This old mill beat the odds to be transformed into a beautiful home.
Restoring one of the outbuildings of a nineteenth-century paper mill gave the couple the countryside home they were looking for. Image: Thomas Stewart
Ian and Sophie Cooper’s experience of converting a series of Grade II listed mill buildings into a family home is defined by the scale and complexity of the project.
The couple were drawn to the building when making plans for a move to a rural area. They wanted a change from their fast-paced city life and a quick internet search for ‘old mill building’ threw up The Apprentice Store. The couple first visited the site in September 2003.
‘Each time we came to look at this place, we'd both get butterflies,’ said Sophie. So despite the risks involved in taking on such a complicated project, a deal was struck to buy the property in April 2005, and Ian and Sophie’s new life started to take shape.
The house was designed around an old maple tree, with the windows at the front framing views of it. Image: Thomas Stewart
A colourful past
The property had an illustrious history, starting out as a single ancillary building for the adjacent De Montalt Paper Mill complex, which not only boasted England’s largest waterwheel in its 1820s heyday, but also supplied the coloured papers used by the artist JMW Turner. The building had been gradually added to over the course of 200 years and the Apprentice Store had evolved into four conjoined buildings – two barns, a cowshed and what had been the mill apprentices' workshop. Come the twenty-first century, however, it had been derelict for decades and put on the local council’s buildings at risk list.
Making it safe
Although it’s situated in a stunning area of Somerset countryside, the Grade-II listed mill was sliding down the steep hillside and the worry was that it could collapse at any moment. The house of Ian and Sophie’s dreams could have disappeared before their very eyes before they’d even had chance to start work on it.
Before the couple’s grand plans for the renovation could get underway, it was essential to make it structurally safe. The lean-to section of the building – the latest addition – was removed for safety reasons and then a lengthy and costly process of underpinning the main structure began. In some parts of the building there were no foundations to speak of, with the building simply resting on top of unstable loose clay. At this point, the slightest movement in the soil could have been disastrous. Cue a few very nervous weeks as the delicate process of sinking huge concrete piles underneath the property was completed.
Creating the vision
Although the Apprentice Store already had detailed planning permission when Ian and Sophie bought it, it just didn’t suit the kind of lifestyle the couple had envisaged for their new home. ‘There was no function or thought given to the original design,’ said Ian. ‘The living room was intended to be where our bedroom is, which has less of a view and the kitchen was in one of the darker guest bedrooms.’ For them, it was more about creating sociable spaces where they could enjoy spending time as a family, while making the most of those magnificent views. ‘We knew we wanted an open-plan area for the main living room,’ said Sophie. ‘We live in the kitchen and often have friends over for dinner, and it also had to be somewhere we could watch the children running around in the garden.’
The striking chimney breast was inspired by an industrial chimney nearby Image: Thomas Stewart
West-London-based Threefold Architects were tasked with getting Ian and Sophie’s vision for this place through planning, ensuring that the huge number of conditions relating to the listed building consent were met along the way. ‘We wanted to avoid creating a pastiche barn conversion and tried to be true to the evolving history of the site,’ said Threefold’s Matt Driscoll. Their new design included a main open-plan living space that would be housed in the rebuilt lean-to section of the building, a double-height hallway complete with an industrial steel walkway linking the various parts of the house, private work areas, a generous bedroom suite, large expanses of glazing and access to an outdoor deck from the main living space.
One of the main sticking points for the council’s planning department concerned the couple’s plans to divide up the eastern end of the property where the apprentice workshops had been into three ground floor guest bedrooms. ‘We used an archaeologist to prove that the space had once been subdivided – we got copies of old maps, so that the planners had to agree,’ said Ian. As a concession, clerestory glass had to be put in at the top of the walls dividing the three rooms, to allow some visual continuity through this part of the house.
The windows in the main bedroom were reglazed with a new, ultra-thin double-glazing to fit the existing window opening. Image: Thomas Stewart
Use of glazing
The clever use of glazing is one of the most important elements of this project, with six, four-metre sections of glass running along the southern elevation to open up the house to its surroundings. Elsewhere, the couple were keen to include more double glazing to make the property as thermally efficient as possible, but listing restrictions meant that standard double-glazing units weren’t allowed to be used on existing window openings. To remedy this, the architects researched the latest technologies and came across a revolutionary product that had been used extensively on Edinburgh’s listed buildings. A super-thin double-glazed unit just 10mm thick (compared to 28mm for most standard units) it can be fitted into most single-glazed openings, meaning it retains the historic aesthetic while maximising the building’s thermal performance.
After sending samples of this special, argon-filled double glazing to the council for their approval, Ian and Sophie were given the go ahead to use it in their building, including the 24 windows of the main bedroom. Kevin McCloud was particularly impressed with how thin the material, recognising its benefits for other listed building renovations.
In addition to the cutting-edge technologies and the use of industrial-looking materials such as the steel staircase, the couple were eager to re-use as many materials as possible to help retain the original feel of the building. The flagstones in the hallway are from the old lean-to part of the house, and as many of the original Bridgewater roof tiles were also recycled.
This clever mix of old and new materials and subtle variations in colour is clearly something that impressed Kevin. ‘One of the other things Kevin said he liked was the fact we were creating something rather more Scandinavian-looking than English country cottage,’ said Ian. ‘We have a very simple colour palette and clean lines, using materials such as the original local Bath Stone and the Douglas fir frame for the lean-to.’ Indeed, the flashes of colour are reserved for the bright orange kitchen at one end and a lime green desk from furniture designer Jennifer Newman in the study at the other end.
The bright orange kitchen, one of the few injections of colour in the interior, blends with the natural shade of the Douglas fir beams Image: Thomas Stewart
The finished walkway of perforated metal with glass balustrading provides a circulatory route around the building on different levels and gives Ian and Sophie some great vantage points to admire the results of their design vision. They can pause in the middle of the walkway, where the original dividing floor was removed to create the double-height space to truly appreciate the stunning light sculpture by Canadian company Bocci in the hallway beneath, or turn around to see the attention to structural detail that went into the Douglas fir framework in the lean-to that makes the crucial link between old and new. ‘It’s not been thrown together, but it’s a home above all, not a show home,’ said Ian. And with such gorgeous views of the fields in the valley below, there’s clearly no place like it.
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