A remodelled schoolhouse

Debbie Stephenson and Bill Gresham have cleverly updated the interior of a converted school, combining its warmth and period character with contemporary steel and glass. The school had already been converted once before the couple moved in, but they have completely modernised it whilst retaining it's period exterior

The children who once attended the village school where Debbie Stephenson and Bill Gresham now live would still recognise the brick-and-flint building from the outside.

Despite being converted, extended and altered over the years, it manages to retain its original character, with exposed brickwork, pine trusses and timber flooring. Even the school bell remains in situ. Inside, however, the compartmentalised classrooms are long gone and have been replaced with open-plan contemporary living spaces, with large panels of frameless glazing providing views that span the entire length of the building.

‘The school was built more than 150 years ago but it had been already converted by the time we bought it,’ says Bill. ‘We loved the space and character that it offered, but we wanted to reorganise the first floor and make alterations to the flow downstairs.’

Fact file

The owners: Debbie Stephenson and Bill Gresham, who both work for an electronics company, live here

The layout was unsatisfactory in a number of ways. Some of the ground floor areas were dark, with the route between them meandering and confusing, while the first floor rooms looked like they had been completed on a tight budget. Debbie and Bill who had pooled their resources to buy The Old School – it was their first home – lived there for several months while they considered their options.

‘Debbie came from a modernised Victorian terrace, while I’d lived in a picture-postcard cottage, but I’d never been fond of beams or inglenooks,’ says Bill. ‘We wanted to utilise the sheer volume of this place to create both impact and a contemporary style without losing its personality.’

The couple contacted a local architect, Bobby Open, and together they devised a design that would retain the warmth and character of traditional building materials but with modern steel and glass insertions.

‘Bobby did an excellent job of interpreting our brief and put forward fresh ideas, such as the glass floor in our bedroom,’ says Bill.

The revised layout wouldn’t only unify all the spaces, it was also an opportunity to create a new master bedroom by incorporating a small mezzanine balcony overlooking the double-height living room. This mezzanine, with its wrought iron balustrade, had been accessed only by an iron spiral staircase rising from the living room, but it was disconnected from the rest of the rooms on the first floor.

‘It was a real waste of space,’ Debbie explains. ‘We realised that if we extended a small existing bedroom onto the mezzanine it would more than double its size and create a fantastic master suite.’

Removing key walls and one structural roof truss enabled the floor plan to be opened up on both levels. Upstairs, the new master bedroom was created with its own en suite. Improving the flow of space downstairs meant that there would be an uninterrupted view from one end of the ground floor to the other.

The heavy pine roof truss was replaced with a steel apex beam at first floor level, allowing the mezzanine over the living room to be cleared for the extended bedroom. The spiral staircase and balustrade were removed to improve the use of the living space below.

In a previous conversion project, the first floor had been installed so that it cut across the original windows to the front of the building. By trimming back this floor and inserting a curved glass replacement, additional light was brought into the living room, helping to link the two storeys visually.

‘We were concerned that features like the glass floor and frameless glass walls would blow our budget,’ Debbie admits. ‘But by shopping around we found a local company that provided all the major glass elements for £8,000. We hired a specialist to install the supporting steelwork for the floor. The builders then lifted the huge slab of glass into place – which took several men.’

Glass is a key element in the redesign – a frameless glazed screen at the end of the mezzanine provides the new division between the master bedroom and the upper part of the double-height living area. Another glazed screen encloses the study at the opposite end of the house, providing a clear view through and drawing in additional light.

Much of the new work remains invisible, maintaining the integrity of the Victorian school building. No fewer than 10 steel beams were inserted, but all have been cleverly concealed. New foundations were poured to increase the load-bearing capacity of the fireplace walls, with this space opened up and substantially rebuilt using brickwork to match the original bricks.

A double-sided wood-burner has been installed, which serves both the living and dining spaces, with logs stored neatly beneath the raised hearth. By strengthening this chimney wall, two blocked-up archways on either side of the central fireplace were removed, creating the new open-plan living room/dining room and letting light flood into the previously gloomy dining area.

‘One of the things we discovered was that the exposed timber and internal brickwork was very dusty and difficult to keep clean – not to mention a tad draughty,’ says Bill. ‘We decided to dry-line several of the walls and cover over the timber roof boarding with foam-backed plasterboard, which gives a cleaner, more contemporary finish. It has also helped to halve our heating bills.’

Selected elements of exposed brickwork and timber trusses now stand out in greater relief against the traditional white walls. The floor in the dining room was a different height from the living room, so this was replaced with new joists and boards, with reclaimed timber used to match the original floorboards. The couple then spent hours infilling draughty gaps in the floor with wooden strips, achieving a uniform finish as well as helping to insulate the house.

‘Fortunately, the roof, windows and most of the structure were in very sound condition, thanks to the previous owners, which meant that our builders could concentrate on the interior,’ says Bill. ‘With this size house, we were able to live here during the building work, although things did take longer than we had anticipated.’

The couple’s budget was stretched – from an initial guesstimate of £80,000 to a final sum of £120,800, though this included a number of pieces of bespoke furniture.

‘We saved a great deal of money by buying online and sourcing everything ourselves,’ says Debbie. ‘Taking on some of the project management and getting involved with various jobs also helped to stretch our budget.’

‘It was very rewarding getting involved in some of the renovation work – and we had great builders, who were happy to let us manage the project,’ says Bill.

Once the remodelling work was complete, Debbie and Bill found they utilised every room in their home, whereas the barn-like living room had been seldom used before.

‘The structural changes aren’t radical, but they have made a huge difference to the house – particularly the glazed features, which give it a definite wow-factor,’ smiles Bill.

The costs

Building work£100,000
Glazed floor, walls and shower screens£8,000
Bespoke furniture£3,000
Pine flooring£1,800
Internal doors£1,500