Country houses for sale

Doing up your dream house: House Detective

A building accumulates layers of fabric as an onion grows skins. Although adding greatly to its interest, these can result in the sort of complexity that it requires an expert such as Richard Morriss to analyse and unpick.

Mr Morriss carries out detailed investigations of buildings and the structural aspects of gardens to help owners understand their history. Half of his time is spent doing planning consultancy work the sort of architectural and archaeological reports of listed buildings that are required as a condition of many planning applications. ‘Sometimes an impasse can develop between an owner and a planning officer; we’re the honest broker between the two,’ he says. ‘We have no axe to grind. Our job is simply to convey an understanding of the building, and to encourage sympathetic changes.’

Mr Morriss got into historic building consultancy work, which he now does freelance all over England and Wales, accidentally. It was Alton Towers, where he grew up (his father was a catering manager there), that first kindled his interest. But at the time, there was no career to be had in old buildings, and it was not until the early 1980s that he studied industrial archaeology at the Ironbridge Institute. There he gained plenty of experience recording threatened buildings, such as the forgotten 18th-century New Dale Foundry near Telford, which was demolished for open-cast mining amid much controversy. But his work today is more about trying to understand buildings than recording them brick by brick.

‘We’re slightly different to architectural historians. They’re more interested in the fine-art side, whereas we’re more interested in the nuts and bolts or should I say the mortises and tenons of a building,’ he says. ‘The first stage of a typical investigation is to work out how the structure was put together by breaking it down into its component parts main block, wings, outbuildings and analysing each as an individual element. Tiny details, such as carpenters’ marks, peg holes and traces of wattle and daub, are examined. The most important tool of the trade is now a digital camera, although a notebook, tape recorder, tape measure and torch are still indispensable’.

Mr Morriss emphasises how important it is to embark on an investigation without any preconceptions: ‘The aim of the first stage is to work out the developmental phases, not the dates’. Only when this has been done are the building’s history and decorative elements considered, documentary research carried out, and expert knowledge of how a building works, and of decorative taste and style, applied. ‘Basically, we deconstruct a building and then reconstruct it,’ he says.

Although some 70% of jobs are for private clients, he also works for English Heritage, the National Trust and the Landmark Trust on buildings ranging from ruined castles and country houses to factories, wartime complexes, and agricultural and vernacular buildings.

‘Sometimes, however, as with our recent detailed study of Snowshill Manor for the National Trust, we can end up with more questions than answers.’

Richard Morriss: 01743 891561

Top tips

  • If planning any work to your listed building, get in touch with your local conservation officer as early as possible
  • Don’t be afraid to do your own documentary research. Local records offices are usually very helpful, and it is surprising what you can discover without having to pay an expert
  • Be observant look carefully at your building. Be objective in the way you analyse it. Be open-minded do not start off with preconceptions; buildings often disobey rules