Design, Build and Installations
Designer and builder
MST Photo Essays

Ex-council House 2007
Design and build by Michael Simon Toon

Wolverhampton Road, Pelsall, Walsall, UK

Halfway though construction of Angels’ House, the high street bank which was financing the project, told Case Study Construction that it had been given instructions to discontinue any down payments on the agreed loan for unspecified reasons. I immediately decided that we should keep the builders occupied with another project, or else they would have to find other employment, and would not be available to finish our job, once we found new financing. Within 24 hours, I found a small house that was in desperate need of repair, and we bought it with 100% mortgage.

Before redevelopment

Whereas our main project was meant for a wealthy person or family, this house is at the other end of the spectrum of home ownership. The house was a former council (projects in US) home that was sold privately, which had been neglected and abandoned by its owners, before being repossessed by the bank. The walls were sagging, and the roof, ceilings, floors and walls needed replacing. The back yard had become a local tipping ground which contained, amongst many things, an unseaworthy fiberglass boat. Even so, hidden underneath it all, was a classic red-brick, house-shaped house - one that a child might draw.

Kitchen: solid wood countertops, porcelain sink, 1/4 turn faucets with ceramic washers

When I was age five, and my parents divorced, my mother provided for me by working six days a week as a carer for the mentally handicapped. She purchased an ex-council house very similar to this one, which we lived in for the next ten years. It may have been a government-built home, but in fact it was in a pleasant community, close to the countryside, where it was safe enough for children to play outside. Not all government building projects are like the ones you see in gritty TV dramas and movies. Some are in fact very nice places to live, and therefore successful.

Living room with wool carpet and wall-mounted TV

Like many people that grew up in working-class families, I was brought up around a lot of plastic and synthetic materials. Plastics are of course, new products relative to human history. They are the results of technological breakthroughs by laboratory scientists, who create new materials from oil and coal as a raw material. Whereas they are called ‘synthetic’ materials, and are technically man-made, a raw material is still required. We still do not have the technology to produce useful matter from thin air, or more accurately, from a vacuum. Plastic comes from oil or coal.

Dining area, solid wood floor

Let’s say then, that plastic is a fabulous invention. It’s difficult to imagine an alternative solution to blood transfusion bags, food containers or cable insulation. However, I do not like it for floor finishings, countertops, carpets (or clothes). There is certainly some plastic lamination on the tables and chairs, and also on the cabinets, and pvc on the double glazed windows, (essential in a temperate climate) but for the most part, we utilized natural materials. The countertops, floors and decking were all solid wood, and the carpets were 100% wool. Even the front door was made of solid wood, rather than one of the many plastic alternatives available.

Bedroom with wool carpet

We installed ceramic sinks in the kitchen and bathroom and the bathtub was ceramic and steel. For both the kitchen and bathroom we installed quarter-turn faucets with ceramic washers, which require only a quarter turn from the completely closed to completely open position. They require very little force to turn, and they stop very abruptly at the open and closed positions, meaning that they can be operated with just a pinky finger. This is useful for older people, or anybody that doesn’t want a fitness workout every time they operate the faucet.

Bedroom with wool carpet

It was not a case study in design, nor was it a case study in construction methods. It was a primarily a business exercise - a way of being able to have access to a construction team for a larger project, later. The builders had children to feed - they weren’t going to just sit on their hands while we searched for money, which we might not have obtained. It seemed like a much more sensible idea to choose the worst house we could find (with redevelopment potential) and turn it into the best house on the street. In the process, I would discover how much extra money it would cost to build a home with predominantly natural or non-synthetic materials.

Bedroom or Office

Which is, ‘none.’ It costs no extra money to make wood floors using solid wood, rather than laminate; it costs just a little extra money to have a steel bath, ceramic sinks and wool carpet, but not much. It’s certainly not as much extra as the increase in property value due to having these things. It is false economy to ‘save’ money when redeveloping or maintaining a property, when it is an asset which will be valued in part based on its quality. Yes it will be valued based on its location primarily, but its quality will dictate its price-point within its own particular market.

Back garden

The highest quality, or most beautiful product, in any market, will always have a customer, and that includes a former council house on a street with other former and existing council houses. Like Angels’ House, we took the single worst eye-sore in a village, and we made it into the most attractive property in that village. In both cases, we of course increased the actual value of the properties that we were redeveloping, but we also increased the property values of all the homes in the immediate area, by removing an eyesore, and replacing it with an attractive local property. In this case, we also made a nice, affordable home for a family to live in, just like the one my mom and I lived in when I was a child.

Michael Simon Toon