Labour of love: Worcestershire ruin is restored to gracious house

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Words:
Bob Ghosh

Harrison Brookes’ commitment to this daunting restoration project in Worcestershire called Old Court House extended to demonstrating ancient skills on site

  • When Harrison Brookes got to the project only one wing remained.
    When Harrison Brookes got to the project only one wing remained. Credit: Roy Hunt
  • It had been derelict since the 1970s and several roof timbers were waiting to fall.
    It had been derelict since the 1970s and several roof timbers were waiting to fall. Credit: Harrison Brookes Architects
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Every second Sunday of the month, people converge from three counties to sell the finest provisions at the Teme Valley Farmers’ Market in Knightwick, a village in the tranquil foothills of the Malverns in Worcestershire. From the market, a private track leads to the neighbouring village of Martley and the Old Court House, a grade II listed building-at-risk that has been restored and extended by Harrison Brookes Architects and is on 2018’s House of the Year shortlist. 

Set within a seemingly timeless landscape, the project was part of a development that has consolidated five farms into a single estate, including multiple structures in various states of disrepair. The planning consent for the site had a Section 106 obligation to bring the long-derelict Old Court House back into use first, which was a considerable challenge given its condition. 

Undaunted, the owner paired with a skilful and dedicated West Country architect to create a long-term legacy for the estate. While it was always a commercial endeavour, the project is underpinned by an innate sense of tradition and an almost philosophical approach to investment, measured in generations.

 The client, who resides in Georgian splendour nearby, next to his racehorse stables, is preoccupied with notions of quality and longevity, essentially giving Harrison Brookes licence to ‘do whatever it takes… but it has to be done properly’. This approach is reminiscent of the artisan food on sale at Knightwick – a lesson in provenance, authenticity and technique.

The first task for the architect was to understand what was there, and what wasn’t, as records were limited. The building was rumoured to be a hunting lodge of Elizabeth I, dating from between 1441–1613. Its timber and lath frame had survived 500 harsh winters but had recently developed its own ecosystem of protected species. The year-long process of ‘deciphering the code’ revealed that the structure may have been the southern wing of a C-shaped symmetrical composition, and the project sought to reinstate this. Forensic geometrical analysis also indicated that the fenestration pattern was likely to have followed a medieval portrait-format (an earlier equivalent of the golden section). 

 

  • Timber beams, old and new, starting to be put back into place.
    Timber beams, old and new, starting to be put back into place. Credit: Harrison Brookes Architects
  • The project took five years, with the workers on site having to learn new skills.
    The project took five years, with the workers on site having to learn new skills. Credit: Harrison Brookes Architects
  • Wattle and daub being applied to new lath structure.
    Wattle and daub being applied to new lath structure. Credit: Harrison Brookes Architects
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It is underpinned by an innate sense of tradition and an approach to investment measured in generations

The team had to navigate a maze of archaeological, environmental and ecological constraints, all the knowledge gained was painstakingly assessed and recorded to inform any future interventions. On top of this were the more predictable but no less complex issues of access and mains servicing: the infrastructure investment included construction of a 2km road, a 7km water pipe and new reed beds for filtration. 

At the outset, the timber frame showed signs of distress. While the engineer could easily have condemned the structure, in the spirit of the project the team instead looked for ways of rescuing it without changing its simple character. This was achieved by designing first-fix joinery members to help resist racking because, except for the surviving masonry chimney, the frame was unbraced. The use of hempcrete as a infill material helped provide additional strength and thermal mass to the envelope. 

Given the undefined scope of the project, the procurement was carried out on a cost-plus basis, by a medium-sized regional contractor. The architect describes this as ‘reactive, rather than proactive’. However, it was the only way the process could have worked. At certain stages the contractor struggled to find the skills required, so the architect spent days on site encouraging staff to leave their comfort zone and learn ancient techniques. Harrison Brookes mixed the lime-casein recipe to treat the oak frame on site, and it has helped unify the old structure with the new one and provides a sublime colour to the oak. The team also demonstrated traditional oak-jointing techniques and trained operatives how to mix and apply wattle and daub to the internal walls.

Conservation was carried out with a rigour rarely seen on grade II listed buildings. High levels of craftsmanship, which respond to the unique site conditions, are evident throughout. For example, research concluded that the clay for the original bricks and tiles may have been extracted from the site itself so there was an (unfulfilled) aspiration to reopen the pit, build a kiln and fire their own. 

  • The wing has been restored and incorporated into a building nearly three times the size of the derelict structure.
    The wing has been restored and incorporated into a building nearly three times the size of the derelict structure. Credit: Harrison Brookes Architects
  • Window detail.
    Window detail. Credit: Harrison Brookes Architects
  • Credit: Harrison Brookes Architects
  • New floors and balustrades sit alongside the old.
    New floors and balustrades sit alongside the old. Credit: Harrison Brookes Architects
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The source of the sandstone base was another mystery. The geologist traced it to a point along the river corridor, and attempts were made to obtain a mineral extraction licence. While this didn’t prove possible, it indicates the near-obsessive nature of the process. 

Inside, the extension, which includes a central link and a new north wing, traces the assumed historic footprint. The brick link accommodates the entrance hall, cloaks and bathrooms with storage above. The north wing mirrors the gable of the surviving wing and houses the main living and bedroom spaces. It is also constructed with a green oak frame, but this time the external wall build-up is rendered board, sheathing and dry lining, super-insulated with 150mm of PIR. This part of the building could be described as ‘polite’ rather than challenging or contrasting with the historic fabric, and architecturally it is understated, even underwhelming, but the old and the new sit comfortably together.

This could have so easily become fake-Tudor, but it isn’t. It is a disciplined piece of functional design that will simply be referred to as ‘the 21st century wing’ by future generations. 

The cost-plus contract, where the contractor submitted monthly timesheets and purchase receipts to the architect for certification and payment, illustrates the levels of collaboration and trust that were required to deliver this challenging five-year project. The budget is undisclosed, but it’s almost an irrelevance. Above all, this is a conservation project, carried out with rigour and technical competence. Harrison Brookes, a two-man practice in Somerset, with its extraordinary knowledge and hands-on approach, recalls the master builders who existed long before the profession of architecture


In numbers
160m2 original footprint in 1610
 70m2  derelict footprint in 2010 
168mnew footprint in 2018

Credits

Architect Harrison Brookes Architects 
Client Private
Structural engineer Shire Consulting
Geotechnical engineer Shires Geotechnical
Archaeologist and historical research Mike Napthan Archaeology 
Geologist Herefordshire & Worcestershire Earth Heritage Trust 
Dendrochronology Nottingham Tree Rind Dating Laboratory 
Ecologist Webb Clark Ecology
Main contractor Speller Metcalfe Gloucester
Roofing works Merriman Roofing 
Joiner Oakwrights Bath

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