Big steel members were also employed in the rear apartment where the whole floor area between basement and ground floor was lifted by 150mm to create more headroom and allow insulation to be laid under the floor.
As in Thorn Lodge we opened the walls to either side of the main chimney stack and installed a powerful wood burning stove that would heat the whole kitchen/dining room area.
Cumberland Road was definitely one of VPR’s most complex jobs. It was only economically viable because the purchase price was so low. There had been little interest in the property and I had made sure that the receivers were well aware that they owned a dangerously bulging stone walls that threatened to tumble onto a public right of way. There were huge problems that came with the property but once VPR secured the freehold, they could be all dealt with systematically.
Once the apartments were finished they looked stunning and attracted a huge amount of interest when they came on the market. With the leases rewritten, the structure repaired and interiors unrecognisable restored both apartments sold easily for the asking prices.