Renovating and restoring property devastated by fire

When fire ripped through the historic Norfolk property Oulton Hall, its owner was devastated. But he was also determined to make the premises a happy family home once again. NJ Architects played a massive role in making this happen.

When fire ripped through the historic Norfolk property Oulton Hall, its owner was devastated. But he was also determined to make the premises a happy family home once again. NJ Architects played a massive role in making this happen.

Shaun Soanes explains in this article how NJ Architects prides itself on renovating and restoring fire damaged buildings.

When we started work on Oulton Hall last year, it was a charred, scarred shell of its former self. The 18th century building that was once bursting with character had been gutted by an inferno fanned by high winds. It needed a lot of work to bring back to life.

The work to repair included replacing the stone floors and black glazed roof tiles as well as adding in some modern twists including double glazing, efficient insulation and batteries to store solar power.

The project has been extensive, complex and involved multifaceted work, but restoring old buildings is part of our area of expertise and we worked closely with conservation officers.

Our dedication paid off – the building is now rising like a phoenix from the ashes.

From ruin to recognition

Oulton Hall wasn’t the first stately home to catch fire, and it certainly won’t be the last. Buildings of cultural heritage were built in different times, under different rules without any standards of safety. They are now often used for different purposes to how they were used in the time of their construction too. This means these types of buildings are at a greater risk. In the last few decades there are been high profile examples of this:

Hampton Court

Hampton Court hit the headlines in 1986 when fire swept through the “grace and favour” apartment of widow Lady Daphne Gale, who sadly died in the blaze. The restorations of the building were completed in 1995 and were the biggest seen here since the 1880s. Since then people have argued that the fire transformed the former home of Henry VIII for the better.

Witley Court

Based in Worcestershire, Witley Court was one of England’s grandest country houses, until a fire ripped through it in 1937. The west side of the property wasn’t affected by the fire, but owner Sir Herbert Smith decided to sell the estate instead of rebuilding the house. It was then stripped for scrap, left to fall into further ruin and was never lived in again.

However, the ruins are now among the most spectacular in England, and visitors come to see the outstanding architecture and wander the landscaped gardens. Bob Dylan even used to go ghost hunting here in the mid-1960s.

Windsor Castle

After a fire destroyed much of Windsor Castle, the Queen dubbed 1992 her “annus horribilis”. A public row was sparked over who should pair for repairs to the royal residence – the Royal Family of tax payers. As a result of this, the Queen said she would meet 70% of the restoration cost, opening Buckingham Palace to the public to generate extra funds. The work, completed ahead of schedule in 1997, costed £37m.

What’s involved in restoration?

Although we get involved in a wide range of construction projects including new builds, we are perhaps most well-known for our restoration work, usually on Grade I and Grade II Listed Buildings. Projects can involve repairs to building for numerous reasons, but fire and flood are two areas we are highly trained in handling.

Our techniques in fire damage restoration dramatically increase the likeliness of saving historic aspects and the basic fabric of a building without having to replace it. We also work closely with fire investigators and insurance companies. The sooner we are brought on board the better – in the case of a fire in an old building, the debris matters. The debris could include structural elements made of steel or wood, glass windows, panels or decorative panels, which are salvaged where possible.

Early preservation helps architects like us to protect significant character defining features on the building’s interior, which can be worked with when restoring it. It also helps us to recreate the floor plan when there is extensive damage and to incorporate architectural and decorative aspects where possible.

Often the archaeology of debris is extensive – it makes us realise that there is much more to the building than meets the eye.

Protecting and preserving

Our research teams use the debris from the buildings to determine the gaps in knowledge and prioritise the areas that needed more investigation. This could involve looking at photos of the original building, to help us find materials to match those that were lost to the flames.

Faithful recreation and painstaking attention to detail are all vital to a restoration project, as well as looking for ways to ensure this type of disaster won’t happen again. This can involve incorporating more modern elements in the design for example better ventilation, as well as coming up with ways to make it fit for contemporary living. After all, historic buildings are not museum exhibits – they are usually fully function properties or homes. Therefore, making a building fit for the future is just as important as preserving its history.