This former Baptist chapel, has been converted into a modern and striking family home
What Helen Dooley really wanted in her family home was a ‘very big room’. But even in her wildest dreams she couldn’t have imagined anything as large as the vast open space that she and her husband James have created at the former place of worship that is now known as Zion House. Measuring over 1,000 square feet and, at its apex, roughly the height of a three-storey building, their living room is larger than most conventional houses.
It accommodates a kitchen, a dining area, an office (where the couple run their garden design company), and two cubic ‘pods’ of self-contained space, and still leaves enough room to play table tennis – or even a decent game of indoor football. For the Dooley children, Matilda, Hugo and Monty, it also makes a fabulous playroom.
The Dooleys didn’t exactly create this space, they simply left it more or less as they found it – domesticating it, but resisting the temptation to carve it up with partitions and mezzanine floors. The two pods, which contain a utility room, a storage space and a little TV room, are the only additions, though they are so dwarfed by the size that they look like mere furniture. And this unusual lack of intervention makes Zion House an exemplary church conversion, though the couple were only able to retain the drama of the original hall, because they had other spaces to play with.
The raw material was an empty, redundant and much-neglected Baptist chapel, on a small plot of rural Wiltshire, overlooking Shrewton village on one side and the River Till on the other. Behind the chapel, built in 1836, was a former cob cottage (donated to the church as a Zionist meeting place in the 1750s) and beyond that a Victorian school hall, which was added to the rear of the complex in the 19th century.
When the Dooleys first looked at the building in 1999, it was a sad, sodden shell, with rotten floors and damp walls. ‘Everything was dripping with water or falling to bits,’ says Helen. And because of the condition, and its unusually generous proportions, the whole property was offered for sale as a building plot with potential for demolition. ‘Nobody imagined anyone would be mad enough to actually live in it,’ says James.
The Dooleys were not mad, but they did fall madly in love – more or less instantly. ‘We didn’t see the damp, or the dilapidation,’ says Helen. ‘All we could see was a beautiful, red-brick Georgian building that looked like it could have a great view – and we could afford it.’
They won’t say exactly how much they paid for the building (except that it was cheaper than buying a house in the area at the time), but the purchase wasn’t exactly straightforward. None of the high street lenders they approached would even look at the project. Eventually, however, they managed to get a mortgage from the conservation-minded Ecology Building Society who, says Helen, were ‘completely brilliant’.
The couple had worked on other properties before but nothing on this scale, so they decided to enlist the help of an architect. They chose Alan Chandler and Luisa Auletta of Arts Lettres Techniques, whose artful blend of conservation and clever design turned the Dooleys’ wreck of a chapel into a magnificent, yet practical, family home – and all on a budget of only £150,000.
One of the keys to the project’s success was in retaining the footprint and individuality of the building’s three different, though interconnecting, spaces. At its heart is the former cob cottage, originally two small rooms (one of them a chapel vestry, one larger – but still cosy – living room with two fireplaces), and a new split-level floor built from whatever they could salvage from the ‘knackered’ floors in the chapel. A concrete render was removed from the exterior to help the cob breathe, but a set of tipsy shelves shows that it is still ‘difficult to secure fixings into a cob wall’. By contrast, the converted old school is non-traditional, with two floors of compact bedrooms inserted into the original double-height space. ‘All we said to the architects was that we have three children, and that we wanted our bedrooms here, and this is what they came up with,’ says James. The solution, described by James as a ‘toytown village’, is a series of interlocking spaces on two levels, the upper floor accessed by three narrow staircases, rising from a small central atrium.
Roof lights and original windows provide light, and internal windows allow guests to see through bands or squares of glass. The Dooleys’ en suite master bedroom looks down onto the hall. Matilda’s wallpapered upper-level room sits above Hugo’s blue ground-floor space, and eight-year-old Monty has two levels and his own staircase. ‘They are nice little places to be in,’ says Helen. ‘And everyone feels part of everything, even though everyone has a separate space.’ A small guest room and a pink-tiled bathroom complete the schoolhouse scheme.
By the time work on the chapel hall was finished, the family had already been living there for two years: it was a challenging project – not least because the planners had insisted they raise the level of the floor by two metres. ‘We negotiated it down to one metre,’ says Helen. ‘And it had to be done because we couldn’t see out of the windows before.’ Not only has the raised level provided them with a lovely view, it has also given them a power-floated concrete floor installed by John Pyatt (responsible for Tate Modern’s floors).
The floor is surrounded on three sides by a moat-like sloping ramp (which the kids love sliding up and down on) and is fitted with up-lights, powerpoints and efficient underfloor heating. And it’s gloriously free of what Helen calls ‘stuff’. The kitchen consists of just one simple island unit made of birch ply, a slab of Carrera marble and a tiny Rayburn; all the kitchen storage is tucked behind concealed doors, fitted into one wall of the utility pod.
The pods, one either side of the front door, were the architects’ idea. ‘I think the space would seem more intimidating witho
ut them,’ says James. ‘And aside from providing extra space, they block out the less attractive view of the road, so that you are always looking out at the countryside.’
An area of personal expression is, inevitably, the garden: Helen designs gardens and James makes them. ‘I didn’t want a garden that looked too contrived,’ says Helen. ‘I’m quite planty, and tried not to use anything that wouldn’t grow wild.’ A series of ‘compartments’ right on the banks on the River Till, the garden is designed to be fun for children, with decking paths winding around ivies, evergreen ferns and seasonal flowering plants, a rampant honeysuckle, two original yew trees, a terrace and a small kitchen garden.
This sense of freedom is reflected in the Dooleys’ huge chapel room. ‘We wanted it to be completely adaptable,’ says Helen. ‘Sometimes we might move the sofas in here, other times we might leave it completely empty, the children might use it as a playroom or we might have big projections on the walls. And, of course, it’s a great place for parties.’
‘Remember that a chapel, or church, is not a conventional house, so don’t try to turn it into one. And raise the floor. The Baptists didn’t want their devout congregation staring out of the windows – but you will want to’
Architect: Arts Lettres Techniques 020 7393 4778
Garden design: Helen Dooley Design www.hdgardens.com
Eco mortgages: Ecology Building Society www.ecologybuildingsociety.co.uk
Carpenter: Adam Slatter 07866 734 961
Paint: Emery and Cie www.emeryetcie.com
Wallpaper: Osborne and Little www.osborneandlittle.com
Bega lights: Zumtobel Staff Lighting www.zumtobelstaff.co.uk
Radiators: Hudevad radiators www.hudevad.co.uk
Isofloc insulation: Green Spec www.greenspec.co.uk
Taps: Broen Valves 01215 224 515
Bathroom tiles: Reed Harris www.reedharris.co.uk
Electric switches: Crabtree Electrical 01902 638 800
Words: Lesley Gillain Images: Chris Tubs