03/06/22: We are excitied to announce that The Old Mission Church was featured in George Clarke's Remarkable Renovations on Channel 4, (Series 2, Episode 5, Village Hall conversion). Now available on All4 catch up service.
The Church is used as an example of a succesful conversion - George's verdict 'Magnificent'!
Article published in Listed Property Magazine May 2022
It’s early afternoon on the 6th of November 2018. We are out shopping when the phone rings. We’d been expecting this call, as a week earlier we had submitted our proposal and bid to purchase Paxford Mission Church, and today is the day we’ll be notified of the outcome. It’s Catherine from the Estate Agents.
We are not expecting the news to be good, so it’s a surprise that she sounds so upbeat. She explains that ours was the winning bid and provided we can exchange by a set date, it's ours! We thank her then look at each other in shock - cue slightly hysterical laughter!
The story began some weeks earlier at our home in High Wycombe.
Our friends from Paxford were visiting. We had just put our house on the market and were moving to Paxford full-time. We mentioned that part of our plan was to reinvest some of the proceeds into a small cottage that we could run as a holiday let.
‘Have you thought about buying the Church in Paxford?’ says Helen.
Although we knew the Church was up for sale, buying it hadn’t crossed our minds.
A quick recce at the weekend, some ‘back of envelope’ calculations and sketches turn into a formal bid.
The Mission Church was originally constructed in 1866 as an infant school for 100 local children.
The architect is unknown but as with many schools in the 19th century it was built in an
ecclesiastical style and was intended to be used for Divine services on Sundays.
Within a year, the building was licenced for services by the Bishop of Worcester.
In 1870 a stained glass by Holland and Holt of Warwick was added to the east window and commemorates Mary Elliot who died aged only 19 while in France. She was the only daughter of Mrs Gilbert Elliot who paid for the construction of the School.
In 1886, the building was enlarged and became a mixed National School to ‘educate the poor of Paxford’, and the Nave was extended to the west to provide a separate schoolroom.
The school closed around 1921 but the Church continued to be used regularly.
In 2013, the church clock was restored, paid for by funds raised locally. Over the coming years the congregations dwindled, maintenance costs increased and with its use becoming increasingly sporadic the Church was put up for sale in the autumn of 2018.
An idea takes shape
With the sale completed, we approached various specialists to advise on the restoration and a local architect to come up with designs for a pre-planning application.
Built of Cotswold stone, The Mission Church is a very pretty building in a lovely village setting within a conservation area but wasn’t listed.
We had in mind a sensitive restoration and conversion to a holiday let with 2 bedrooms, which required a change of use to a ‘dwelling’.
Our initial impression was that the building was fundamentally sound and that the conversion would be fairly straightforward, so we budgeted accordingly. In hindsight, that was somewhat naive and more detailed investigations revealed serious issues with damp and the structure of the roof.
The rainwater drains had become blocked over the years so the ground around the church had become saturated. A suspended timber floor in the Nave had been replaced at some point with a modern concrete floor with a plastic damp-proof membrane, and this was causing rising damp in the walls. The plaster on the bottom half of the walls had been removed because of this and the exposed stonework pointed with cement, which was locking the moisture in!
The roof and ceiling appeared to be in fair condition but a flaw in its construction would later come and bite us!
The situation with Building Regulations was also ‘interesting’. We were advised that because the Church wasn’t listed our conversion would need to meet current Building Regulations.
Achieving modern standards of insulation and ventilation in a building that was designed with none would be very challenging. Dry lining of the walls, introducing a false ceiling and changing the leaded windows to double glazing were all suggested.
Although we were keen to insulate the building, we couldn’t see how this could be done without compromising the historic nature and aesthetics of the building.
At around 900 sq.ft. the Mission Church is relatively small. The simplest way to add 2 bedrooms would have been to use the height of the nave to add a new floor, but we were keen to retain some of the nave at full height so opted to have one bedroom on a mezzanine floor, occupying 2/3rds of the roof space, and the second on the ground floor in the Chancel, with the kitchen in the old schoolroom at the back of the church. Plans were drawn up accordingly and we pushed ahead with our Pre-planning application.
The feedback from pre-planning was generally positive and we learned that the building would be treated as a ‘Non-designated Heritage Asset’ - from a planning perspective similar to a listed building.
A Conservation Officer had reviewed the design but wasn’t happy with the way the chancel was partitioned off to create a bedroom and commented ‘further thought is required to ensure that the spatial nature and architectural interest of the church is preserved’. With the change of status, we felt an architect with more experience of heritage work was needed. We appointed James Mackintosh Architects, who specialise in listed buildings and briefed him to come up with a new design.
James started afresh and proposed moving the ground floor bedroom into the old schoolroom at the rear of the building and the kitchen into the nave under the mezzanine in an open plan layout. In a stroke of genius, they came up with the idea of treating the mezzanine floor bedroom as a ‘pod’ which would have a contemporary look and appear to float within the space.
