A new design for living

It may not be a house, but there's no reason why you shouldn't call it home
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The Independent Online

Until now, the most glamorous features of Church Gate Hall have been the famous and beautiful people snapped there. If James Wedge, a fashion photographer, had any idea that the old Baptist chapel he has owned for 16 years would look so good after a makeover he might not have been selling it. But as the finishing touches are given to the building, in a small cul-de-sac close to Putney Bridge in south-west London, he can be assured that the appetite for large, unusual spaces has never been stronger.

People have become used to making homes in buildings designed for entirely different purposes. Steel girders, vast windows, solid beams and vaulted ceilings have become the fixtures of new urban style. While many of the so-called "loft apartments" are a long way from their gritty US origins, they have at least encouraged a respect for original architectural features and put simplicity above fussiness.

Not that there is much scope for fussy detail in a chapel, and even though Amanda and James Wedge knew they would not be living there, they were determined to do the building justice. "We didn't want the feeling of the place to change. At least a couple of architects came up with schemes that would have destroyed the atmosphere. One wanted to build across the minstrel gallery to make a complete floor, and another suggested taking down the front of the church to create a car parking area," explains Mr Wedge.

He didn't use the word sacrilege, but was relieved when they found architects who were sympathetic to their own views. The 2,000 sq ft chapel is now a two-bedroom home with a reception room that rises to the eaves, glass doors, a first-floor gallery bedroom and, on the lower floor, a dining room. This basement room, with original church pews and table, is the one that comes closest to being a conventional size. "I would love to have had it like this when I lived there and was single. What a great bachelor pad!"

Over the years, James Wedge used the chapel as a home-cum-photographic studio. Twiggy, Sting, Jerry Hall and Helen Mirren are among those who would not recognise it now. It was the expanse of wall, the light and the ample floor space that made it ideal as a working studio. But it is not everyone who feels able to live in such non-conventional scale.A two-seater sofa can appear like a pea on an elephant in a 25ft room with a soaring arched ceiling. And where do you put the prints and ornaments and small tables?

Orianna Fielding Banks, who runs the interior design company Pure Living and is co-author of Lofts: Living in Space, has a simple message: Be brave and have fun. If you like the idea of living there, then do your own thing and don't worry about the right or wrong approach. She also offers "scaled-up and pared-down furniture" for large spaces, including a huge yellow sheepskin beanbag.

"You may not able to take the contents of a Georgian house and expect it to work, but I love the idea of a large Renaissance painting hanging on chains next to a Sixties bubble chair." Nevertheless, there are plenty of us who lack that vision thing. Ms Fielding Banks gives such lack of courage short shrift. "Loft style has become formulaic and its definition completely misunderstood. You need to have clearly defined areas that do not compromise the whole."

As yet, her list of properties does not include a church. In their raw state these are not easy to find as last year's figures from the Church Commissioners show. Only 13 new schemes for redundant churches were approved for use outside the Church of England or conservation bodies. Declaring a church redundant involves a thorough process of consultation from the grassroots up. Only then can a new usage be considered, hand in hand with the local planning authority.

The large number of Methodist chapels built during the 19th century makes it more likely that they will find their way on to the property market. Large urban churches in any case tend to end up in the hands of developers, since they are more suitable for conversion into a number of units than a single dwelling.

In the countryside they are even harder to find, so when Joyce and Alan Berry spotted an empty church in a Herefordshire field they made plans. Once a private church for the estate at Tedstone Wafre near Bromyard, they asked the farmer for first refusal should he decide to sell.

Thirteen years ago they took it on and transformed it into a family home, doing all the work themselves. "There were sheep in the porch, and windows that were falling out. For two and half years we lived in caravans. It was a daunting project. Our friends thought we were mad."

As the church is listed, they needed the consent of the local conservation officer for the building work. No dormer windows, no conservatories or extensions - but they did get approval for lowering the windows to bring light into the ground floor. They have preserved all the stonework and the altar rail, and still managed to create a five-bedroom home. The crypt, with its shelving space for nine bodies (which was never used), would make a perfect wine cellar, according to Ms Berry.

"The church always had a lovely atmosphere. There was no graveyard, which made a big difference. We kept the pulpit and steps and made a feature of them in the garden - which is nearly an acre in size. You have to get used to everything being on a bigger scale. We worked every night and every weekend - and it was worth it," she says. "But we wouldn't ever do it again."

Church Gate is on the market for £699,950 through Foxtons (020-7565 4000). The Architects were Allen Gale (020-7566 9600). St James's, Tedstone Wafre, Herefordshire, is for sale at guide price of £300,000 with Andrew Grant (01905 24477). Pure Living can be contacted on 020-7250 1116