Real Homes: Preaching to the converted

Where once people did up barns, now they're turning to chapels. DOMINIC LUTYENS on houses that have graveyards for gardens
Once popular places of worship and centres of local community, many of Britain's Nonconformist chapels are now empty, derelict and threatened by unsympathetic development. So it came as welcome news last week that 15 Cornish chapels have become listed buildings in recognition of their outstanding architectural importance - including the Friends' Meeting House at Come-to-Good in Kea, now Grade I listed, an honour accorded to only a handful of buildings.

But while heavy-handed conversion of some chapels into houses has destroyed their original features, some buyers have managed to retain the essential character of the building while turning it into a home.

"There's something not `nice' about living with gravestones round you." Ian Constantinides' reason for living in a Baptist chapel in the remote, rural Somerset Levels could be seen as perverse, but it is also entirely pragmatic. Many prospective buyers had found the deconsecrated chapel's austere architecture creepily forbidding, so it was, in fact, cheap - despite being vast. Built in 1836, the main chapel, its hall with a stage, huge basement and many bedrooms (once Sunday school rooms), cost Constantinides pounds 30,000.

Nineteenth-century Nonconformist chapels are appealing increasingly to people with maverick taste because their plain interiors provide versatile shells for imaginative conversions. "They're a blank canvas - you've got to be brave to convert them," says George Player, features editor of Period House. "There are other advantages. You can get them for a good price and they're well-made. Victorian timber, such as pitch pine, is much better quality than the guff used today. They also have attractive neo-gothic features."

Tasty neo-gothic features in a low-church chapel? Surprising, perhaps, but then Nonconformist chapels have been unfairly stereotyped as austere.

"Nineteenth-century Wesleyan Methodist chapels, for example, are neo- gothic and quite elaborate," says Francis Bush, an architect specialising in Methodist chapels. "Those developed by the poorer Bible Christians in Cornwall, and later in the Lake District and Wales, are more puritanical, save for the odd bit of bright stained glass. The start of this century saw a dramatic change, with a more modern architecture developing. Pews were replaced by an arc of chairs surrounding the communion table."

Constantinides, however, had no desire to update Ebenezer Chapel, bought from the Baptist Church's property agent. Given that his company, St Blaise, is a leading repairer of buildings - for example, Windsor Castle and Hampton Court - the council was delighted he was moving in. Constantinides replaced the chapel's dilapidated roof, installed electricity, better plumbing and discreet double-glazing, but otherwise left it untouched. In the chapel are the original pews, organ and tiled baptismal font used as a bath for the communally minded. (It fits 10.) In the chapel hall - now his office, sitting room and dining room - are old coathooks and a fireplace. In spookily Miss Havisham-like fashion, musty psalm books lie hither and thither. His own furniture is fittingly severe: for example, simple wooden blinds have replaced lairy Sixties curtains. All very authentically spartan, but how does he cope without running hot water? "I was brought up in the tradition of the mad dash from fire to hot water bottle," he replies stoically. (No wonder he calls his electric blanket "God".)

Despite his ascetic taste, Constantinides is no puritan, and puts his cavernous home to hedonistic use. "It's a great rollerskating arena for my son Bede," he confesses. A party animal, he plans to construct a pulley system so the pews can be hauled ceilingwards to reveal Saturday Night Fever-esque flashing lights.

Property developer James Welsh, who converts Methodist chapels into homes for sale or to rent through estate agent Andrew Jeffery, was first struck by how spacious they are. And he soon discovered they weren't the lugubrious places of legend. "Most chapels have lots of windows so they get a lot of light," he says. One building he has converted, the Wesleyan Tremar Chapel near Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, boasts 80,000 sq ft. "It's a Grade II listed building, which meant I could convert it," he says. "If a building is Grade II* listed, you can't touch it; you can only restore it. Many Methodist chapels are, so those that aren't are quite rare. Added to which, they're rapidly being snapped up."

Converted Lutheran chapels have been popular on the Continent for years, he says, and Britain is catching on. "These chapels are taking over from the trend for barn conversions," he says. "People want homes with space, style and character. It's all part of a backlash against rabbit-hutch Barratt homes."

Unlike Constantinides, Welsh has converted Tremar Chapel (built in 1875) into a large, modern, comfortable four-bedroom home. No spartan deprivation here: there are two bathrooms, one with a sauna, Victorian-style bath and airing cupboard, a kitchen/breakfast room, and a galleried landing overlooking an indoor heated swimming pool. Not that Welsh has desecrated the place by tampering with its original features. Those with a fetish for architectural sobriety and ecclesiastical elegance will find it here aplenty in the shape of large sash windows, a granite fireplace and an organ in the galleried landing. And Welsh has treated all surfaces with time-honoured, natural ingredients; floors and staircase have been treated with linseed oil and beeswax.

Welsh took this use of natural, traditional methods to more radical extremes with another Cornish building, Ebenezer Chapel, built in 1829. He has nicknamed it Natural House, as the materials he used to restore it were all environmentally friendly. Craftsmen familiar with traditional methods plastered the interior walls with clay and painted them with limewash with a drop of oil to stop it flaking. These were then painted in light colours using natural mineral paints. Many original features remain, from the Victorian encaustic tiles in the entrance porch to the lift latches on the bedroom doors.

The original chapel-goers may well have been strait-laced folk, but today's inhabitants are hardly herd-like. True, they clearly worship stern architecture, but, above all, they hanker after an individual home.

Andrew Jeffery: 01208 73298; James Welsh: 00351 82998602.