back to school, PERIOD LIVING, SEPTEMBER 2018

Photography by Bruce Hemming

Photography by Bruce Hemming

All copy as supplied to publication.

Geotechnical engineer Katy Green and her arborist husband David bought an old school that had been converted into offices, at auction, without planning permission, having sold their previous house without anything to move into. They spotted their current home in the local newspaper, went to have a look, and headed to the auction. ‘David was wearing a bobble hat and nodding as he bid so the bobble was just nodding away!’ laughs Katy. ‘It was “going once, going twice” at £112,000, and we thought we had it. Then a new bidder chipped in, so it ended up going for £150,000 “to the man in the bobble hat!”’ An immediate deposit was required, and a few frantic calls to the bank secured a loan and the house.

But what they bought was a far cry from either the original school or the home they now live in. Outside, there were three prefabricated huts spanning 100 feet, 12 telephone lines and a 22-space car park. Inside the space had been carved up with stud walls and false ceilings, hiding the original architecture. Despite all that, Katy immediately saw its potential. ‘It had an institutional feel, which I actually really liked, and I liked its weird scale too – from the front it’s this cute little house, but once you get inside it reveals its full size.’ They secured planning permission, but because it was a ‘change of use’ they couldn’t get building regulations sign-off – or a mortgage – until the end of the project. A bridging loan from family saved the day. 

Once funds were in place, they ripped everything out – right back to the original stone walls. ‘Anything we could do ourselves we did,’ says Katy, whose hands-on approach extended to living in those prefabricated huts on site throughout the 18-month build – without a shower and only camping stoves to cook on. They commissioned a timber-frame inside the external walls, insulating between the two. Today, the whole house can be kept warm just with the Aga, even in winter. They had all the windows replaced and the joists at the back of the building cut, raising the floor level to add height to two new bedrooms in the basement. Downstairs, a damp-course membrane and concrete floor were added, while masons punched windows into the stone walls of the basement, adding granite lintels to match those used elsewhere. ‘It was a big scary job,’ admits Katy. At the same time, they were re-roofing – replacing the modern cement tile with traditional slate, and reclaimed ridged tiles Katy sourced for the top. ‘I enjoy hunting things down, but finding a 12-metre run of reclaimed ridged tiles is really hard,’ she laughs. They sandblasted and repointed all the stonework, replaced the fascias and removed a contemporary door from the front of the storm porch.

Inside they lowered the ceilings in the lounge and master bedroom, but kept the full 14-foot height in the main living space. ‘I love a big living dining space, so I really wanted to keep it,’ says Katy. A bedroom and bathroom up a few stairs, and the two bedrooms tucked into the basement, complete the space. They sanded the original floors in the bedrooms and lounge, pulling out staples one by one. ‘It was a labour of love,’ says Katy, who opted for herringbone parquet in the main space. They had just finished plastering when disaster struck. ‘The ceiling suddenly cracked,’ says Katy. ‘We had to take the whole lot down. I did have a little cry at that moment.’ The light at the end of the tunnel soon appeared though. ‘The kitchen was one of the last things to go in, and the day they fitted the Aga just felt really lovely,’ she says. Having scoured the country’s reclamation yards, online auction sites and car boot sales throughout the build to find furniture and accessories to suit her industrial midcentury style, elements of the internal architecture were built around her finds. ‘I bought a school bench shoe rack for the entrance hall and that dictated the width of the book case on the other side,’ she says. ‘And the door frames were made to fit the second-hand doors I found. I love those little details.’ Most of the interior came together instinctively as she collected things she liked, taking care to keep the overall look simple. ‘We limited the colour palate to white and wood, with the odd accent of grey or red,’ she explains.

Once the interior was complete, the couple’s thoughts turned to the garden. ‘We had spent 18 months renovating the house, surrounded by a sea of tarmac, so we couldn’t wait to get rid of it,’ says Katy. ‘A JCB-driver friend dug up the car park, but that just meant we were surrounded by a sea of mud, which was slightly soul-destroying.’ The slow evolution of the garden, which now includes a sun terrace, raised vegetable beds and a family of chickens, is what finally makes the project feel complete: ‘Each year things are growing and that makes it feel like home,’ says Katy. Now that it’s done, was it worth all the risk and hard work? ‘Had I known then what I know now, I might have been a bit less gung-ho,’ she laughs. ‘But I’m glad we did it. It is a really warm space where we can get a whole bunch of friends together. We’re really happy here.’