Kate and Stephen Duncan have transformed a characterless converted 1880s coach house into a home full of rural charm by restoring the original features and using reclaimed materials.
On a date Kate Duncan will never forget – July 7th 2005, the day of the London bombings – she and husband Stephen moved into the Old Coach House in Sussex — or rather they moved into the engine room in their two-acre grounds, as building work was about to begin on the Old Coach House itself.
“The Engine Room got its name 100 years ago when it had housed the generator. But when we moved in it had already been converted into a 2,000ft² two bedroom guest house with a kitchen, two bathrooms, office, lounge and a sauna and gym,” says Kate. “So we were able to live on site to supervise the work on the main house and be comfortable at the same time.”
Kate and Stephen had married some 18 months before. Born in Malaysia and brought up in Australia, Kate met Stephen in Shanghai, and had been in the UK for only a year before the renovation.
“I remember driving along the South Downs and thinking how absolutely beautiful it was and how I wanted to live there. So every week after my arrival I looked at up to three different houses for sale. In the end, it was the estate agents who found us the Old Coach House. It was so tucked away – down a tiny bridle path – and no one would ever have spotted it. It wasn’t overlooked at all, which strongly appealed as we like our privacy.”
Kate’s first reaction was a positive one — it had everything they were looking for with its large rooms and great potential. “I thought it had a warm feeling, too,” she says. Although Stephen also recalls the “horrible hotpink kitchen and how all the other rooms looked tatty”. But they went ahead and bought it anyway. The space provided by the house’s large kitchen/ dining area, drawing and dining rooms, library big enough to entertain, the potential for a big master bedroom and ample guest accommodation, certainly made up for any shortcomings. “Yet, despite all this space for just the two of us, we never feel as if we are just rattling about in it as it still seems cosy,” says Kate, who was working as a property lawyer at the time.
The L-shaped Old Coach House was originally built in the 1880s and was once two buildings which had been bridged. It was converted into an eight bedroom dwelling by previous owners in the 1960s. Three coaches were originally kept where the kitchen now stands, while the drawing room and dining room had been the stable block. The space above the drawing and dining rooms was previously home to a hayloft. The former owners had converted this space into three bedrooms and a bathroom — which the Duncans would later transform into one very large master bedroom complete with en suite bathroom and dressing area.
Despite the Old Coach House’s dramatic conversion, the property had lost a little of its charm and had come to look dated. “It had been done in a ’60s sort of way, removing a lot of the original features and using breeze blocks downstairs,” says Kate. “There were some old features left such as the old stable division where the prize stallion was once kept — it now separates the drawing room from the library. There was also some Victorian pine panelling which had been in the tackroom (which has now become our snug) and we found some nice old pine floorboards – some of which had to be repaired – under the horrible old carpeting in the main reception rooms. We threw out the carpets and had the original floors sanded and polished.”
The Duncans had big plans to renovate elsewhere in the house and restore some of the Old Coach House’s Victorian charm, as well as transforming it into a home suitable for modern living. The kitchen would be completely gutted and refurnished, fireplaces would be reinstated in the chimney breasts of the bedrooms, and the Victorian-style greenhouse renovated. Outside, an old tiled-roof forge would be converted into Stephen’s billiards room and two of four lean-to sheds would be turned into a WC and an outdoor kitchen for the barbecue.
To save money, Kate drew up the plans, project managed the work and did all the sourcing — “which was a very good way of discovering England as I went all over the place for materials,” she says.
Planning permission was not required as the work was predominately internal, and external changes fell within the property’s Permitted Development rights. Structurally, the house was in good repair, although Kate and Stephen did have the house treated for woodworm and dry rot.
The first task inside for the Duncans’ builder, David Wheeler, was to pull down a false ceiling in the huge drawing room (some 50ft by 15ft), rework the pipework and, with the aid of an electrician, put in new wiring. New 9” x 2” joists with 2” x 2” steel angles were fitted on every other joist to avoid any deflection of the ceiling, all tied together with threaded rods. This way the ceiling was fixed separately from the floor joists above, making it totally independent and avoiding such a big ceiling cracking. “It’s a floating ceiling some 2ft higher than it was before, but separate from the joists above,” says David. “It was a hell of a job.” The plastering of the ceiling was done in a single day to avoid daywork joints. Now proper proportions have been restored to the already large room.
A breeze block wall had been introduced to create a separate drawing room and dining room during the ’60s conversion; a door served as the only connection between the two rooms. So Kate instructed David to remove part of the wall to create an open plan living space — which is now filled with light. Directly above, in the former hayloft, alterations again needed to be made to the layout. The rooms lacked a corridor – meaning each of the four rooms ran into the next – and only the first bedroom had ceilings high enough for full-height wardrobes.
The couple decided to create a bathroom attractive enough to act as an ante-chamber to their new grand master bedroom, which would be accessed through an archway. As well as demolishing the stud walls, the existing bathroom containing an old boiler and tank – replaced by a new Worcester combi boiler, together with a Potterton boiler in the utility room downstairs – was removed. They also laid reclaimed pine floorboards throughout above the existing chipboard floor. Kate designed a big S-shaped curved platform some six inches high, which lifts the sanitaryware off the reclaimed floor. A roll-top bath, circular shower unit and toilet now sit comfortably on the platform.
Downstairs in the kitchen, the Duncans have again mixed old and new. Kate repainted the kitchen units which had oak doors and replaced the others with Chalon units bought in a warehouse sale at a 40 per cent discount. She added new granite worktops on top. The couple kept the 15-year-old four-oven Aga and bought a two-oven electric Aga as well, for stir-fry cooking. They also bought a big Chalon cupboard, designed in a Victorian housekeeper’s style, to house the fridge, freezer and microwave. A new floor of black and white ceramic Italian tiles completes the classic, yet modern styling.
The work has paid off many times over. The result is a stylish, spacious home that has a feeling of Victorian solidity and style mixed with an open, light atmosphere. It has lost that small, convoluted feel so common in homes of this age and now has rooms that work much harder. “Our new home is so warm and welcoming,” concludes Kate.