When Frances Gent went househunting on her father’s behalf, she had no idea that she would find her own future home. ‘Dad had just retired and was looking for a property to develop,’ she recalls. ‘While searching for potential projects online, I came across a derelict chapel in Scaldwell, a village near Northampton. My husband Richard and I took dad to see the chapel; it needed too much work for him, but I fell in love with it.’
The chapel was a wreck, but it had planning permission to be converted into a home, plus the village and surrounding area offered an idyllic location. Both Frances and Richard were able to visualise the potential of the run-down building. ‘We’d always hoped that one day we’d own an unusual home that was unique to us,’ explains Frances.
‘Our previous home was a very ordinary terraced house and we’d dreamt of owning a barn conversion. The chapel had a similar feel, with the eaves on view. The altar was still in place, with a central aisle and pulpit. Even the organ was still there! The property was also being sold with a small plot of land for a parking bay. It offered a tremendous opportunity to achieve something special.’
The owners: Frances Gent, UK creative director, lives here with her husband Richard, photographic director for Europe (both at Avon Cosmetics), and their children Ollie, five, and Eddie, five months
At the time, the housing market was fairly buoyant, so the couple were able to sell their old home quickly. ‘We hadn’t planned on moving until we saw the chapel, but it made us think how wonderful it would be to bring up a family there. We’d only been married for a few months and it just seemed like the right thing to do,’ says Frances. ‘The chapel had been on the market for more than a year and had received loads of offers, but because the immediate neighbours were the vendors, they were very concerned about selling to developers. The chapel was located at the bottom of their garden; they’d owned it since they bought their house and they wanted to sell it to a family. We spent a long time discussing our plans with them before they accepted our offer.’
Using the equity from the sale of their old home, the Gents were able to buy the chapel and raise a small mortgage, which enabled them to start renovating. ‘Dad agreed to project-manage the build, as both Richard and I were working full time,’ explains Frances. ‘To begin with, we were so excited that we didn’t stop to think about how difficult it would be. None of us had been involved in a building project of this scale, but once we’d started, it all began to sink in.’
Hiring an architect alerted the couple to the size of the project that they had taken on, as initial structural surveys flagged up problems with a huge crack in the main wall, which might have prompted an underpinning job that would have completely blown their budget. ‘We had a few sleepless nights until a report confirmed that the crack was down to natural movement and was deemed to be superficial, which was a great weight off our minds,’ says Frances. ‘We then went full speed ahead, drawing up plans with David Babister of Espresso Architecture (espressoarchitecture.co.uk).
‘David was key to producing our final design as, initially, we couldn’t see how it would be possible to fit a three-bedroom house within the space, especially as the existing planning permission was for a one-bedroom house,’ Frances adds. ‘He came up with a layout to accommodate the bedrooms, and also included interesting features, such as the grand entrance, full-height ceilings and curved walls.’
Planning permission for the conversion work took 12 weeks and went through smoothly, with a few conditions in place. ‘The planners were concerned about what we were going to replace the rotten iron windows with, and we had to submit wood samples and drawings to make sure they were happy with our proposals for the new wooden frames,’ says Frances. ‘We were always keen to keep the building looking like a chapel from the outside, however. The property is in a Conservation Area, and we felt that the other villagers had to be happy with the conversion. We preserved some of the original features, and used the red and white tiles that ran down the aisle to create a design outside the front door. ’
One week into the renovation, the couple’s next-door neighbour threw a party and invited all the villagers, giving Frances and Richard the opportunity to chat to everyone about their plans. ‘People cared about the chapel, and once we’d explained that we would carry out the renovation with minimal disruption, everyone was pleased,’ says Frances. ‘In the summer, we left the doors open so people could walk in and see what we were doing. My dad joked about the amount of time he lost building due to all the conducted tours he did!’
Project-managing the build themselves, the Gents didn’t hire a main contractor, opting instead to bring in help as and when they needed it. To save money, they also did much of the demolition work themselves, removing vast amounts of crumbling plaster and dismantling heavy wooden panelling that framed the walls. ‘We hired a scaffolding tower and it took us many weekends to take the building back to the bare brick. It was a tough job,’ Frances admits. ‘We then employed a team to do the groundworks and help us dig down to create space for a concrete floor.’
It took nine months to complete the conversion, with a few hiccups along the way. ‘We’d have finished sooner, but a joiner who was going to make the windows for us kept letting us down,’ says Frances. ‘It set us back, because we couldn’t get on with the plastering. Building work stopped for a month, which was frustrating, but we begged another company to do the job quickly, and they got us back on track.’ During the project, the couple found out that Frances was pregnant with their son Ollie. ‘We were living with my mum and step-dad and, with the stress of the build, it was nice to be pampered,’ she recalls.
Although Frances was unable to take part in the heavy, manual work, she threw herself into sourcing the furniture and finishing touches. ‘I used to spend hours on the internet after work, sourcing almost everything, from carpets to bathroom fittings. It was a useful research tool,’ says Frances. ‘It saved me so much money, too, as I could search for a brand or product and find the cheapest supplier in seconds.’
Setting a budget of around £155,000 for the project, the Gents were delighted to find that they had only gone over by several hundred pounds. ‘We were really pleased, as everyone had said that there was no way we could do it all for so little,’ says Frances.
Now completed, the interior has a clean, contemporary finish that’s warm and welcoming, with oak skirting boards and timber flooring. Beams have been stripped back and the rooms have a homely feel. ‘I’ve kept the furniture to a minimum, so the house is easy to clean,’ says Frances. ‘Most of the rooms are decorated in off-white. I love the open-plan area downstairs, which has plenty of space for Ollie to run around, and for family when they visit.
‘When we started the conversion, we had a rose-tinted view of it, and as the project progressed, there were times when we worried whether it would be alright,’ she adds. ‘I never imagined that we’d be capable of all the work we did – I know a lot more about plastering and re-pointing now!
‘We love living in a house that’s unlike anything else, and the fact we’ve helped to create it makes us proud to live here.’