New home, new life, new challenges. Buying the Victorian House of the Future…
In late 2007, whilst walking with my mum who was visiting from London, we passed a row of 1930s semis set up on the slopes above the Kennet and Avon Canal, opposite allotments and opening up to a panoramic view of the city of Bath set in glorious hills with the abbey in the centre. “I’m going to live here.” I said to mum. “Inshallah” she replied looking out over the city with me. On Valentine’s Day in 2009 we moved into the four bedroomed house above the very spot where my mum and I had stood, and my first baby was born at home with the summer solstice sun high over the abbey pouring in. I became accustomed to the light and space in the house that allowed me to have my mum and brothers stay over and a lodger. Fast forward to August 2017, and the twists and turns of life left me and my girls having to leave, the three of us moving instead into a two bed Victorian end of terrace too small for our dear lodger to join us. After a tumultuous few years I was relieved to be able to borrow enough to afford my own house at walking distance of my girls’ school, but we were all heartbroken to have to leave our beautiful home, particularly when the contrast of the new house was so stark.
I noticed the lean on the house and crack on the back wall on the first viewing and asked for a copy of the structural survey that had been prepared for the vendor when they had purchased the house a few years earlier. It confirmed historic movement and crucially that the house wasn’t moving any more. It’s an occupational hazard but I went around the house poking walls and window frames checking for damp, rot and more cracks with a friend who had accompanied me on many viewings and who concluded: “This is the house”. I could see fresh air through holes above the eaves in the roof space and in between the sash windows so offered a little under the asking price, confident that the first time buyers and developer that I was competing with, who had both offered more for the house, would be a less reliable prospect for the sale than I was. The vendor agreed.
The house has two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, and a living room, dining room and kitchen downstairs. The bathroom is stacked on top of the kitchen in a two storey block that juts out characteristically from the main body of the house, as it does in most Victorian homes. Mine is the last house in the terrace and has solid walls, also called ‘traditionally constructed’ walls. This means there is no cavity, but I know that there is a small gap in the walls of the main body of this particular house because when my windows were being changed, I saw that there is an internal skin of engineering brickwork adjacent to an external skin of cut bath stone blocks, or ashlar.
The first thing I did was to strip out the leaky timber single glazed sash windows, which appeared to have replaced the Victorian windows at some point in the mid 20th Century, probably around the same time as lurid yellow had been fashionable to paint the window surrounds with. I used the £5,000 saving I made on the house to purchase uPVC double glazed sashes. It was not my first choice, but timber versions were quoted at £15,000, and so completely unaffordable.
I prepared a schedule of works for each room, to give my girls something to look forward to as they really hated the house. I wanted to get the work done quickly so we could unpack and settle in. I planned to overpay into my mortgage each month so I could draw down on that mortgage to pay for the work.
But it wasn’t to be. In 2018 my brother was diagnosed with Leukaemia, rocking my family. I resented not having the space for them to visit anymore, especially as my mum’s Edwardian terrace was too small to host us as well, though we occasionally squeezed in for one night at a time. In Spring 2019, I became my brother’s stem cell transplant donor. Storms in early 2019 had battered the house and the gutter blew off the end wall leaving water soaking and leaking into the walls. A low point was attempting to deal with a neighbour and roofers on the phone whilst shivering in the doorway of the Macmillan Centre at University College Hospital having already spent over £1000 – half my salary – on train fares to get to London that month and whilst simultaneously battling in tribunals with HMRC and my ex husband who had taken away the child benefit I relied on to feed my girls. I had to take 7 months off sick from work in total that year as anaemia, stress and fatigue set in. By Autumn 2019, I had got myself back on my feet and my brilliant brother was also back at work. Money remained tight as I had to switch to part-time working, but I sought out support for my health and family so things began looking up. Then Covid-19 hit in Spring 2020, bringing with it a tirade of challenges spanning over a year including managing home schooling for two children and work from our dining table, family court hearings, tribunal hearings, the administrative aftermath of a car accident and increasing fatigue. I was diagnosed with ME and referred to the chronic fatigue clinic. Even thinking about doing up the house ceased as I had no head space, energy or money for it.
In the meantime, the condition of the house worsened. Black mould became persistent in mine and my children’s bedrooms and still needs regular cleaning to avoid it exacerbating my daughter’s asthma. Plaster cracked and mould grew in the bathroom where water had leaked in from the damaged gutter. Moths infested the carpets and ate their way through our clothes so the carpets all had to be removed exposing the floor boards and draughts through the gaps. It was a truly overwhelming time, and then in late 2020, I was shocked to receive notice of redundancy. My output had reduced since 2016, so my post was being deleted…
It wasn’t all bad of course. I talk about the freedoms that redundancy from my job have presented to me in my post ‘Opportunity Knocks’. In particular being able to spend more quality time with my girls, preparing my drawings and proposals for the house, and making a living doing what I love instead. I now get commissioned to write, teach and appear as an expert design witness in planning inquiries, so though we are not out of the woods yet financially, my girls and I are beginning to settle into our new home. In the summer of 2020, my new boyfriend also moved in with us bringing stability and support with him (together with 11 guitars, a drum kit and 30+ games consoles). We’ve been through some of the most awful years of my life together, and are now tackling the house together. It was him who had said: “This is the house” all those years ago, after all.
One Reply to “Two Up, Two Down”
Enjoyed reading your blog. It reminded me of the early days of our retrofit which started back on 1998.
I hope your health and energy are fully restored ME is a nightmare.
Our house is also Victorian and has gone from a badly behaving house to an efficient, comfortable, healthy ecohome.
We retrofitted our home taking a whole plot integrated systems approach to maximise efficiencies across energy, water and food. Our hypothesis was to see how far we could take autonomy across the nexus.
Fast forward from 1998 to now, we continue to refine our ‘living laboratory’ and to share our experiences with others. Have you come across the Superhome network. It’s a very useful directory of hundreds of homes – mostly private – that owners have transformed. My husband Gil Schalom is an architect using Passiv methodology for both retrofit and new build.
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