Welcome back to another Renovation Diaries post! Today we are talking about layouts, planning ideas + the sourcing process for some key pieces that would be needed early on in the build. At this point, the Chapel felt like a woodwork studio as we started sanding back some of the features we wanted to incorporate into the conversion. For a few months, it felt like every spare moment was spent there getting covered in dirt + dust then traipsing back to the cottage rental to get cleaned up…before doing it all again the next day! There wasn’t a water connection on site so I just remember spending lots of time walking back and forth with buckets of water or carrying all the dirty tools back at the end of the day to clean.
At this point I also wanted to share an eccentricity that cropped up early on in the renovation — the Chapel was full of butterflies! Over the first few weeks, we would see them sitting on the window frames + hear them fluttering around the place — here’s a red admiral that enjoyed sitting on my tape I’d been putting on the carpet to plan the layout:
I’ll go into the drawings + floor plans in more depth in subsequent posts, but here’s a glimpse at some of the initial ideas I was working on. The starting point was to plan how to keep a double height element to the plan + where to position the partial mezzanine. You might know that alongside my plants I have a much-loved vintage furniture collection so this actually played a big part in the early design stages — basically figuring out what pieces would fit where! I’ve slowly built this collection up over the years + I could never imagine parting with some classic mid century designs like my Ercol studio couch, so incorporating them in at the design stage was an important consideration. From really early on in the process, I made to-scale drawings on dotted paper (link to my favourite drawing pad here) with cut out shapes to move around the pieces to test out ideas + scaled sketches of each elevation too…can you tell I’ve always secretly wished I’d trained to be an architect yet?!
I made a lot of drawings…!
Planning the South elevation
Whilst starting to work on the internal plans in a big way, it was simultaneously important to firm up any external changes to the building that we were proposing so we could work with the Planning Officer to come to a solution that would satisfy their needs, alongside converting the Chapel into a liveable home. The changes we were planning were very minimal + largely occurred on the back (South) elevation — we wanted to add a window somewhere on this wall to take advantage of the light (priorities of a houseplant grower of course!) + a back door too. This part of the Chapel isn’t visible to passers by but as the Chapel was re-classified as a ‘non-designated heritage site’ during our planning application, it made making any external alterations more difficult. After a few discussions on positioning of windows + styles etc. we agreed on one that would be modest and at eye level, as mocked up by the green panels here:
Sourcing a back door
Next up was the back door which was one of the first things we bought for the Chapel. As there was only one set of doors (at the front) we wanted to add in a back door to the proposed plans, but of course needed to pick something that was in keeping with the building. As a big lover of reclamation yards/architectural salvage/old stuff, sourcing pieces was an extremely fun aspect of the renovation! Even before this project, you can generally find me pouring over auction catalogues + bidding sites a couple of times a week ‘just to see what’s around‘. I guess its a hobby of sorts, but when there was an actual necessity to find things for the build it just added a whole other level of excitement to the ‘second-hand-scouring’‘ I enjoy so much!
We looked around for a while (this was during lockdown which made it impossible to go anywhere IRL) and eventually came across this in an online auction. Once the planning office had confirmed that door was agreeable, we had to then do some bidding and luckily managed to get it! We had it couriered up here and it looked right at home immediately. I sanded it down and made minor repairs and it came up really well. It was originally from another Victorian Chapel in London so it felt very fitting to give it a new lease of life in another Chapel, no less! The next thing was to get a door frame made for it… of course it would have been much easier if it was just made up of right angles like a regular door, but what a lovely feature when it’s in place!
When first seeing photos of the Chapel there was a painting hung above the alcove arch at the back, right in the centre… it was a bit dusty + shrouded in cobwebs (eagle-eyed readers might have spotted part of it in earlier photos in the renovation posts). Anyway, when we were going through the sale, we asked the previous owner nicely if we could maybe keep it with the Chapel + he agreed! Before we started doing any really dirty work inside, we got some big ladders to bring the painting down + here it is!
Seeing the piece up close after months of craning my neck to have a look at her from afar was pretty special + on closer inspection we could see that there had been some previous damage to the oil painting — it had some flaking paint and smoke damage at the bottom which suggested it had been hung above a fireplace at some point in its history. Luckily, having an arts background, we knew a picture restorer who could clean her up so we waved goodbye to her for a few weeks + got back to the DIY!
When she was ready, we picked her up + she was looking much cleaner with the damage repaired too. I had another plan for the gold frame, so kept that to one side — I personally really like how oil paintings look unframed + I had a picture ledge that it could look good on depending on where we were going to put her in the Chapel.
We couldn’t find anything about the painting online but after showing it to a few painters + art historians (again, advantages of art school connections!) the consensus was that it was likely to be a piece dating from the early 1940’s (you can see a letter in her hand and possibly the light of the wartime blitz faintly in the background). Jan Vermeer’s women reading letters are some of my favourite paintings + this seemed like a vague connection, despite being painted in a different style. Finally, on the name Betty… there are a group of famous Tea Rooms in Yorkshire called Betty’s (there are a couple of branches) and in the York premises, underneath the tea rooms was Betty’s Bar where air crew drank during the Second World War. To this day there remains a mirror on display which is covered with inscriptions the soldiers made using a diamond pen (some say a diamond ring). The additional coincidental layer to this is that the picture restorer that rejuvenated Betty was also commissioned to do the sign-writing on Betty’s Tea Rooms some years ago! With this web of connections that were forming around the painting, we thought we’d refer to the lady in the portrait as Betty!
