Converting buildings into unique homes

From schools and churches to prisons and barns, chartered surveyor Richard Sexton explains why converting a building could be the best way to create your dream home

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Demand for houses shows no sign of slowing and the option of converting unusual buildings into homes is one way to secure your dream property. Even the Government is considering this course – the Ministry of Defence has announced the sale of 12 military sites that it expects to generate £500 million and provide the land for around 15,000 new homes.

In London, the conversion of Battersea Power Station is currently considered one of the ‘sexiest’ new developments underway, and the Terry’s Chocolate Factory in York is also in the midst of being converted into apartments. This is a trend which looks to be here to stay.


Bill and Frances Butt converted this coach house into a modern and stylish home

Holy houses

Church conversions are a perennially popular choice, being full of character and interesting internal spaces. Since 1969, the law has allowed for disused churches to be converted to other purposes, and the trend of converting churches into homes has really taken off. It helps that the Victorians were prolific church builders, meaning there are many disused buildings ripe for conversion.


This Georgian Grade-II listed rectory was revived by its owner Helen Salvor

The large stained glass windows in old churches make beautiful features, and will give a home a huge amount of character – but they pose difficulties, too. Most planners will specify that you must retain the original character of the building from the outside, although, often, an untouched exterior can hide a spectacular reconfigured interior. Additionally, you may need to consider roof lighting to provide enough light without cutting windows into the existing facades.


A former church dating back to 1908, converted in 2006 into a three-bedroom home.

Back to school

Converted schools are another option to consider if you’re after a home with a unique backstory. They are often sturdily made with large open spaces ripe for conversion – the school hall can be the perfect hub for open-plan living. Schools come onto the market less regularly than churches, but when they do they’re usually in great locations at the heart of communities.

Prime prisons

In the race to create new homes, planners are considering outside-the-box options like disused prisons. In the Autumn Statement, Chancellor George Osborne said that old Victorian prisons in inner city London that are no longer “suitable for rehabilitating prisoners” will be closed to free-up space for housing.

Barns and agricultural buildings

Barn conversions are the most common conversion example. They offer large spaces ideal for redesign to modern, open-plan living, and are often situated in beautiful countryside where it would be difficult to get planning permission to build a new home – meaning they are a popular route for country buyers.


Delia and Scott Phillips gave this traditional barn conversion a stunning modern makeover

As with all conversions, there are compromises to consider. By their very nature, old agricultural buildings may be situated close to a working farm, and you may even require shared access to reach your property. You should consider if farm traffic or noise, or the prospect of limited privacy, will impact your home. Often, you will also need to add all the amenities to your building, including drainage, water supply, electricity and sewerage – barn conversions are costly.


Vicky and James Lloyd mixed traditional materials with modern design touches when converting this oast and granary

Don’t forget

For unusual projects like these, make sure to consult the experts early. You should get a specialist surveyor to take a look at your potential conversion and point out any problems, and also consider that you may need a mortgage from a lender willing to consider an out of the ordinary property.

Richard Sexton is business development director of e.surv chartered surveyors.