What started out as a labour of love felt more like a cross to bear at times for consultant economist Jimmy Armstrong, who together with his wife Mollie, a retired school teacher, spent three years restoring and converting a 19th century listed church into a new home — making no sacrifices to ensure an exacting standard of finish and design throughout.
Originally built in 1841 near Tempo in County Fermanagh, the former Tattykeeran Church of Ireland served the community for over a century and a half, before it was declared inoperable and closed in 1984. The building lay derelict, falling further into a state of severe disrepair for 12 more years, before finally being bought by Jimmy and Mollie.
The couple were not entirely new to the renovation game, but could never have predicted the challenges that only a building of this vintage could throw up. The result was that the total cost of £400,000 (including lost earnings) was more than double their original budget, and the scheme, which Jimmy project managed, exceeded their target timescale of two years by a further 12 months.
“We carried out our first renovation project 40 years ago, restoring a pair of 13th century cottages in Devon,” says Jimmy. “We also renovated an old farm in County Down and a listed Georgian terrace in Glasgow. Lessons were learned along the way, and so we knew from the outset that this one was going to be a difficult project.”
One major benefit to the couple was that their architect son Nathan, who lives and practises in Japan, agreed to do the plans for their new home and was as committed and dedicated as his parents to achieving something unique and outstanding. “We were so lucky that our son was prepared to do the plans — the detail of his working drawings was central to the whole scheme’s success,” says Jimmy. “He got all fired up by the project and in the end was just as passionate about it and proud of it as we were.” The end result of their labours is truly spectacular.
Tempting though it is to extend a building like this in similar style to the original, the Armstrongs broke the mould with their striking modern approach. The original church and its new ‘bedroom wing’ is a fascinating contrast of old and new with some unique Japanese influences creeping into the design.
The contemporary extension – which is linked to the church via a low corridor, and houses a bathroom and four bedrooms with en suites – takes the form of a simple cedar-clad ‘barn’: “We wanted the extension to be deliberately severe in its line and to provide a stark contrast with the detailed design of the church itself — to complement but not take over the original building,” explains Jimmy.
The main church was turned into an open plan lounge, diner and kitchen with a magnificent natural oak-clad ‘pod’, which appears to be suspended over the kitchen. The space is currently being used as a workroom but was designed with an en suite so that it has the flexibility of serving as a bedroom as well. The most time-consuming part of the build was the restoration of the church itself. Because it had been derelict for a number of years, there was dry rot and rising damp, so the first stage of the restoration involved stripping the building right back to a shell, which Jimmy did himself: “All the stonework had to be treated and every scrap of timber had to be replaced. It was time-consuming work.”
The next dilemma was how to make the most of the space while not breaking up the deep three-dimensional feel of the room and the stunning Gothic arched windows. “We didn’t want to lose the feeling of it being a church,” explains Jimmy. “But we needed to get something more out of the space. “It wasn’t a big church and a new first floor would have come level with the middle of the windows — so Nathan came up with the idea of the pod, which works wonderfully well. It was built onto a steel frame so that it appears to be suspended over the main living area. We echoed the style of the church with the arched doorway.”
While some of the original windows were intact, others were beyond salvage and had to be specially made. “We were lucky in that we had good local joiners who were able to do the specialist joinery. You really can’t tell which are the new ones,” says Jimmy.
The roof presented the biggest challenge, as Jimmy explains: “The problem in designing a replacement roof was that the depth of rafters needed to comply with Building Regulations would have been so great that it would have altered the profile of the building. As all the stonework parapets, corbels and finials were fixed in place, altering the roof height wasn’t an option. “The solution was a manufactured truss roof, but it took a great deal of patience and time for the suppliers to design one that would be strong enough and could be fitted without altering the shape of the building.”
It was important to the Armstrongs that the house was as energy efficient as possible, so a wood pellet boiler powers the underfloor heating. “We were really worried about heating a space of this size, as we couldn’t install double glazing,” says Jimmy. “We used metal partitions to dry-line the walls and cladded the frame with two-inch-thick high-density insulation, with four inches of the same material in the floor. We spent our first winter in it last year and it was very warm and cosy.”
In addition, the couple opted for thermally broken aluminium windows and doors and a zinc roof on the extension, plus Irish oak for all the internal timber work and the handmade internal doors: “Properly dried Irish oak doesn’t twist,” claims Jimmy. “We wanted to do this right and we were totally committed to that at the start and throughout every part of it,” concludes Jimmy. “I was hardly in love with the project at times, but both Mollie and I are thrilled with the end result and have a lovely family home.”