From riches to rags and back
A Welsh landlord took on an ambitious project to refurbish a derelict Grade II listed mansion. Katie Puckett finds out how they managed to bring it back into use
It was just after the builders took the roof off that Wendy Dearden wondered if her pet project was such a good idea after all. ‘Someone put their foot on one of the walls and the whole wall, three storeys down, wobbled.’
The Willows had been derelict for 30 years when Denbighshire Council’s then empty homes officer walked past the building on her way to another refurbishment project in summer 2008. ‘I thought, “I’m going to see something that doesn’t look half as bad as that”. It was a challenge - if a building is listed, it’s stuck because it can’t be demolished,’ she says. ‘There’s been a push to use brownfield rather than greenfield sites and using empty homes takes that a step further. You’re regenerating something and improving its appearance.’
Three years, a sensitive refurbishment and much shoring up of those wobbly walls later, The Willows is providing three unique, two-bedroom flats right in the centre of Llangollen for tenants of North Wales Housing, the first of whom have moved in.
Inside Housing launched its Empty Promise campaign, which called on the government to take a range of steps to tackle the scandal of empty homes, in January 2009. Since then, the government has made bringing empty properties back into use a priority. Last autumn, it announced a £100 million fund intended to refurbish 3,000 empty homes and last month it made empty properties eligible for the same incentive payments as new homes under the new homes bonus, launching an online mapping tool to help councils identify them. The Willows may be an extreme example, but it demonstrates how determination, a co-ordinated effort and a bit of lateral thinking can transform even the hardest-to-restore properties.
If it hadn’t been Grade II listed, The Willows would undoubtedly have been demolished. The five-bedroom, three-storey property dates from the late 18th century,and is reputed to be an early home of the Ladies of Llangollen who fascinated British society in the late 18th and early 19th centuries because they ran away from their families in Ireland and set up home together. When it was acquired in 2000 by developer Castlemead, which intended to build new homes on the land behind, it had already stood abandoned for nearly 30 years, since the 1970s.
‘The previous [private] owner had reroofed it with new slates, but unfortunately they were put on the old rotten timber structure so it was still badly leaking,’ says Joe O’Donnell, development director at Castlemead. ‘Over the years, it sat there and we secured it as well as we could and did little bits to keep it standing.’
And that was how The Willows remained until 2008 when Ms Dearden stumbled upon it. At the time, her role at Denbighshire Council was funded by North Wales Homes and she worked half the week at the housing association - it was her determination that made the refurbishment happen. Her colleague, Phil Danson, North Wales Housing’s business development director, remembers his first visit: ‘It was in very, very poor condition. You had to be careful where you stood in case you went through the floor.’
In fact, it was another two years before restoration would get underway, while Mr Danson and Ms Dearden negotiated their way through the design and funding phase. ‘We were engaging with the town council and [Welsh heritage body] Cadw, and working closely with Denbighshire Council and the contractors, keeping everything going,’ says Mr Danson. ‘Everyone was committed to it in principle, but people were put off by the scale of the challenge.’
Making the investment
North Wales Housing acquired The Willows for a token sum of £1, agreeing it would pay Castlemead to carry out the refurbishment, which cost £429,000.
The whole timber structure was rotten and the house had to be gutted and rebuilt from the stone walls up. The Willows sits on a steep slope with one elevation built into the rock face, so tanking had to be installed all the way up to the second storey to combat damp. New floor levels were installed, all windows and doors repaired and reinstated where possible, and traditional lime render and plaster was applied to the facade. One of the walls had started to bow out, so architect Adrian James added a stairway on the outside to support it, while also freeing up bedroom space within the flats.
Providing modern apartments in a building that was built more than two centuries ago proved challenging, and the team spent a lot of time considering different arrangements of the inner space. ‘There are big stone walls inside. You don’t have square corners, all the walls bulge out in unusual places,’ says Ms Dearden.
Counting the costs
Funding for the renovation came from a number of sources. North Wales Housing secured social housing grant of £175,000, which was supplemented with £120,000 of commuted funds for affordable housing from Denbighshire Council, £94,000 of private finance and a £40,000 grant from Cadw. ‘The Cadw grant paid for features such as the porch and repairs to the original sash windows,’ explains Ms Dearden. ‘Because it’s a listed building, we had to do all the things that would have been way too expensive if it wasn’t.’
While restoring The Willows cost more than building three equivalent units from scratch, that’s something of a moot point as sites for new-build housing within Llangollen are so scarce - meanwhile, there are 307 households on the local authority’s housing waiting list. ‘This project gave us an opportunity to bring an old historical building back into use and stop it being an eyesore, while providing three really good units for the local community in an area where it’s very hard to provide affordable homes,’ explains Mr Danson.
Three years on from the first time Ms Dearden noticed The Willows and she is now North Wales Housing’s new initiatives development officer and is working on another refurbishment scheme in nearby Ruthin, of two houses and a shop with a flat above. It should be a little more straightforward than The Willows, which, as she explains, ‘became about changing people’s perceptions of what we can do with these old buildings - if we could do that, we could do anything.’
The Willows’ new tenants moved in in May. The Lewises live in the top flat, which has not only spectacular views over the town but a large garden to the rear due to the unusual sloping site, and they love the many period features of their home. ‘It’s fantastic, especially considering what it looked like before,’ says Christy Lewis, who has lived in the area with her husband for 13 years. ‘It’s really bright and airy, and it’s a three-minute walk from the high street so it’s very convenient.’
The Lewises previously lived in a 1960s-built house in an isolated community of around 300 people. ‘There were no shops and the post office came twice a week for three hours. Being in Llangollen really changed our lives - and what a place to move into. We enjoy living here very much, we’re very happy.’