A NEW building contractor has been called in to complete the conversion of historic school buildings in the centre of Exeter into luxury apartments.
Award-winning Stonewood Builders, which specialises in working on listed buildings, has been engaged by developer Grenadier to complete the work on 37 one, two and three-bedroomed apartments and four town houses at the former St Margaret’s Girls School in Magdalen Road.
The firm, which was crowned Britain’s Master Builder at the Federation of Master Builders Awards last year, is seeing its work expanding into Devon and Cornwall with an office in Exeter its next target. The company is likely to be on site for another 12 months working on the final 22 apartments at the prestigious Grade II and Grade II* listed development.
The contractor, which celebrates its half century this year, won the Master Builder Award for its stunning restoration of Codrington Court, a medieval hall house in South Gloucestershire.
The company began as a family firm in 1972 and has steadily grown, escalating that growth after chief executive officer Matt Aitkenhead and chief operating officer Ben Lang bought out his father Neill in 2009. The company is now part of the Stonewood Group, which has a turnover of almost £60 million and employs 350 people.
The group comprises Stonewood Partnerships and Stonewood Homes, groundworks arm Earthstone and architects Stonewood Design, based in officers in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Oxford and soon Exeter.
Director Andre Le Hunte Youe said Stonewood’s experience in dealing with historic buildings is just what is needed to tackle the challenges posed by restoring the school’s crumbling Georgian buildings to their former glory.
“It’s an absolutely fabulous collection of buildings with some stunning original features but they have been very badly maintained for a long time so the work needed to bring them back to their original glory is enormous,” he said.
“There are some beautiful window shutters, fireplaces and staircases but there are an awful lot of modern additions that had been cobbled together over a long period of time that need to be carefully removed and redone properly.”
Stonewood’s first task has been to complete work on seven units within Wynlaton House, which includes the old gym, teachers’ offices, library and refectory. This building is particularly rich in original features including ornate cornice, exposed timber trusses, panelling and mouldings. The previous contractor had already completed the show home and five other apartments in Newbury Lodge.
Design work is in its final stages on the 12 units in School House and Morford House. Eight in Cresswell Court and two in Little Green are expected to be complete by the summer. The town houses within Music Rooms have been completed with one unit still available. Westhall House was bought by a private owner when it was completed and Newbury Lodge, which contains the show apartment, also has units available.
Mr Le Hunte Youe said among the many challenges are adding modern fire safety features and conveniences while protecting the site’s heritage. “The buildings have had some structural work that needs to be improved on as well so there is quite an engineering challenge,” he said.
“Some of the roofing needs to be re-engineered and insulated to modern standards without compromising its historical value. There are trusses that have sheared and snapped that have to be propped and plated because you don’t want to take anything out if you can avoid it.”
He said there is huge interest in the site. “I meet so many people who went to the school, they are always stopping to ask questions about what’s happening. We share their desire to see as much of the history preserved as possible which is why we are working very carefully with Grenadier to complete their design and to make the most of these wonderful buildings.”
The school, which closed in 2011, was founded by Bessie Jago in 1902 when she bought two houses in Southernhay West. She sold them and moved into Wynlaton House and as the school expanded it bought more of the neighbouring buildings.
“It’s a fantastic location, you would be hard-pressed to get a better one really,” said Mr Le Hunte Youe. “It’s very exciting to be involved with this project to breathe life back into these quite severely dilapidated Georgian buildings.”