It is commonly suggested that you should live in a house for six months without making any changes before starting work. That enables you to get a feel for the building, think about how the space could best be organised, and clarify your requirements, and avoids making expensive mistakes.
The principal is the same even if the building is not currently habitable. It is difficult for most people to look at a large empty space and visualise how this space would best be used.
‘Spatial perception’ I think it is called, and it is an attribute more common among good architects, landscape designers and artists than among bankers and accountants. Certainly it was hard for us, and we spent at least a year considering all the options, looking at magazines and so on before we spoke to an architect.
You really do need to try and consider every possible option and use of space before the project starts.
Further, while sticking to tradition is very important, there is an equally important aspect to consider. We don’t all want to live in houses with the layout and amenities of an 18th century cottage. Current needs are very different. We want bathrooms, telephones and hi-fis, and we also want light, hot water, insulation and heating. Incorporating these needs is essential, and it is important to recognise that living in a museum may look very nice but will not usually be very comfortable.
It is the clash between authenticity and comfort that causes many of the challenges in a restoration, especially of a building that was not even designed for people to live in. Good architects can integrate new materials – steel, large areas of glass, and so on – in a building without compromising its impact on the environment. The rest of us struggle. It is much easier to find examples of poorly designed improvements than well-designed examples. We want to live in a barn conversion, but we don’t actually want to live in a barn.