Ihave four brothers and one sister who all went to the school, but I was the only one that didn’t attend. My brother, John, was in P5 and sister, Caroline, was in P2 when the school closed with only four pupils left in her class.
My father had considered developing the school many times over the years, including turning it into a nursery, small apartments, a restaurant and a new family home. However, as he ran a busy haulage company at this time, nothing ever materialised. I studied interior design and architecture at university, and the school was actually my final year project in which I did drawings to make it into a community centre. I never thought at the time that one day it would be my dream home. As I had carried out an extensive study of the building, I soon realised how well constructed it was and subsequently knew every square inch of it.
My wife, AnnMarie, is also from the local area and my father-in-law, who’s a builder, attended the school as well, so there was a strong family connection to it. We always knew we wanted an older property because we loved character, and this building had it in abundance. Many experts had advised us to knock it down instead of renovating, but for us this was never an option.
I wanted to keep all the original features and as much of the school as possible. As I specialised in 3D design, this enabled us to take a closer look at the interior to try out different materials/layouts before beginning construction. We always admired natural stone, and we fell in love with Donegal sandstone while being on holidays in the area. It was for this reason that we chose it to be our main building material.
The school had quite a large footprint and many large open spaces which I wanted to make smaller and create more cosy rooms. The building is actually shaped like the Mercedes Benz sign with three wings merging into one central point. By adding a wall down the middle of the classrooms, this created two equal-sized bedrooms, and the canteen became our living room/kitchen. The entrance hall was huge, so we added in a new toilet, cloakroom and nursery into the space. The girls’ toilets became our main bathroom, and the boys’ became the office. The main addition to the house was the sunroom, and it is without a doubt our favourite room of all. It is flooded with light coming through the large sliding door and windows.
One of the only requests AnnMarie had was that she wanted the house to have a turret. So I decided to add it onto our en-suite and put a round bath in it. It might seem a bit extravagant to some people, but for us, it was a great design feature.
The planning process was relatively straightforward as the school wasn’t listed and we didn’t really want to alter the main structure of the building. The large windows at the front were simply built up the middle to create two smaller windows. We loved arched windows and originally wanted two in the gable, but we ended up putting them right across the front of the house. The planning office actually commented on how good the design was and sympathetic to the original building.
We never like to buy anything off the shelf, and everything in the house is custom-made – things like the stained glass window in the sunroom and the church doors in the living room. I designed the window using an ordnance survey map of the area which includes the location of both our families and other local landmarks. The church doors were difficult because I couldn’t find an old set to fit in the house, so these had to be made new.
As there was no staircase in the house, I needed to create a focal point in the hall, so we have two curved stone walls. I also had a crystal chandelier commissioned as the centrepiece.
With your own house, you tend to push the boundaries further than you normally would with clients. For example, I wanted sandstone to go up to the peak of the porch at the front door. The question was how would you secure hundreds of kilos of stone in mid-air? It is easy to model something on a computer, and obviously, it will work but reality is a different story. After working closely with a team of engineers and builders, we finally cracked it and achieved the look I wanted.
I believe that research is key to any good project, and you need to consider every aspect of the design so that it’s practical to live in. If possible, you need to imagine that you are living in the house before you actually move in. So, things like how far the dishwasher is away from the cutlery drawer, where sockets are located for TV, lamps, Christmas trees etc. and light switches placed close to beds.
The main focus for us at the design stage was things like light, heating and running costs. Insulation was a major consideration, and I decided to insulate the entire exterior of the building as well as pumping the cavities and the inside walls. This gave us 9" of insulation overall and created a good barrier to the elements.
Our electrician advised us to put the solar panels on the roof for electric, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions we made. The panels are amazing because not only do we essentially have no electricity bills, but we also get money from what is sold back to the grid. I suppose the only regret we have is not putting the solar panels on for the hot water as well because a few of our neighbours have them and they’re all very impressed. We do have a 400-litre thermal store for the water, and this has been excellent as it keeps the water warm for a few days. Our ultimate goal for the house would be to be able to live off-grid, but it may be a few years before this is possible.
I project managed the build myself, which was quite a challenge at times; especially with trying to hold down a full-time job. Although I designed the house myself, I got another architect to run his eye over the plans to make sure everything worked. This was useful because although you might think you know the building inside out, another person can always pick up things that you haven’t thought of. My advice to anyone doing a new build or renovation is never be satisfied with just one designer’s opinion.
The original budget for the build was £150k, but it soon became apparent after the first few months of building that this was unrealistic. Material selection was probably the biggest factor. I felt that as it was an older building, we couldn’t use new materials as it just wouldn’t do it justice or fit in with the other buildings around it. I decided to use reclaimed Bangor Blue slates on the roof which were quite expensive, and it ended up taking just over 7000 to complete it with a further 1800 on the garage. The sandstone was by far the highest cost. This was mainly due to the fact all the window surrounds/sills were handmade and took over six months to manufacture. By the time everything is finished, the building stone and labour will have cost around 100k on its own. I don’t regret any of it though and believe that it was money well spent because, without it, the building wouldn’t look as it does today.
When the project began, we weren’t really sure how long it would take, and we were hoping maybe a year or so. However, as many of the materials were bespoke, it was a much longer process than we thought. We will be moved in now three years this month. We don’t even have our kitchen in yet; just a utility room to work from. It’s absolutely fine though; it has everything we need and plenty of storage. In a way, we are glad we didn’t put the kitchen in immediately because not only was it a major cost but we didn’t really know what we wanted. After living in the house a while, you start to know exactly what you need as needs and circumstances change. The rest of the rooms are complete, and we see it as leaving the best till last. The build is more than likely going to be a life-long project.
Obviously, the school was held in high regard amongst members of the local community as many of the people’s parents, and grandparents, went there. Lots of the neighbours have been in contact with us to say how great they thought the build turned out and that it was a wonderful transition.
During lockdown, we turned our attention to the exterior and began to build our patio, which is just off the side of the dining room. This will be a brilliant entertaining space as the bi-fold doors allow the room to open out, and as it’s south-facing, we get the sun until late in the evening. The original gardens from the school are still intact, and the mature trees have been there since the school began. These were planted by the local council on the first week that it opened.
In conclusion, I would say that as it was a renovation, it threw up a lot of challenges because you just have to work with what you got! Many things did turn out better than we thought, including the arched windows and curved walls. It has been more like a marathon rather than a sprint, and personally, I wouldn’t want to do it again. However, at the same time, I wake up every day knowing how lucky I am to live there.
The only advice I would give to anyone thinking about building or extending it to use the technology we have available to your advantage. 3D design is a critical part of any project as it lets you visualise the final design before you begin. It’s much easier to change things at the design phase compared to the building phase. Changing things during construction can be very costly.