Jon Perks visits a young family serious about DIY.
We’ve all done a bit of DIY. A spot of painting, putting up shelves, perhaps done some wallpapering.
Matthew Higginbottom’s experiences go way, way further.
The 33-year-old has swapped the world of visual effects and animation for an environment of wood shavings, plaster and rawl plugs, converting two units in a Grade II listed silversmith factory from empty shells into beautiful homes.
Built in 1886, the factory on Tenby Street has a prestigious history, producing work for the British royal family, Sultan of Brunei, Fabergé – and the previous version of the FA Cup.
Now the Barrowclift family who own the building have converted the rear into four residential units (retaining the front as a spinning shop), one of which is now home to Matthew, Phoebe, ten week old Peggy Jean and Mo the dog.
“Matthew’s been stalking properties in the Jewellery Quarter for years,” says Phoebe, who hails from Sydney.
“He used to work around the corner and pretty much as soon as I met Matthew he was always ‘come and look at this great building I’ve seen...’ – he’s always been interested in the area, and we met in the Jewellery Quarter...
“When we bought it was just a rancid old factory,” she adds.
“No electric, no drainage, no plumbing; the Barrowclift family had done some work on windows and restoring the roof and had put a staircase into each unit.”
Having picked up the keys to Unit 2 in February 2007, Matthew and partner Phoebe set about turning it into a two bedroom terrace; kitchen and living room on the ground floor, office, bedroom and bathroom on the second floor, the top floor their bedroom with ensuite bathroom.
Having bought the empty unit for £155,000, Matthew estimates he has spent around £35,000 on the conversion – not including his own labour, or that of his Swedish carpenter friend Tobias, who has worked with him for around half the time.
“And that’s really putting some effort into keeping prices down,” says Matthew. “You get really good at haggling and we buy a lot of stuff on eBay, and because the scale of the project is relatively long you can afford to really shop around.”
Moving in by the end of last year (once the first two floors were completed), the couple acquired the neighbouring unit when baby Peggy arrived. That is now weeks away from completion as their new home. They will move next door and lease out their current dwelling.
It’s easy to see why they love living there.
“Just the fabric of the building, the natural light,” says Matthew.
“Nice proportions, nice brick, good location – it’s nice and secluded,” Phoebe adds. “It’s close to the city, so you’re living in the city centre but it’s so quiet and peaceful here, really private, and the history of the area is so interesting, especially for me being an Australian,” she continues. “White settlement in my country is only as old as some of these buildings, so that side of it we’ve really enjoyed.”
Even though several developments have sprouted up in the Jewellery Quarter, Matthew and Phoebe are still surrounded by craftspeople and history – jewellers, badgemakers and the spinning shop as neighbours, with the Victorian graveyards at Warstone Lane and Keyhill Cemetery as their local ‘parks’.
“I think the city centre does have an image of being a place that’s only for young professionals and couples, but we very much believe that it’s a great place for a family,” Matthew insists.
“It’s also nice to be somewhere we can walk to most of the places we need to go.”
Apart from the long hours – Matthew worked seven days a week for the first few months of the project – he says there haven’t been too many major hurdles to tackle – not bad for someone who was pretty much a first-time developer.
“When you get a palette load of stone it’s difficult [to get down the side passage] but it’s not bad, we manage,” he says.
“The biggest challenge is having to do it all ourselves on such a tight budget; there hasn’t really been one element that’s floored us or slowed us down – in some ways the biggest challenge is finding contractors who are willing to come in and do a day’s work or half a day’s work when you’ve done the rest of the job.
“Also the sheer scale, especially being relatively inexperienced – I’ve done bits of decorating on our previous home and done some building,” he adds.
“As a personal challenge it’s been incredible – the amount of time you have to dedicate to something like this to get finished – I don’t think we ever thought it would take us a year.
“What’s been interesting is the first time you do it the sheer volume of information that you have to take in is overwhelming – you have to plan everything down to the minutest detail; you have to source every screw, washer and fitting for a whole house, but after you’ve done it once, the second time is so much easier and all the things that were a worry the first time you just take for granted.”
With its light and airy rooms, beautiful original lattice windows and reclaimed Australian Jarrah wood bannisters, both units are 21st century homes with Victorian charm – the couple’s new house given a central staircase to allow the space to be subdivided more easily – and flipped round, with kitchen and lounge on the top floor, office on the ground floor where reflection on computer screens is not so intense.
“I guess we have the confidence to be slightly more adventurous with the layout this time around,” says Matthew.
“It’ll also be the easiest move we’ve ever had!”
* The fourth unit at 36 Tenby Street will soon go on the market with Maguire Jackson; for details call 0121 634 1520 or go to www.maguirejackson.com