Crystal Clear

Taking a building that has lain derelict or neglected for decades, perhaps centuries, and breathing new life into old stone and brick can be a hugely rewarding experience. At first, there is the realisation and then conviction that the potential is there and then slowly ideas begin to crystallize and in the mind's eye new spaces begin to appear, new possibilities present themselves and one dares to believe.

The initial plans are drawn up, modified, redrawn, re-modified and then one day, often quite suddenly, it's there. The problems have been solved - on paper at least - and there's only one little hurdle to go before the builders move in. Planning permission.

In our part of the world, planning officials seem to fall into two categories. Some appear to have an innate understanding of old buildings and share your passion to give them a new lease of life, to others you're a vandal whose primary aim is to trash England's architectural heritage and, while you're at it, flout every building regulation in the book. Some will be sympathetic, helpful and suggest workable compromises, others seem to think their role is to toss every possible obstacle in your path until you finally become so dispirited you feel like ditching the whole project and going for a new-build box in the suburbs.

So when Amy and Adrian bought the lovely and unconverted Grade II-listed Georgian coach house behind their Grade II-listed Georgian cottage, with the dream of joining the two and creating a new and spacious home for themselves and their three-year-old daughter, Emilia, there was no guarantee whatever that they were going to be able to realise this dream. Even before the planning authorities became involved there were some serious practical problems to be overcome. "The coach house adjoined the courtyard garden of the cottage and there were half a dozen different levels between the coach house and cottage," explains Adrian. "At first, we just kept looking at it and couldn't see a way through."

Enter architect Glyn Emrys. To begin with Glyn, too, was stumped. There just did not seem to be a solution. "And then he suddenly had a eureka moment and we could all see the way ahead," says Adrian. "The solution was to level the ground and use the existing brick and flagstones to create a passageway between the cottage and coach house.

The passage would be glass on the courtyard side and run along past two brick sheds on the other. The sheds would be converted into a bedroom with an upstairs bathroom, and a study."

That problem solved, Adrian, Amy and Glyn turned their attention to the coach house itself. Here it was decided that the old hay loft would be converted into a huge beamed space perfect for entertaining. One end would be a kitchen and the other a relaxing area. The space downstairs would be put to use as a dining room.

"We knew our plans were ambitious and that getting planning permission might not be entirely straightforward," said Adrian. However, Adrian is a specialist in restoration and conversion and he brought all his experience - including an impressive range of hands-on building skills - to bear and ensured that the plans met every possible objection.

To begin with, he commissioned a meticulous digital survey of the property that catalogued the exact position of every element of the building almost down to the last nail. In addition to a 16-page heritage statement, the application also included a 3D model of the proposed development. The plans were submitted and the couple held their breath. Finally, the answer came back - the planning officer loved it. The only alteration she asked for was that the glass in one of the hayloft windows be opaque rather than clear.

All they had to do now was build it. Although Adrian had the help of a trusted team, he still undertook much of the work himself. Start to finish, the project took two years. And the result? It's nothing short of a masterclass in heritage conversion. Virtually every significant feature of the coach house - from the original mangers to hay drops, timbers to flooring - has been retained and restored while at the same time creating a wonderful range of contemporary living spaces. It is, in short, a triumph.

The original cottage - which the couple also restored - is lovely in itself. One enters directly into a hallway which might have been one of the original reception rooms and today is home to a stunning Georgian sideboard which has been in Adrian's mother's family probably from the day it was made. The floors are glowing wide oak boards and centrepiece is the pretty, cast-iron fireplace. To the right is a large room that runs the depth of the house and which has been converted into Amy's study at one end and a spacious playroom for Emilia.

The kitchen is tailor-made Shaker with black granite surfaces that complement the slate kitchen table that was once a potting table from a greenhouse in Brighton. The cooker is a serious Mercury range, a testament to Adrian's skills as a chef.

Emelia's room is the perfect young girl's room - all delicate mobiles, a blizzard of fluffy toys and, for a three-year-old, a huge blue distressed double bed. Her great-grandfather was the artist and illustrator Ronald Lampitt and on her walls are some wonderful examples of his work that once graced Amy's own nursery. The master bedroom is probably a late Georgian addition with a soaring ceiling and a truly huge bed that has followed the couple around through their various homes. It is so large that they had to have a mattress tailor-made. On a cupboard door hang examples of the clothing offered by Hall & Co in Otford, the women's and homeware business run by Amy and her mother. The en suite bathroom is dado-high tongue and groove and a particularly attractive feature are the long-spouted, nickel silver bath taps from Lefroy Brooks.