The ‘Heritage’ status put some limitations to our design freedom but the requirement to have ‘regard to the significance of the asset, its features, character and setting’ also gave us some grounds to negotiate with the planners and building inspectors.
After some fine-tuning we had a design we were excited by, but also faced new challenges to get full planning approval.
To achieve the open-plan design we would need a sprinkler system, but the idea of traditional ceiling-mounted sprinklers was not at all appealing. After scouring the internet, we
found a high-tech system called Automist Smartscan This has discrete wall mounted infra-red detectors which direct a jet of water vapour at the seat of any fire, elegantly solving our problem.
To increase the thermal performance of the church, the intention was to raise the level of the roof tiles by 25mm to create space for a layer of PIR insulation and a multifoil blanket above the existing lathe and plaster ceiling. Bespoke secondary glazing would also play a part by reducing heat loss and drafts from the leaded and stained-glass windows.
To tackle the damp problems JMA recommended removing all cement-based materials and replacing everything with breathable lime alternatives. The concrete floor would be removed and replaced with a Ty-Mawr ‘Sublime’ Limecrete floor. This uses foamed glass gravel called ‘Glapor’ as a sub-base which aids breathability, insulation and is suitable for underfloor heating.
In addition, all the cement pointing on the lower walls and numerous external repairs would be removed and replaced. After various tests we settled on Lime Green’s ready mixed Lime mortar - not only was it very easy to work with but their ‘York’ colour was an excellent match to our stone.
Finally, a new drainage system would be supplemented by a French drain on the north side and ground levels around the Church would be lowered by 150mm.
These changes would allow the building to dry out and breathe to avoid damp problems in the future.
Our planning application went in and after some horse-trading over details, we got our rubber stamp.
The next step was to appoint the building contractor. JMA prepared a very detailed ‘Schedule of Works’ which was sent out to several local builders who’d been recommended.
The quotes were of course a lot higher than we’d envisaged so we went through the schedule line by line and took out anything we thought we could do without, or do ourselves.
We appointed a small local company with a great reputation, NJN Design & Build Ltd of Evesham, and adjusted our budget upwards - of course.
Best laid plans…
Work began on the doors and roof timbers mid-2020 with the arrival of specialist timber renovation company Beam Clean & Restore Ltd.
The Victorians had a preference for dark wood so all of the pitch pine roof timbers and doors had been stained a mahogany colour.
Damp and time had lifted patches of the stain, so much of the woodwork looked shabby.
Their micro blasting process quickly removed the old stain revealing the lovely warm tones and grain of the pitch pine beneath.
A scaffolding canopy was erected so work could continue throughout the winter regardless of the weather.
The new limecrete floor and under-floor heating pipes went in without a hitch.
However, a survey of the ceiling revealed that unusually the lathes for the plaster and tile battens were all pinned to the top of the rafters. Despite lasting 150 years, it was a bit of a bodge and with many of the lathes, battens and rafters now rotten we reluctantly concluded it would be impossible to save the ceiling. We decided a complete restoration of the roof would be the best way forward, along with a major adjustment to the budget! If only we knew!
The roof tiles were Staffordshire blue with alternate bands of Plain and ‘Club’ and unusual so we carefully removed them and the roof structure was repaired.
Recent changes to building regulations stated that every third course of roof tiles must be nailed down, and specifies a minimum amount of overlap (headlap in roofer speak) for each course.
The headlap could be achieved by adding more courses of tiles (if we could find them), but nailing down tiles that had no nail holes was the bigger challenge. Drilling 2 holes in hundreds of rock-hard roof tiles was a sobering prospect, but cutting short slots in the edge of the tiles with an angle grinder could be a lot easier. Some testing proved the idea was mechanically sound. After discussions with the building inspector this option was approved and a jig was made so 5 tiles could be slotted at a time. Phew!
For belt and braces, the in-between courses would be glued to the battens using CT1 building adhesive.
It took a week to source the additional tiles from reclaim yards, another week to cut the slots in the tiles and around 350 tubes of CT1 to help hold them down!
A new insulated ceiling was then installed. To retain the appearance of the old ceiling the new rafters were made from Baltic Pine, carefully machined with the correct chamfer pattern and stained to match.
During the building work we’d noticed that a lot of the remaining plasterwork was ‘live’, and although the lower halves of walls were now bare stone, we knew that originally the plaster would have extended down to the floor.
During a chance conversation, a neighbour recommended a product they had recently used on a restoration – an innovative insulating plaster called Diathonite. This is a lime-based plaster with a high proportion of cork and a very good insulator. Some quick calculations showed that if we replastered the external-facing walls with Diathonite we could reduce our U-values substantially! This was an opportunity we wouldn’t get again so we ‘adjusted’ the budget again and booked in Jordaya Contracting to do the work.
