Buildings with soul

I was recently asked by estate agents Mr & Mrs Clarke to write a guest contribution for their journal, following a visit to a property they were selling. The property in question was an old farmhouse. It was a little tired, but full of character and we ended up talking about its soul. Feeling inspired by our conversations, I decided to write the following short piece about ‘buildings with soul’.

“Why is it that some buildings just don’t feel right?” Mr Clarke asked me. “They have nothing about them. They feel… cold.”

“It’s because they have no soul,” I replied.

We were sat with his client around her kitchen table, drinking coffee (of course). Paul had invited me to come and take a look around a beautiful farmhouse in the heart of the Warwickshire countryside. He was interested to see what I might do with it. It was a typical British summer’s day outside: it had been raining consistently (and heavily) for the past hour, so we were all happy to stay where we were and carry on talking and sipping our coffee.

Sensing that Paul and his client were intrigued by what I meant, I continued:

“Buildings with soul are the ones that can tell a story. They may have imperfections, they might be a bit wonky, but that is part of their charm, and what gives them their unique character.”

I could see that Paul instantly got what I meant and he told me about a table he owned that was bruised and battered, but beautiful and homely. It told a story.

Then Paul’s client asked us to turn around. “That dresser has been in my family for generations. I remember my dad stripping it, whilst I sat inside!” she said. This piece of furniture, was so much more than a collection of pine assembled in such a way as to provide some practical kitchen storage. Paul and I had been looking at it for no more than five seconds, but we both were able to instantly recognise the richness and authenticity it had. It had soul. “I’ll be taking it with me when I leave” she said.

The next chapter

It’s important to realise, when you buy a period property, you are just passing through. It may have existed there for hundreds of years in one guise or another. People have been born there, found their first love, fought, experienced life-changing moments, and perhaps even died there at different points in its history. The house has gone through it all with them. From the carpenter who made his marks in the timber work, to the previous owner that cracked a tile dropping a pan on the kitchen floor, it’s full of these little details. Moments of everyday life, captured within the very fabric of the building.

The mistake that a lot of people make is to want to ‘make it their own’. It’s completely natural, and I think it probably stems from some primal territorial instinct. We like to be the kings and queens of our castle and it bothers us that the marks of our predecessors are still there. It is also very much a western phenomenon. Our world view is historically based on ideas of beauty and perfection. We have trouble accepting anything else.

Now, this is not to say that we should all be overly sentimental and treat our homes like living museums, preserving everything at the expense of actually enjoying it! We can still write the next chapter for our homes, but it’s important to realise we don’t need to completely erase everything that has gone before in the process.

Perfect imperfection

The Japanese philosophy Wabi-sabi teaches that there is beauty to be found in imperfection and transience. Wabi, roughly translated, can be taken to mean low-key elegance or grace In the context of a home, it could also refer to imperfections that came about in its construction, like the carpenter’s saw marks, or the subtle ripple of historic glass. Sabi is the beauty that comes with age. The patina that only develops with constant use; the dents in the skirting boards and door frames, the oxidisation of brass doorknobs, the dip that has been worn away into the front door step, or the brick that has been replaced, but not successfully matched. This is where the property’s uniqueness really comes from, and what draws us to it, even if only subconsciously.

Wabi-sabi is about acknowledging authenticity, understanding that nothing lasts forever, and finding a sense of contentment with it. That is what I think a building with soul can help us to do.

To give another more specific example, Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery. Unlike in the west where we are obsessed with perfection, rather than try to carry out an invisible repair so it looks like it never happened (or worse, but unfortunately more likely, throw it away and buy a new one), a Kintsugi repair does the opposite. The repairs are instead illuminated by filling all of the cracks and gaps with a gold lacquer. The idea is that the piece has now been made even more beautiful. Not because it’s got gold shiny bits, but because now it tells a story. It has history. What’s more, the pottery needn’t have even been anything special in the first place. It’s not that the item is beautiful per se but the character (or soul) that has now been conferred upon it.

Wabi-sabi in action

“I love this floor” I said to Paul. We were in the attic now. A wonderful lofty space, crammed with all the sorts of things we accumulate throughout life; boxes of books, Christmas decorations, an old hoover. The floor was completely boarded, probably with oak or elm planks, each one about 8 inches wide and probably 1 1/2 inches thick.

“What would you do with it?” Paul asked. “Sand it?”

“I wouldn’t do anything” I replied. “Well, I would give it a good clean of course, but I don’t think I’d sand it. You would lose the character.”

Again, I could see that Paul instantly understood what I meant. We just automatically jump to conclusions sometimes. I do it, you do it, it’s just human nature. We see a wooden floor; we automatically think, let’s sand it. We just have to constantly ask ourselves why? When we do that, there are usually three possible answers:

The first possibility, is there is a good reason why, and it’s the right call; “That tile needs replacing. Why? Because the roof is leaking, duh!” The second possibility is we answer with something like “because it’s dented”, or “it looks old”, or “it’s wonky”. In that case, ask yourself, aren’t all those the qualities that made you like it in the first place? If you get rid of them all, why is this house going to be any different to one of the hundreds of thousands of homes being built by the mass house-builders? The third option is you find that you don’t really know why; “because that’s just what you do isn’t it? You sand wooden floors…don’t you?” In that case, you just need to remind yourself of the principles of Wabi-sabi. Maybe you can approach the ‘problem’ with a different mindset and decide that it’s actually perfect as it is; even with all of its flaws and imperfections. It has soul.

Mr and Mrs Clarke are estate agents with a difference. Left disappointed with the service they received from their own estate agent, they decided they could do better. Now they run their own estate agency focussing on personal service and beautiful marketing. Their business has grown from strength to strength, with partners distributed throughout the UK. Find out more at

David HollandComment