The cottage, in itself, is an outstanding renovation but stepping out through what was once its back door one comes to the real star of the show - the new conversion. Immediately one is surrounded by glass so clear it virtually doesn't exist. It is double-glazed, argon-filled low-iron glass. The argon ensures maximum insulation and the low-iron content improves clarity by ensuring there is no visible green tint to the glass - its primary use tends to be in high quality glass dining and coffee tables. Inevitably, of course, it costs an arm and a leg. "When I had the original quote it was way out of our budget," says Adrian, "so I did the installation myself by bringing a spider crane into the courtyard. It was pretty nerve-wracking but it worked."

It certainly did. Outside the back door there is a small glass hall - glass wall, glass ceiling - looking out over the courtyard. The floor is the original once-outside York stone but now sporting underfloor heating. In the middle of the flagstones is an unexpected fleur-de-lis ceramic tile. Adrian found it discarded down a drain during the building work and discovered that it was an early 19th century Minton encaustic tile probably from a batch made for the Temple Church in London and liberated by one of the builders.

As one begins to walk toward the coach house the glass gives way to an original wall with a lovely arched door to the courtyard. To the right are the original sheds, the first a cool but cosy white-on-white guest bedroom with a brass and iron bedstead. The pretty, arched Georgian window had clearly once been made for the space but never fitted. Adrian renovated it and completed the job. Up the stairs, off a little white galleried landing, is a wonderful en suite bathroom with roll-top bath, chic basin on an oak base made by Adrian, and pitched ceiling, the original timbers now painted white.

And so on to the pièce de résistance, the coach house itself. Even as stabling, the ground floor was an attractive space, finished to a considerably higher standard than most - the supporting timbers elegantly finished and their cross beams finely arched. The walls are mainly attractive oak panelling and remainder warm brick. At one end of the room are the original hay feeders and mangers, now, like all the woodwork, sandblasted and pristine. The floor is the original herringbone brick but the bricks were laid on their sides and too thick for underfloor heating, so Adrian took it up, hand-cut every brick and relaid it.

The lights are an outstanding solution to electric light in a space that at best originally had a lantern or two. "I thought of industrial lights you see a lot in kitchens these days but they weren't really right so I went for something that didn't have connotations of use or period," says Adrian. The solution was to use chains to suspend large Historic Lighting filament bulbs - clear bulbs where the filament is an attractive feature in itself - without any kind of lampshade. They're also equally effective in smaller sizes particularly in industrial-style lights.

The great three-metre table, surrounded by village hall and folding chairs, came from Devon and has an excellent supporting cast of fascinating pieces around the room including an old sandblasted work bench that now serves as a sideboard and supports a beautiful equine bronze by Dawn Benson, an old and chunky film set light Adrian bought at Spitalfields and converted, a terrific classic jukebox, a butcher's block from a chef friend, and, of course, Snowy Bullseye, a light-up white English bull terrier which wears the collar of a much-loved but sadly departed family friend.

And so upstairs to the spectacular space that was once the hay loft and here again all the original features have been retained down to the slots through which the hay was dropped to the feeders below. The undisputed heroes of the space, though, are the superb 230-year-old timbers, every inch now sandblasted and lovingly waxed by hand to a honeyed glow. The only part of the building the couple were unable to save were the floorboards that have now been replaced with irregular-sized painted boards.

At the kitchen end the unit bases came from Howdens but the steel and rough oak surfaces were designed and made by Adrian. At the other end of the room is the relax-and-chill area with deep leather sofas from the Sofa Workshop and Trading Boundaries in Fletching. Here, too, is the window - once the hay-loading bay - that the planner wanted changed to opaque glass. "Strangely enough the opaque glass works much better," says Amy. "The railing and the end of the gutter outside casts a lovely pattern on the glass so we're glad she suggested it."

Considering the complexity and originality of the conversion and the Grade II listing of the building, it is little short of amazing that the only compromise Amy and Adrian had to make was this one tiny suggestion. The wholesale acceptance of their plans is a tribute to their imagination and meticulous attention to detail. The exceptional success of the finished project is a further tribute - to their sympathy and over riding desire to cherish and protect a lovely example of our Georgian heritage. And, in the words of the Prophet, you can't teach that.

Address Book:

  • words John Graham-Hart
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming