Rebecca and Matthew McCloskey have succeeded in transforming a former weaving factory into a modern family home, in a 15 year journey that required patience and flexibility
TEXT JESS UNWIN IMAGES REBECCA MCCLOSKEY AND MATTHEW BISHOP
It was a case of instant attraction when Rebecca and Matthew McCloskey followed up an estate agent’s speculative suggestion that they check out a “quirky” building in Hertfordshire, that had once been a canvas-weaving factory.
Rebecca reveals: “My first reaction when I saw inside it was to whisper to Matt, ‘I think we should live here’. I could see the character and potential of it.”
The building in question certainly has character – and history too. Located in the conservation area of the town of Tring, it was known in the 19th century for the quality of canvas-weaving on the premises.
Weaving activity ceased prior to the start of World War Two, but the production of ladies’ clothing continued onsite before work got underway in the late 1970s to turn the property into two residential dwellings, across three floors.
It was in 2005 that the McCloskeys’ part in the building’s story began – when they bought the first floor and the converted attic space above as a three-bed kitchen/diner maisonette.
They began to dream about reuniting all three floors of the house as one home, but the ground floor remained a separate flat occupied by someone else until the couple were in a position to buy it in 2010. Even then, their patient wait wasn’t over. Matthew, an IT professional, explains: “It was fantastic to finally secure the ground floor. However, we realised it would be a while before we could afford to change it in the way we wanted.”
As it was still configured as a self-contained flat, the couple decided to let the ground floor for the next few years. They were finally ready, with funding available through remortgaging, to begin remodelling their house at the end of 2016.
The task was a substantial renovation that involved building front and back extensions, and a total reconfiguration of the ground floor and first floor with the removal of almost all of the internal walls on those floors. The major work was completed by the following summer – although further internal changes have been made in 2020 and 2021.
The McCloskeys and their three children can now relax and enjoy a comfortable family home that harmoniously brings together both modern and old, to breathe new life into the building.
On the ground floor, the footprint has been increased by approximately 40 m2, and the layout is largely open-plan. The rear extension has made room for a carefully considered, modern kitchen and also allows for a private and cosy ‘snug’, which is deliberately partitioned so as to be separate from the rest of the ground floor living area. Both the kitchen and the snug are flooded with light through a glazed aluminium roof. A further wall was moved to widen the hallway and the ground floor also has a toilet and a utility.
The results are impressive but, as with most projects of this kind, it wasn’t all plain sailing. A wall in one corner needed underpinning – work that had to be done manually and which cost £1,000 a metre. And access to materials and equipment was a problem throughout the project as the house can only be approached via a narrow driveway.
Matthew remembers that installing ground floor underfloor heating required digging down to a depth of 70 cm, uncovering “lots of weird old pipes that no-one was 100% sure were live or not.” Elsewhere, initial fears about a well discovered beneath the drive eventually turned out to be unfounded.
One unexpected development the couple have learned to love is around new structural steel supports to take the weight of the first floor. The original plan was for the existing steel framework to be removed and replaced with the new steel, which would be hidden in the ceiling. However, safety considerations meant the decision was taken to install the new steel under the old, leaving the steel columns and I-beams exposed, adding a touch of ‘industrial chic’ that’s perhaps fitting given the building’s heritage. Says Rebecca: “It’s not for everyone, but we’ve embraced it.”
Changes made on the first floor were no less extensive. The maisonette’s large living room, open-plan kitchen/dining room, study/bedroom and bathroom have been replaced by three bedrooms, two ensuite bathrooms, and one family bathroom. In contrast, the configuration of the second-floor attic space is unaltered – featuring two bedrooms, including the master with an ensuite shower room.
The 18 month journey to planning for the renovation, says Matthew, was an “iterative process, going back and forth,” to ensure their plans adhered to the relevant rules. Rebecca adds: “With it being a conservation area, new exteriors have to look the same as old, and we had to give attention to things like making sure that the bi-fold doors at the front mirrored the size of the garage doors for symmetry.”
She adds: “It was stressful at times, but if you stick to the advice you get from the council you should be alright.” However, Rebecca offers the advice that if there’s something “important to your design vision and how you want to use your home,” it may be worth “standing your ground or making minor adjustments to negotiate towards your end goal – even if it delays the planning application process.”
PROJECT MANAGEMENT SUCCESS
The McCloskeys agree that their builders played a vital role in overcoming problems and the eventual success of the project. Matthew says: “We wanted a recommended local outfit because they’d have a reputation to protect, and because we could look at their other work. We also didn’t want them to be too big a firm, so there’d be a real and personal relationship.”
Rebecca says: “Matt and I were project- managing, so cultivating and maintaining a good relationship with the builder was key. It has to be give and take, because there’s always going to be something that goes wrong, some unexpected twist. So, ongoing discussion and a willingness to be flexible when needed is very important.”
As well as project-managing, Rebecca also took on the interior design. It was an experience the former teacher enjoyed so much that she’s now set up her own interior design company, called Weave Interiors. “It’s always been something I’ve had a passion for,” she says.
One slightly frustrating bureaucratic legacy of the McCloskeys’ renovation has been an unexpected change of postcode. Matthew explains: “The change to one residential dwelling meant a new postcode and address. The implications have turned out to be far- reaching because our property ‘doesn’t exist’ for anyone checking an older database. That’s proved a problem for everything from deliveries to renewing a driver’s licence!”
COUNTING THE COST
This couple aren’t the sort of people to let a tiny glitch like that get in the way of enjoying their new-look home. Totting up the cost to this point, they believe they’ve spent more than £200,000 on the renovation, and are sure it’s been well worth it. They had always wanted a space that would suit their growing needs as a family, and one that was open plan as they spend a lot of time entertaining family and friends. “It needed to be a place everyone would enjoy.
She admits that “some might say that converting two residential spaces into one house wasn’t a sensible thing financially to do,” and they “could have done them both up, sold them and then moved on.” However, having fallen in love with the house and the location, they “knew that if we could be a little patient, we could do something special with this unique property.”
She concludes: “The history of the building, with all the changes that have happened over the years, is another big part of what I love about it.” While Rebecca says she was “a little worried” when they began that their project might detract from that character, she adds that she’s “really pleased that we’ve not only added to its charms, but also made it right for us as a family and whoever lives here after us.”
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