A determined mother-and-daughter duo have been hard at work restoring one of Cambridge’s iconic buildings to its former glory – Miriam Balanescu meets Victoria Li and Elizabeth Huang to learn more
Cambridge is a place where things often go unnoticed: from architectural adornments to tiny plaques designed to share the history of the city’s streets with its passers-by. Jesus Green Lock House is a building that will be imprinted at the back of many of our minds, having walked, run or cycled past it a million times. Though most of us will probably have never paid it much attention – especially since it’s been left empty and neglected now for decades.
Two people set on changing this are mother-daughter duo, Victoria Li and Elizabeth Huang. Victoria moved with her husband to Cambridge in the 80s and was instantly smitten with the riverside home. “We saw the Lock House many years ago when we were passing,” recalls Victoria. “I saw a lady working in the garden and thought, ‘What a beautiful house – but we will never be able to afford to buy it.’ Thirty years later, we were fortunate to get it.”
The property, which has been vacant since the 2000s, has sat on the market for years without budging, leaving it looking worse for wear. “There are a lot of features that are very unique which appeal to us in a slightly mad way, but would put off a lot of more sensible people,” says Elizabeth. “It’s in a particularly public place, there is no parking, there are always families, cyclists, runners and dogs going past. If they wanted to, people could just look in through the windows.”
“The beautiful, iconic building was still in my head from so many years ago,” adds Victoria. With fresh determination, she and Elizabeth planned a full renovation project, taking the building and essentially starting from scratch – transforming the lock-keeper’s house from ugly ducking to magnificent swan. Documenting their progress on Instagram, they then caught the attention of the producers behind Channel 4’s Renovation Nation.
“We agreed to take part because we thought that there were never any British Chinese on TV,” says Victoria. “Also, we’re probably the most unlikely people to do this sort of work.”
Elizabeth adds: “It was such an interesting look into how they make these programmes – often the really small things, like I never knew they often have to film you doing something twice so they can get the shot from the inside of the house and from the outside.”
The pair initially envisaged the Lock House becoming a beautiful family home, where the local community would also be able to host events such as pop-up exhibitions. Roughly midway through the project, the future of the Lock House is a question they’re tussling with more than ever. “My dad passed away quite recently, and that really shook our dream of what the house will be for, because we’d very much wanted for my parents to retire there and have this nice house they could enjoy after all these years of working so hard to build a life in the UK,” explains Elizabeth. “Because of the amazing response we got from local people, their level of interest and support in the project – which was quite moving, actually – we had this idea that we would love to have some way in which we could use the house as a space or a hub for the community.”
Victoria’s husband sadly passed away on the day Renovation Nation aired, meaning the pair have been on hiatus with the project. With the onset of spring, they are now getting started again in restoring the house to its historic glory. “We always wanted to do a renovation that would really respect the history,” says Elizabeth. “The way we’d like to bring the house back to its former glory is by actually staying quite faithful to things like the existing floor plan, features like the fireplaces and the windows, and actually trying to amplify how beautiful the old design is, rather than making any radical changes.”
In the 90s, when the final lock-keeper moved away, the house was gutted and converted into bedsits, each room given its own sink, cupboard and tiny shower – changes that the team are now working hard to reverse. They also visited archives to find out more about the original design. “Some people were saying to us, ‘Oh, are you professional developers? Are you property flippers or something like that?’” laughs Elizabeth. “Mum and I have always been quite practical and have liked to do projects like painting or fixing things.
“It has been quite a steep learning curve: suddenly someone’s going, ‘Where’s the rewiring plan? Where are the switches? Are they two-way, three-way?’ Saying all these things about insulation that are very technical, and all of this terminology that builders love to use.”
Drawing on their passion for environmentalism, the project has been sustainability-first. “It’s certain that we are very enthusiastic DIY-ers and also nature lovers,” states Victoria. “I believe that if we love nature, the Earth, then they will be kinder to us. That’s why we don’t want to throw away anything we could reuse, recycle or upcycle again.”
This meant the project has taken a little longer. “It definitely made our lives more complicated. We said actually, instead of replacing the old-fashioned boiler with just a newer boiler, what if we put in a heat pump?” says Elizabeth. “Then suddenly, these really elaborate considerations come in. We had to get special consent for it. It has different implications for the radiators you use, the insulation your house needs. I think [the builders] just think we’re completely crazy – but it does matter to us.”
With the stacking costs of materials and the new property tax, Victoria and Elizabeth have a new sense of urgency towards completing the Lock House. The kindness of the community – having amassed a kind of fame both locally and further afield – has kept them driven. “At times, we’ve been quite stressed by the project and overwhelmed with the to-do list. But people from the community have been so generous with their support and enthusiasm,” Elizabeth beams.
For Victoria, the cornerstone is the idea of finally seeing her home turned from ugly duckling into a stunning swan: “I had that image and it keeps us going. Eventually it will be a beautiful place – and it will be a better place.”