02 Apr 2020

The secretive tower of High Garrett

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Jon and Victoria Oakley’s home, a former water tower – which served a prisoner-of-war camp and doubled as a secret communications hub during the Second World War – is currently listed for sale via OnTheMarket. Here, i-Build talks to Jon and his Architect, James Furzer of architectural design practice JFD, about the extensive renovation process they went through to achieve the stunning, unique aesthetics the water tower boasts today.

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Known simply as 'The Water Tower', the property is now a beautifully renovated five-storey family home with four en-suite bedrooms and a stunning newly-built ground floor extension. The original red brick structure in High Garrett near Braintree, Essex, started life as a water tower for an adjacent POW camp, which opened in 1938. Known as ‘78 Working Camp’, it was thought to have housed around 700 Italian and some German Second World War POWs and was the HQ for a number of other smaller prison camps in the area.

Enshrouded with secrecy

The tower has long been an iconic local landmark, but few residents of the area knew its secret – the structure doubled as a communications hub by sending early warning signals of enemy aircraft to Wethersfield, an American airbase around five miles away. That was a discovery made by Jon and Victoria, who in 2017 bought the derelict structure and its one-acre plot for £285,000. When the couple first started exploring their new purchase, they found four storeys of rooms filled with defunct wireless radios, switchboards and wiring – spaces the locals just thought were hollow.

Jon explained: “The floors were all concrete and there were hatches in each one for a ladder which ran the full height of the building. It wasn’t like they had just left the room, but the communications equipment was still wired and secured to the walls – although it was all rotten and rusty from exposure. We believe it was run by Marconi, the British company which pioneered wireless long-distance communication. We have had one or two finds in the garden down the years – US Air Force knives, forks, spoons and ink pots, as well as helmets and empty gas mask boxes.”

When asked what inspired him to take on a renovation project of this scale, Jon replied: “Victoria and I are huge fans of home renovation and self-build programmes such as Grand Designs, and you see water tower homeowners pop up quite often on that series. We both had local businesses and used to drive past the derelict water tower on a daily basis. We always questioned who owned it and if it was available to purchase. Then one day, amazingly, it came up for sale; however, at that stage, we weren’t in the financial position to buy it. In all honestly, I’m not too sure if it was sold then or if it was just taken off the market. After driving past it every day – it was almost teasing us – it finally appeared on the market again, and we were lucky to have our offer accepted.”

A new lease of life

Once a pile of bricks and rubble, the garden is now a sweeping and well-kept lawn beneath the imposing tower, atop which Jon was able to add a top level which had been missing since the original water tank was removed after the war.

The fourth floor is clad in metal panels just like the originals, having been made by the same company, Braithwaite in Newport, which is thought to have built the water tank when the tower first went up in 1938. The new cladding had to be purpose-built off site and lifted onto the tower with a 100-tonne crane.

Jon and Victoria have lived in the water tower with the two youngest of their four children for a year before deciding to put it on the market this year with the aim of downsizing. Jon, who is semi-retired from his own automotive business customising supercars, said: “It’s right by the main road locally and everyone in the area has been able to see the building evolve over time. We took a risk buying it, not knowing we would get planning permission. We have been able to save a local landmark that was derelict, disused and starting to deteriorate badly.”

Old, meet new...

Jon’s Architect, James Furzer of architectural design practice JFD, succeeded in creating a complementary aesthetic for the building, as James explains: “Using a contrasting design aesthetic enabled the extension to complement the historic tower. A mix of contemporary forms and industrial materials were used to reflect the industrial use of the tower during its lifespan. We wished not only to create a beautiful home for Jon and Victoria but also to bring an historic monument back from the past. The tower was in need of repair, under fear of being lost altogether.”

“James has been fantastic,” added Jon. “He’s young, and that’s what we wanted; someone with new ideas and knowledge of new technologies. If we did do anything again, without a doubt, we’d use him. In fact, I’ve passed his details on to a few friends too.” “There was a long planning process and strategy required for the project,” continued James. “The Oakleys approached me with planning approval already in place for something much smaller and much more basic in design. There had been several refusals to reinstate the tank. However, we were able to adopt the correct planning strategy and receive approval for not only a larger, more contemporary ground floor extension, but also the reinstatement of the water tank.”

The project itself took 15 months to complete from start to finish. This was longer than anticipated due to unforeseen elements such as the tower underpinning etc.

“Several challenges developed throughout the build,” continued James. “Working with an extremely old building, you are unsure of the existing stability of the structure. In fact, we had to underpin the entire existing tower as its stability had been compromised with its age. An entire new brick skin was built around the tower as the existing brickwork had deteriorated to such a poor state due to the extreme weather and poor maintenance that it had experienced.”

Material specification

“Material and product specification was a very detailed and interesting process,” explains James. “We intended to source as many local products, materials and contractors as possible. Not only was this to keep the carbon footprint of the build to a minimum, but also to help pump finance back into the local community.

“Picking the correct materials was vital to the build to ensure that the tower’s heritage was not lost during the conversion – the extension aimed to complement and not detract from the tower itself. The reinstatement of the tank was a very exciting moment in the project. We were able to source the original manufacturer of the tank panels from when the tank was in situ during the war. Using some tank base panels found within the roof construction, we were able to research the panel moulding, pattern and shape, and isolate to a single, specific manufacturer. The manufacturer even created the panels using the original manufacturing process that was used during the war to add authenticity to the installation. Each bolt was installed by hand just as the original had been constructed.”

The finished article

The extension had been designed to complement the tower in a way that sees a conscious contrast in aesthetic. “Should the extension blend in and become blurred with the tower, it would not have been able to stand as such a monument. The contemporary design represents a clear separation from the tower’s historic past and future life. Minimal internal alterations took place within the tower, other than the removal of one wall on each floor to create more of a restoration as opposed to change of use,” added James. “The local community feel that the extension is an improvement to the tower. The tower had been left to fall into disrepair and had become an eyesore. When the planning application was submitted, we, in fact, had letters of support from local residents.”

Jon added: “The finished space is everything we hoped it would be. From a functionality point of view, the building is superb. Also, the views are brilliant. The scaffolding was up for a long time, so every time you looked out expecting this great view; it was obscured by the scaffolding! Once we were in and it eventually came down, we realised how far out we could actually see from high up in the tower.

“I must add, I think one of the great things for us was having the electric gates agreed. They’re in the same metal panels as the tank that’s on the top so it all ties in together and gives us the privacy from the main road.”

“I especially love the open-plan downstairs. It’s the first time we’ve been in a house that is entirely open-plan – it’s excellent – I feel it brings the family even more together.

“My wife; however, would argue that the best room is at the other end of the building – her dressing room. Housed inside the tank, one room is dedicated to shoes and handbags whilst the other is adorned in mirrors. The dressing room itself is 7m2 with two large 2m2 skylights, so the natural sunlight that shines through is brilliant. My daughter loves it too – it’s her Instagram room!”.

Top tips and advice

When asked if he’d offer advice to anyone looking to renovate or self-build, James said: “Surround yourself with a knowledgeable team. An architect or designer who shares the same vision as you, and builders that are capable of completing the tasks provided to a standard that you expect.”

Jon added: “Having learned the hard way, I’d say to put the job out there to as many builders as you can. I managed the project alongside James, which I thought worked really well.”

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