By Tess Read
Every city has its own red lines in terms of building and developing. Camden Town in London, where we used to live, in a similar way to Exeter has a stock of Victorian housing, plus some Georgian regency housing too, surprisingly enough especially near Regent’s park. And also like Exeter, Camden has some big holes in the old housing which make for difficult conversations with German tourists. Likewise, the rather ugly 1950s and 60s buildings occupying these holes make for difficult conversations with planning officers along the lines of ‘What on earth were your predecessors thinking?!’
One of Camden’s red lines in dealing with these different housing scenarios is the iron law that where a Victorian or Georgian building has a sash window it shall not be replaced with any other. I get their point. Sash windows are pretty. They look attractive whether open or closed, their timber frames are far more sympathetic to the London stock brick than any plastic PVC window could ever be. They can even make pleasing sounds when being opened or closed – so long as they are in fact able to be opened or closed, which frequently they can’t, of course. Because they jam. The cords break. The wood swells in the winter and the rain, and contracts in the summer. The windows require more maintenance than something that is meant to be a functioning part of a house really has a right to. Plus, even when they are fully functioning, there is the other big problem with them – the vast amount of freezing cold air they leak into every room of the house in every month – except during a literal heatwave.
Yes, all in all, they are not really fit for purpose. But Camden will not permit them to be changed – what to do? This is where the secondary glazing companies come in and rake a pretty penny. Residents have no other choice but to turn to them. Unless the sash window is at the back of the house away from too many prying eyes, and unless the sash window in question were to give onto a flat roof structurally safe and sound and just perfect for turning into a rooftop garden, creating a little bit of outside space paradise in the heart of Camden. In that case, some residents, not any that I ever met obviously, found that the rules should no longer apply. In that rather specific case instead, apparently, some people decided to remove the sash window when no one was looking, and replace it with a fully openable much maligned highly illegal PVC door without troubling the Council over any such issues as planning permission. I have heard tales of the resulting roof gardens – amazing oases of verdant plants and bright splashes of reds, blues, violets and oranges from geraniums, forget-me-nots, petunias, lilies. Fragrant jasmine bushes delighting a spring evening when the balmy weather just begins in March or April, and lavender bushes scenting the air of summer with exquisite floral notes wafting where instead the less lovely smell of diesel would otherwise be. Such delicious gardens off the ground are of course just what a city needs for the insect life that we all need for our fruit trees and for our birds. A glance at a Buddleia bush, busy with bees in the sunshine is all you need to see to know that some things are more important than sash windows, some of the time. Aren’t they?
But I had a friend who was determined to do things through all the correct channels. She wanted to extend her kitchen outwards, knocking through and opening out and all those words that are so easy to say but seems rather less easy, three sets of architects’ plans, project managers and builders later. When you’re tearing your hair out and you still don’t even have a proper floor, or a functioning kitchen, let alone one that Nigella Lawson would be happy to cook her spuds in. The first stage of all this hell is, of course, the planning permission. So my friend dutifully employed an architect and plans were submitted to the Council. And duly rejected. A second set of plans were submitted. And rejected. After the third set of plans were thrown back she adopted a new plan, what she thought was a rather cunning plan, but in fact, turned out to be very much not. As the Council hadn’t liked the plans she/ architects had come up with, she instead, decided to invite the planning officer to her house such that over tea and cakes in the cramped kitchen they could all happily agree on a set of plans for a new improved kitchen that the Council would be delighted to sign off upon. Big mistake.
In an open and frank conversation, the Council didn’t so much set out what form of extension they would approve of, so much as set out all the ways in which her house was currently in breach of a great number of Council planning decisions. I believe the conversation went something like this. My friend: “Won’t this kitchen be great when it is extended! How do you think it is best done?” Council officer: “Extend this kitchen? Are you having a larf! You’ll be lucky! First off you’ve got to reinstate the original coving around the front door, uncover the original parquet floor, and as for those sash windows that have been taken out…” My friend gave up. She decided it was simpler to move out. Out of the house, and out of the jurisdiction of sash window obsessed Camden council. I hear she settled happily in Hereford. To a house where someone had already extended the kitchen.
As for us, we moved to Exeter, to a house which is a listed building thanks to one medieval beam in the roof that nobody can even see. What could possibly go wrong…
To read more articles by Tess Read, click here.