Stripping the vestibule doors
Before dismantling the vestibule itself, we took out the pitch pine double doors to start stripping the paint off — I already had an idea where I wanted to use these in the plans. First of all we removed all the brass door furniture to clean up — I love searching for old hardware like this + I’ve always believed that using quality materials on ‘touch points’ like switches, door knobs, locks etc. can elevate the simple, everyday actions in a space like opening a door or flicking on a light switch. The classic overnight coca cola method followed by an old toothbrush + a tub of the pink stuff cleaned everything up a treat before polishing.
On the doors, there were quite a few layers to get through… I started off with over the counter paint stripper… which was messy + took a long time! After getting the worst of it off, I washed them down thoroughly + using a palm sander, started working my way through different grits of sandpaper until I got back to wood. Pitch pine is a harder wood than regular pine + it took many sheets of paper until it resembled something like a lovely old wooden door. The photos make it look a lot easier than it was — I actually love sanding, but the process was no joke + took me a few weeks! Of course, by this point I knew that it would have been quicker if I’d have got them dipped but we were in lockdown + it became a sort of protracted Laura versus Doors situation.
Looking for windows + borrowed lights
Back to the question of a window for the South wall + a rather funny story…
When we were initially thinking about the addition of a window on the South wall, we thought about sourcing something round that would mirror the stone date disc (1879) at the front of the building positioned at the same height which would help to add light into the mezzanine floor. This though would mean that there wouldn’t be any window on this elevation at eye level + after discussions with the planners, a lower window was the preferred option. We talked about shape + size, whether or not to use something reclaimed or sourcing a second hand chapel window + started to feel that it would be more fitting to not try to compete with the original windows + instead create something more intimate in this area. The South wall isn’t visible from the street + the three other elevations each have two large chapel windows. With the addition of the back door on this wall, planning liked the idea of the opening being petite in size + it was at this point that we stumbled upon this…
This skip was outside a nearby Victorian primary school that was having its windows replaced + we got chatting to the builders + explained what were doing with the Chapel conversion + they let us look through the skip to see if anything was useful! Quite a lot were badly damaged or rotten (hence their replacement) but after a rummage around we found what we needed! We had approximate sizing that we knew we needed to stick to + from a recycling point of view, it just felt right to repurpose an already existing window + just get a window frame made for it to sit within, just as we had done with the reclaimed Chapel door.
Here’s the ‘skip haul’:
Alongside the main window, you’ll notice the two smaller windows on the left which I just knew would be perfect to use as borrowed lights above the bathroom doors! The style was the same as the ‘kitchen window’ which would add a coherence to the scheme + they were already glazed with safety glass. The wooden frame design was actually really similar to the cross pieces of the Chapel windows too as they are both of a traditional Victorian design. Borrowed lights are one of those old-fashioned terms that don’t seem to be widely used but what I’m referring to here is that space above internal doors, which in old houses was often glazed in order to maximise the light in the home. My old 1930’s apartment had these above the doors in some rooms + they were such a lovely feature. Dimensions wise, I thought we’d be able to fit them into the stud work around the door frame if the measurements worked out. The next job was to track down some reclaimed internal doors!
Finding the red door…
Continuing on the borrowed light idea, alongside looking for some more standard internal wooden doors, we wanted to find something more unique that had partial glazing to be used to separate the studio space — basically to take advantage of the light that would be ‘borrowed’ from the nearby windows. That’s when we came across what we have aptly named the red door on eBay…
I love reclamation finds because of the stories that these things come with and this was no different — the door had once hung in an old Manchester pub! It had a beautiful curved top + the dimensions really worked with my drawings so we bought it and arranged a courier to collect it. In case you wondered, I will generally use Shiply for this + regular readers might remember I also used them when I re-located up from Wales (I’m not affiliated with them FYI). We thought there was an interesting incongruity/juxtaposition between putting an old Victorian pub door in a Victorian Chapel + once cleaned up it will look right at home!
I hope you enjoyed this instalment of these Renovation Diaries — it marks a fun part of the project before the impending chaos of the demolition + commencement of the building works was creeping closer!
I’ll be back with the next update in a few weeks in between my usual houseplant posts (I’m going to try sharing these as monthly updates). For easy navigation, I’ve made a ‘HPH renovates…’ tab on the homepage to catalogue this series. Alongside sharing the key points of the renovation on my main HOUSE PLANT HOUSE instagram, I’ve set up a dedicated secondary page — HOUSE PLANT HOUSE renovates, which I will link here where I’ll share more of the process in detail.
This process is actually quite intrinsically linked to HOUSE PLANT HOUSE because alongside being a space for my plants and I to grow, it’s also going to be a place from which I can run my small business. This was something I’ve had to put on hold for a while, with re-locating and all, but it’s a goal I’ve been working towards behind the scenes for the last few years. Essentially, the Renovation Diaries will document the creation of a physical iteration of HOUSE PLANT HOUSE, which I’m really looking forward to sharing.
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