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Home grown virtues

George Demetri reports on the earthy architecture of Ashwood Place

The 1920s were good years for F J Derry. The innovative industrialist made a fortune designing magnetic corsets that were claimed to ward off arthritis and rheumatism. Indeed, so rich and famous did he become that in 1929 he was able to commission the architect M H Baillie Scott to design him a grand mansion in Woking, Surrey. The result, Ashwood House, was a rambling Arts and Crafts mansion, embodying most of the principles that movement enshrined.

Along with its neighbouring coach house, the Grade II-listed building has recently undergone a sensitive restoration and conversion into desirable apartments.

They are complemented by two separate blocks of new houses, all in an idyllic setting which could not be more English.

Chequered history

Until 1996, Ashwood House had served as a National Children's Home, after which it suffered neglect and dilapidation. However, this was to change at the hands of architect and developer Michael J Wilson. A partner in Prime Meridian, a firm of specialist architects and engineers, Wilson has specialised in restoring historic buildings, some of which have been saved from demolition as they had been regarded as beyond repair. Typical of his restorations is the Grade I-listed Robert Adam mansion in Brasted, Kent.

The Arts and Crafts features of Ashwood House - the lack of symmetry of its irregular Hshaped plan with attached wing, the deeply pitched roofs and chimneys jostling for position - have produced a delightful, picturesque informality. This charming effect is reinforced by the different sizes and types of openings in an earthy architecture, consisting predominantly of brick and of clay roof tiles.

Baillie Scott was part of a movement that disliked 'imported' Italianate and Classical styles, aiming instead at a home-produced architecture which - not intended to be a style - would grow organically from its surroundings. It had to be capable of being built by local craftsmen using local materials and be respectful of local building traditions. For William Morris, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement, this simplicity, utility and full-functional expression, allied with the emphasis on craftsmanship rather than dubious industrial design, would result in new and unpretentious forms.

The lack of formality typified at Ashwood House aimed to avoid the rectangularity of Classically inspired houses and so promote a better interaction of the building with its site.

Further informality and irregularity is provided by a convoluted plan that results in a picturesque arrangement of diaper-patterned brickwork walling, openings of different sizes and shapes according to function, steeply pitched red-tiled roofs, gables and chimney stacks.

In typical Arts and Crafts fashion, the building is generated from the inside out, with all parts fully expressed, whether a grand dining room or humble staircase. This desire for honesty of structure, construction and materials anathematised the shoehorning of accommodation into box-like forms.

Restoration and additions Under Michael Wilson's direction, the exterior of the main house has been restored to its former glory, though the interior has been divided into seven well specified apartments and two houses.

Conversion of the former coach house opposite has resulted in two additional houses. However, the major intervention on the site has been the creation of two new blocks to the east and west of the main house, providing a further five houses.

Sympathetic design

The insistence of the planners is largely responsible for the good manners that are shown by the new arrivals, and which echo various features of the main house. Beautifully executed diaper brickwork, matching chimney stacks, dormer windows, stone quoins and dressings, and red handmade clay roof tiles are all in sympathy with the original 1929 mansion.

Although the architect has gone to great lengths to achieve harmony by using as wide a repertoire of elements as possible, the result lacks the informality and organic nature of the original mansion. Even so, when seen as a whole, the development has a seductive charm which, as the architect and planners intended, allows the mansion to shine through.

Careful construction Standard cavity-wall construction with partialfill insulation has been used for the newly built houses. Special 50mm high bricks, sourced from a Sussex brickworks, were used to match those of the main house. The new multi-coloured red brickwork is enlivened by the very neat and allpervading diaper pattern, created by incorporating black snap headers into what is basically an English bond pattern.

At first, the burnt ends of snapped headers fired in the hottest parts of the clamp were used.

When this failed to produce a sufficiently blackened effect, the services of specialist brick tinters were called in to 'doctor' the header faces.

The result is attractive and helps to unify new and existing buildings.

Achieving brickwork similar in colour and tone to that of the main house required a special blend comprising red and yellow bricks in an 11:1 ratio. This blending was carried out by the bricklayers on site. The resulting colour match is convincing and will improve with weathering.

Further interest is added to the elevations by stone dressings, lintels and quoins of Gloucestershire limestone.

Conservationists will say that the best use for a building is that for which it was originally intended. However, finding buyers for large mansions can be difficult. If, as a consequence, they remain empty for long periods and are not properly maintained, the result is a downward spiral of decay which can lead to demolition.

The restoration and redevelopment of Ashwood House has been achieved sensitively and has resulted in the preservation of a splendid building. Even though the interior has been altered, the works have achieved a longterm economic future for the building which is far preferable to deterioration and demolition.

This is to be applauded, even if it means having to share the grounds with new neighbours.

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