Externally the combination of pervasive damp and defective guttering had left areas of the stonework badly stained. JMA had budgeted for stone cleaning using the DOFF process (a high temperature/low pressure water jet). It yielded fantastic results, but perhaps inevitably, loosened some of the pointing that had looked OK and also revealed some nasty repairs that had hitherto gone unnoticed. Yet another budget adjustment was called for as we concluded the whole church needed repointing.
Sean from Joydaya, who had seen many old walls, helpfully recommended using Helifix bars to stitch some settlement cracks that had also become evident.
Another part of the regulations jigsaw puzzle we were grappling with was ventilation.
Our plan to use MVHR (Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery) was running into trouble because of the complication of routing the ducting through the structure of our mezzanine and the thick internal walls so potential costs were spiralling. Keen to avoid any further ‘budget adjustments’, we decided to see if we could achieve the necessary trickle and purge ventilation by tweaking the design of the original opening leaded lights and secondary glazing. The solution was to change the catches so they incorporated a ‘night latch’ setting. This allowed both the external and secondary glazing windows to be left slightly ajar, so allowing fresh air in. Fully opening them to new stops would provide the purge ventilation required.
The stone mullions were also in need of attention. Not only were they covered in many layers of paint but settlement had opened up lots of the joints. We found that regular paint stripper barely touched the old paint so we grabbed at a chance to try a product called Kling Strip which a friend had been using. This is a paste that’s put on with a palette knife then covered with cling film while it penetrates. Amazingly the old paint came away in sheets revealing the beautiful Cotswold stone.
To clean up the stone we used Cintride abrasive pads which are a favourite of stonemasons.
The stone dust created by the sanding was saved and mixed with a little lime and white cement to create a fine paste. This was then used to repoint the joints resulting in a nearly invisible joint.
We were keen to retain as many of the original features as possible so the doors, stained glass windows, clock face and clock mechanism were removed for cleaning and restoration.
Tall arched doors to the schoolroom were restored by Paul Keyte, a furniture restorer who lives in the village. The Keytes were wheelwrights and carpenters in the village for generations so it was lovely to find a note in an old school logbook stating that the doors had been repaired by one of his forbearers in 1905!
We’ve also used reclaimed materials to make new items. A bespoke headboard was made from panels reclaimed from the pulpit, and the altar was reworked into a stunning coffee table.
The Clock mechanism needs to be wound every week and over the years many kind souls have braved a rickety wooden ladder to the loft to perform this task and some 20 of them signed their names on the loft ceiling.
The earliest signature is Chas. Keyte dated 1880 and the latest by Ben Morris in 2007.
We wanted to preserve this section of the ceiling so took expert advice.
The plaster was stabilised with a special conservation PVA fluid and tissue, then externally the rotten lathes were carefully cut out and replaced with carbon fibre tape bonded into place with epoxy resin.
In a heritage project nothing is ever straight or straight-forward! The wonky internal walls have thrown us many curve balls: a bespoke staircase, doors and tiling have all needed adjustment, and snagging dragged on far longer than we’d hoped.
Pearls of Wisdom
We welcomed our first guests in November 2021 and now in early 2022 we’ve had a little time to reflect.
In true Grand Designs style we are older and wiser but considerably poorer than envisaged on the envelope!
People are very curious about the realities of doing a project like this and love to hear about the ins and outs.
How much did you go over budget? We politely dodge this question and offer some pearls of wisdom instead.
How did you choose your builder? Recommendations are priceless - we went with a small company with a good reputation, a tried and tested team of craftsmen and a ‘can do’ attitude.
Would you do it all again? Maybe, if we won the Lottery.
What was your biggest mistake? Not realising the sanitaryware was needed for first fix!
And sorry for asking again, but how much did you go over budget? Ok it was about 30%, but we had a contingency of 20% so not too bad.
However, we spend another chunk on things that we didn’t think we’d need; Blinds, Landscaping, Paving and Fencing to name but a few.
How much of the work did you do yourself? Far more than we expected, including the masses of research, the restoration of the window mullions, decorating, restoration of the clock face, some carpentry, etc. Top Tip: if you’re taking on a project like this and planning to Project Manage it yourself, assume it will take up every waking hour!
We feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to work on such an exciting project, have enjoyed working with some great craftsmen, and are extremely proud of the result, confident that the Church will continue to be a beautiful focal point for the village for a long time to come.
Perhaps a little naivety isn’t such a bad thing after all!
Geoff and Julie Bolam
James Mackintosh Architects: www.jamesmackintosharchitects.com
NJN Design and Build Ltd: www.njndesignandbuild.com
Diathonite Evolution insulating plaster: www.diasen.com/en/diathonite-evolution/
Lime Green: www.lime-green.co.uk
Automist Smartscan fire suppression: www.plumis.co.uk/smartscan
Jordaya Contracting: www.jordayacontracting.co.uk