Project church

Karl Meredith and Natalie Bass bought Christ Church, in Welshpool, for £45k in 2003 and so began an extraordinary restoration project to create a family home within the ancient building's 500sqm.

They've lived in their church throughout those nine years of chipping, plastering, patching and digging; expanding their family along the way with two more sons (one born in the church) and building a close bond with the building.

I asked Natalie about the highs and lows of buying and renovating a redundant church, and what advice she and Karl would give to WOW readers thinking of following in their footsteps?

When in 2003 did you move into Christ Church and what work did you have to do first?
We bought Christ Church in July 2003 and spent 3 months constructing the Hut, to move in in September. We had to do some immediate temporary patching of roofs but generally spent the first year getting to know the building and getting our heads round what needed doing first.
We spent some of that time working with an architect on the initial house design, also gaining planning permission and listed building consent.
This was very straightforward as Karl had already discussed our ideas through with them before we bought it. Our plans didn’t involve altering any of the structural fabric of the building or changing the exterior which helped things to go smoothly.

Nine years on, what roles do you each now play in the project?
Karl is a Production Manager for a local automotive manufacturing company. I don’t go out to work. My role is mother [to Owen 15; Fred 7, and Victor one-and-a-half], housewife, administrator for the project, chief sweeper, lime plasterer, painter, caterer and extra pair of hands when needed. Karl does the main building work and deals with suppliers. He’s very good at sourcing materials for the build.

The Hut (pictured below) is a fantastic idea - much better than the usual caravan on a muddy site! Did it help you feel you were living in your church, that it was part of your life from the start?
It was definitely a good idea to live here from the start. We don’t have to rush to complete the project. The plans for the house changed slightly because of living here. With having a young family it’s good to live here and be involved in it on a day to day basis. I think we would hardly see Karl otherwise!

How did the idea for The Hut come about and how did you go about building it?
Karl had the idea of building the Hut, designed on the back of an envelope. He thought we should utilise the available space. The church already had a water supply and WC. We built it ourselves. It took 3 months to build during weekends, but we are constantly improving and altering it. It’s a very flexible space. It has grown with us and we’ve added rooms as the family has grown. It’s cosy and warm and is a little bit of sanctuary amongst the building site.
We never thought we’d live in it for this long and would have made it bigger if we’d have known! It will be a mixture of joy and sadness come the day we knock it down, especially as Victor was born in it.

When do you expect to all move out of The Hut and into the church proper?
By next winter we hope to be using the living room and kitchen of the House. There is still a lot of work to do before we can all sleep upstairs safely, so we may be using the Hut just to sleep in for a while.

At what stage did you employ an architect? Did you already know what you wanted to do with the building beforehand, or did you need a lot of guidance?
We employed an architect at the beginning to draw up some plans although we have modified them to suit our final desired arrangement. He gave a little guidance but we generally knew what we wanted. The back end of the church was the most utilitarian and it seemed the obvious part to convert into a house. We couldn’t compete with the existing architectural detail so we have kept the new build very simple and in keeping with the building. [They will use around 25% of the 500sqm floor area for their house]

What about special permissions for renovating a church?
We needed a Faculty from the Church in Wales to do drainage works in the graveyard, and this involved getting a licence from the Ministry of Justice in case of accidental exhumation.

How much of the work were you both able to do yourselves and when did you need to employ professionals?
We’ve only employed a handful of people to help push things along. We generally get stuck into doing everything ourselves. If we don’t know how to do something, for example slate a curved roof, then we ask for advice or read up on it.
I went on a short course on using lime in historic buildings which was very useful and gave me the confidence to tackle repairing the plaster work.
We’re fortunate to have some very knowledgeable and practical friends. Often what holds us back is lack of manpower, so occasionally we organise a team of helpers to get a big job done.

What were the most unexpected parts of the build?
Unexpected jobs include replacing rainwater gullies and connecting pipes and installing new soakaways, which involved digging up the graveyard.
The lime plaster repairs, something we’ve accepted had to be done. It has such a practical benefit to the building as well as looking so much better
Also scraping off the masonry paint on all the interior walls to enable the walls to breathe. This uncovered a lot of patch repairs in modern gypsum plaster which then needed to be removed. All this had to be replaced with lime plaster and walls painted with limewash.

