Inside a former water-pumping station turned beautiful eco-friendly property

Once a derelict hulk, filled with rusting and redundant equipment, this 1930s water-pumping station has been transformed into a beautiful, eco-friendly property, albeit one that kicked up something of a social media storm in the process.

It all started when Nick and Brigitte Sweet snapped up Nutbourne pumping station, perhaps the ultimate doer-upper, at a local auction in West Sussex.

Hidden down a private country lane and surrounded by greenery, the 90-year-old municipal modernist building had been built by Great War veterans but had been empty since the 1970s and been vandalised.

The vast building sold for £269,000 and the couple earmarked £400,000 for its conversion into a family home.

While much of the original pumping equipment, cruise-liner-style handrails and concrete gallery, analogue gauges and turquoise tiles were still in place, Nick took the decision to largely gut the rusty and rotting interiors rather than making it a restored museum piece with living spaces bolted on the sides.

‘The concrete structure was good but there was water coming through the roof and the inside was badly vandalised. This wasn’t a restoration – I am a modernist by way of design and our view was to do the ultimate eco-house.’

The house is calm in its proportions, it feels like a sanctuary

The large area housing the pumping equipment had a concrete floor laid over the top to create a basement den. This blank canvas provides a contrast to the rest of the home, with enough space for a wealth of activities from gym workouts to yoga sessions and even disco dancing under the ceiling mirror ball.

The stairs on the ground floor were removed to create a one-level living space. The kitchen alone, with its towering ceiling, was big enough to fit the couple’s previous home inside. Due to the thickness of the walls, windows took three days to cut out and one metre-thick insulation was used in order to obtain a rare EPC A rating.

The interiors became a mixture of quality modern items and antiques, such as the 16-person school pew, and any detailing, from the restored doors to windows, were retained. The front of the property was given a clean-cut façade, covering the exposed brickwork.

Throughout the year-long process the property, now called Studio Fold, featured on the BBC show Restoration Home with Caroline Quentin, and while her reaction was positive, many of the comments on YouTube since have been negative, accusing Nick of removing too much of the history and character of the original building.

But Nick is confident he was right to completely modernise the property. Now it is available as a holiday let, with a year-round list of requests to hire it out.

‘We explained on the programme that we were reusing only those elements that were of use in a modern eco-house, i.e. no old pumps as features. We did a conversion project, not a restoration as there was so little there to restore. We definitely think we did the right thing and would do the same again.’

The judges agreed, and a number of awards followed, including The Sussex Heritage Trust award in 2011.

It helps that the house feels more striking now. Giant shrubs line the frontage, softening the cubist white expanse and what Nick calls a ‘gin and tonic garden’, ie, one that you don’t need to work too hard on.

Inside, the large living areas are filled with well-read books on architecture, politics and art, and the walls are adorned by giant iPad drawings by Nick’s twins, transformed into tapestries by a company in Belgium.

The two 90m-deep boreholes from its water pumping days have glycol fluid loops lowered into them. These re-circulate the glycol and a ground source heat pump extracts water heat from this. Nick runs the house taps at 45C and the difference is made up by the solar panels that line the roof and feed electricity back into the grid. This generates enough income to not only cover every bill, but also leave around £4,000 left over.

It’s a fantastic place for parties

The house is now available for rent on Unique Homestays and can bring in up to £120,000 a year if needed (the family have another property, too) with staycationers requesting the house every week of the year. Obviously, Nick and Brigitte have done something right.

‘It’s a fantastic place for parties,’ Nick says. ‘I’d like to say it’s all planned and shrewd but it’s accidental.’

The kitchen has top-end Neff appliances and the granite-topped island is surrounded by Ikea chairs. The glass table was an eBay find in Bournemouth.

‘It has suggestion of swirling water that fits with the building,’ says Nick. The giant spaces sell themselves with only the minimum of adornment needed and benefits from minimal clutter and limelight-stealing furniture.

‘We said from the outset that we wanted to keep it clean and white – it works really well and gives a sense of space and light. It has an extraordinary wow factor because of the space. But the house is calm in its proportions, it feels like a sanctuary. It’s very quiet inside; you sense the weight of the walls. A sense of protection and peace. There’s an uncertainty to life and that’s nice right now.’

After they bought the property, the couple found some extra space that they didn’t know was there. Underneath a manhole cover in the back garden was another 20m-long space, which would be great for a separate annexe/studio or a gym/pool.

The question is, will they stay?

The couple are thinking about selling up, which could mean a tidy profit on the roughly £700,000 they spent building their dream property.

‘We expect to put it on the market] for £1.65million. We do want to do two more projects – another house on land we own in Scotland and another still secret one, which we hope will be the last.’

Studio Fold, in Nutbourne, Pulborough, West Sussex, is available for rent at Unique Homestays

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