Maintaining heritage: Transforming a ruin into one 2015’s most celebrated conservation projects

St Giles House, the ancestral home of Lord Shaftesbury in Dorset, UK, was transformed from a state of ruin to one of the most celebrated building conservation projects of 2015. Frances Marcellin spoke to the restoration team to find out how they took on such a sensitive project.


former glory

When Lord Shaftesbury inherited the grade I listed St Giles House back in 2005, aged just 25, it was unrecognisable from the grand family home that exists today. Set on a 5,000-acre estate, the first brick of the present property was, according to ancestral records, laid in 1650.

However, having been left derelict and uninhabited for the latter part of the 20th century, decades of dry rot and water penetration, as well as botched demolition work in the seventies (an attempt by the 10th earl to make it habitable again) meant St Giles House was on the brink of collapse.

Client and surveyor synergy key to success

Determined to transform St Giles back into a family home and local community venue for events, weddings and festivals, in 2010 Lord Shaftesbury - Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury - appointed Philip Hughes Associates (PHA), a building conservation consultancy made up from surveyors and architects, to prepare sketch proposals and start the planning process for the building's restoration.
This started a near five-year project of major restoration work to return St Giles to its former glory. The overall philosophy was clear.

"We planned to retain as much historic fabric as possible, reinstating as many fragments of material previously removed from the building in the process," says surveyor Philip Hughes. "Every scrap of historic fabric (stone, brick, timber and plaster, and so on) that could be saved and re-used has been."

The final results surpassed all expectation with St Giles House winning a host of awards in 2015 for its fine restoration work. These included Sotheby's Restoration Award, the Historic England Heritage Angels Award and the RICS Building Conservation Award.

"Every scrap of historic fabric (stone, brick, timber and plaster, and so on) that could be saved and re-used has been."

Unwavering client commitment to the project was vital for PHA if the project was to be successful. For RICS judge John Webster, it was the passion and vision of the client and the "special working relationship" between Lord Shaftesbury and Hughes that made achieving such high standards possible.

"This allowed for robust conservation methods of the highest standards to work alongside realistic and achievable budgets, and good prioritisation of resources," explains Webster. "This has resulted in rooms like the library, which has had a light-handed approach applied, being relatively untouched, whereas the grand Portrait Hall is a 'tour de-force' where interior design meets deep conservation."

The conservation master plan

The planning stage of the project lasted just ten months. During this time PHA's work included agreeing outline proposals and discussing them with English Heritage and the local authorities; arranging trials of methods for preparing the brickwork; finding original locations for fragments of the house stored elsewhere on the estate and obtaining tenders for the next phases.

Heritage builders and craftsmen Ellis & Co worked closely with PHA on the two-phase project. Matthew Ellis was the contract manager and Sean Clarke was responsible for the conservation work on site.
Other elements of the work were tendered as separate packages so individual teams of craftsmen could be selected, such as the external brickwork repair and plaster conservation work.

Phase one ran from January 2011 to Easter 2012. It focused on the remains of the south wing and tower, one of the most decayed sections of the house, which was to be converted to provide family accommodation. Phase two ran from January 2012 to summer 2013, and included another section of the living quarters and the new tower that formed the family entrance to the house.

Phase two A covered the complete external repair of the rest of the house and the principal rooms, while Phase two B, which ran from April 2014 to autumn 2014, focused on the completion of work to the north-west part of the house and the construction of a new tower.

"Not only to provide a new entrance to the family home, but also to conceal the demolition scars from the 1970s removal of the north tower and north wing," says Hughes.

The challenge of minimum intervention

During the restoration of the project many different techniques were used to conserve or re-use original materials.

"We undertook a minimum intervention approach," says Clarke, illustrating his point with the procedure followed for stone window jambs.

Each jamb that was removed was assessed for its condition, and a repair strategy prioritising the stone's structural integrity was decided. Strategies included complete renewal, piecing in a damaged section, mortar repairs or micro pinning and shelter coat.

Repairing and repointing the brickwork was one of the project's biggest restoration challenges. Original 17th century brickwork had to be blended with new replacement bricks, and many of these were fired specifically to match samples.

"We undertook a minimum intervention approach."

"Brickwork on the South Terrace, already damaged by the removal of 1820s render in the 1970s, had borne the brunt of weathering from the sun and rain," explains Ellis. "Where necessary, perished bricks were repaired or replaced. A careful blending of coloured pointing was used to create an even appearance to the edges of the weathered brickwork, both preserving the original materials, blending in replacement bricks and creating a consistent appearance with less weathered sections of brickwork."

The reconstruction of the north tower required new bricks, which were handmade from the same clay beds that were used to construct the house. But a solution was needed to deal with the different sizes of the old bricks and the modern bricks. "We decided to use two different brick sizes to get the range of dimensions we needed to match the existing," explains Hughes.

Another complex problem was the repair of Stone Hall. This part of the building along with Great Hall are, Ellis believes, the greatest conservation achievements of the project. This is partly due to the complicated plaster work that had to be carried out as a result of leaking roofs and dry rot, and, combined with the new decorative stonework and joinery repairs, formed the greatest transformation resulting in elegant and ornate interior decoration.

Other work involved restoring the oak flooring and using reclaimed wood materials where necessary; window dressing repairs using high quality limestone; the carving of Doric columns edging stones and keystones from Portland stone by Ellis & Co's masonry team and the removal, cleaning and restoration of the parapets.

A family home and a historic community venue

"What is to become of this old family home where successive generations have lived so long is impossible to foretell," wrote the 9th Earl wrote in his notebook at the end of World War 2.
Despite the project still not being quite finished, with some areas ready to restore when more funds are raised, the ancestral home of the Shaftesburys can be enjoyed as a family home again as well as benefiting the wider community.
"The Earl and Countess of Shaftesbury have reawakened one of Britain's great houses," says Harry Dalmeny, Sotheby's Chairman of Private Clients. "This remarkable feat, achieved in such a short space of time, has not only preserved one of our architectural gems but also created a home fit for family life."