Unusual homes in the UK – have you considered converting a mill?

Some of the UK’s most imaginative homes are conversions. Whether the building started out life as a church, an industrial site, or a barn, a converted property can be full of unique character. And among the most attractive conversions are old mills.

Back in the day, the UK’s towns and villages were full of mills that used water or wind to grind grain or drive other machinery, but since industrialisation and the mass production of food, most of these have fallen out of use. Some have been recommissioned as historical attractions, while others have been adapted into fantastic homes. 11-12 May is National Mills Weekend 2019, where loads of old mills open their doors to the public, and it’s a great opportunity to have a nose round some of these extraordinary buildings.

If you’ve found an old mill site for sale and are considering converting it into a home, here are a few things you might want to consider.

Weighing up the risks

Because the amount of work needed to convert a former mill into a home can vary so hugely, you’ll need to make sure you’re not biting off more than you can chew – both in a financial sense but also in terms of the time and effort that it might take to see the project through. While conversion costs could start at £600-700 per square metre, with more extensive builds this could climb as high as £2,000 per square metre and take years to complete, so you need to know what you’re taking on. 

As such, a full building survey will be essential. You’re best off trying to find a surveyor with specific experience of mill conversions, since they’re more likely to be able to give you an accurate idea of the scope of the project if they’ve worked on similar ones before.

Mills can also come with additional complications compared to other properties, often related to their geographical placement or the machinery that might be in situ. For example, as you might expect, watermills are prone to flooding, and this can be a risk factor for your project.

Finding the right architect

As with your surveyor, ideally you’ll need an architect with solid experience of similar projects. Beyond that, you’ll also want to engage someone whose vision of the project fits with your own. Are you looking to maintain the traditional appearance of the exterior, or to adapt it in a more modern style (subject to planning restraints)? There are a lot of potential options with a mill conversion, so you’ll need to make sure you’re all on the same page.

If you’re intending to extend the building, it’s worth being aware that many architects will insist on using a different but complementary style for extensions, rather than ‘faking’ changes to the original property.

Potential hidden costs

When you’re budgeting for a mill conversion – or any other project where you’re adapting an unconventional site into a home – remember that certain factors might drive the price up. Obviously there will be the costs of architects, surveyors and the building work itself, but you might also have to get the property connected to various utilities. Depending on the location and whether it has ever been connected before, this can be a pricey undertaking, and can also involve a lot of red tape getting permission to dig up public roads or cross from neighbouring properties.

It’s also highly likely that a mill or former industrial premises will be listed, and they’re often located in conservation areas, so there may be limitations on the extent to which you can alter the property. You might also find that you’re required to use more expensive materials that are in keeping with the original structure or the surrounding area. Planners will probably be much fussier than usual, so it’s worth budgeting for delays and amendments to your plans.

Neighbours

It’s human nature to resist change, and residents in neighbouring properties may have strong feelings about your proposed conversion. Add to this the fact that no-one likes living next to a building site – especially one that might be there for an extended period of time – and you might find your new neighbours would sooner your prospective mill conversion stayed derelict.

Poor relations with your neighbours can make your conversion project a lot more difficult to achieve, partly because they can slow things down with planning objections and official complaints, but also because there could be times when their goodwill is helpful. For example, sympathetic neighbours might allow your contractors to use their drive to manoeuvre big vehicles, give you permission to access your property by a more convenient route that crosses their land, or let you have some power or water if you suffer an outage.

Diplomacy is key. Don’t wait for them to get your planning application through the post. Go round and introduce yourself, talk them through the plans, listen to their concerns, and try to find solutions. Ultimately, all being well, you will eventually have to live next to these people, so it’s best to get off on the right foot.

The golden rule of property conversions

Everything takes longer and costs more than you think, so leave plenty of play in your budget, and accept delays and setbacks as part of the process rather than bad luck. Undertaking a mill conversion isn’t right for everyone, but it might be perfect for you, and at the end of it you’ll have a home that’s completely unique.