Which are the bits that took your breath away, the surprises in the project?
Surprises have been the way views and proportions change as we build the house. They are always a delight.

Were there choices you had to make to keep down the costs that you would have preferred not to have done?
We don’t think that we’ve compromised anything but our lifestyle because of money. We tend to put things off until we have the money. By not rushing we have avoided making mistakes. So far we haven’t had to re do anything other than temporary repairs, leaking roofs etc.

What makes restoring a church different to restoring, say, a castle? Are there things about church buildings that are unique to churches and need special consideration?
Churches are hard to convert due to their shape, size, windows etc. We’ve tried very hard not to compromise the architectural integrity of the building. The graveyard is a unique feature to live with. People have a deep and profound connection with churches which needs to be respected. Expect to be under public scrutiny. The community tend to still feel they own it!

Reading your blog, your attitude to the project seems more like the owners of a stately home - that you're the live-in custodians of a building that has its own life before and after you. You seem to think about the building as having its own identity, rather than as a shell that you're renovating - have I got that right?
Yes, we do feel like custodians rather than owners. I love the fact that it has its own identity and it’s been a privilege to get to know it and help it survive into the 21st century.
I feel quite maternal towards the building in that it needs all our focus and care. We spend most of our time putting it back together (or ‘giving the church its memories back’, as Fred says!) We feel terrible if we do anything that changes it but we reassure ourselves it’s for the greater good. It feels part of the family or that we are part of it. The boys all have a different relationship with it and will be no doubt be shaped by different parts of the project.

Do you think that attitude is something that applies specifically to renovating a church?
We don’t think that it's only applicable to churches. I think any listed building would have its own character and it's important to get to know it well and honour its history. We do not see the point in treating it just as a shell, if that were the case it would probably have been easier for us to create a shell from modern materials.

Have you had problems with any groups, I'm thinking particularly of civic societies or historical groups - or even your neighbours while the digging and heavy work progressed?
We have shown civic societies around and they’ve been very supportive. They seem to like our open and simple approach.
Our immediate neighbours are incredibly supportive and we can always rely on them for a helping hand. The majority of the local community seem very pleased that we have taken on this abandoned building and appreciate our efforts here.
We’ve only had one problem from a couple who tend a grave here, who took offence at us working in the graveyard when we were doing the drainage work. Before we knew it we were on the front page of our local newspaper for allegedly desecrating the graveyard.
It was horrible at the time. But it initiated an overwhelming wave of public support! We are now grateful it happened. It highlighted the fact that being a church, whatever we do here is under the public gaze and it is important to keep people informed of what we’re doing. Having open days helps people understand what we’re doing and why, and it’s important for them to meet us.

You mention the future use of the church as a venue/tourist attraction, with your living area being built into the back of the church. Was that idea always there or was it something that developed as the project went on?
We had the idea of opening it up to the public from the beginning, mainly because it feels the right and obvious thing to do. It would be marvellous if the building became self sustainable. Also the building needs people here to become alive as that is what it was designed for. It would be far too selfish to keep it all to ourselves.

If someone asked for your help in choosing a church to buy and restore, what would you tell them they must consider when they look at candidates?
We only looked at one church and then bought it so we don’t really know what to advise.
Access to the building for deliveries of building supplies is a problem here that we didn’t consider before we bought it.

Who are the professionals/experts that they need to source that will be key to renovating a church?
Don’t rely on so called professional advice. We would be bankrupt if we had followed all of the advice we’ve been given. Take it slowly and if you’re not sure just hold tight and the solution will eventually show itself. And in the meantime, get on with another job!

Finally, this is an extraordinarily ambitious project; has it been worthwhile? When have been the moments that you've regretted walking into Christ Church on that sunny day in 2003? And how do you feel about the project now, nine years on?
We have never regretted it. The mess and clutter get me down occasionally as everywhere there is a job in progress.
It has become our life. It’s hard work and we always feel that there’s so much more that we should be doing. We never really relax. Our confidence as a family has grown with all that we have experienced and achieved here. It hasn’t been easy at times but that makes it all the more of a great adventure.

2012 Open Days: 13 May; 7th & 8th July; 19th August, all 10am to 4pm. Entry is free