A gothic fairy tale

  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale
  • A gothic fairy tale

Brian and Elizabeth Bleakley have spent the past 10 years extending and renovating an old schoolhouse. The result is a 4,500 sqft gothic home and wedding venue, 55 yards (50m) long wall-to-wall! Serial self-builders, yes, but on the same house…

“The first part of the project involved extending and renovating the existing schoolhouse, and the house was left quite plain outside,” says Brian. “I had to concentrate on the build full time during that first stage, the subsequent extensions took less effort because we were living in a house that was completely finished. And by that time I’d forgotten how much work it entailed! During the first phase I would manage the build during the day and work late into the evenings. I work from home, so there were many late nights before I got to bed. I also did some physical work on it so it really was all-absorbing.”

The main driver to all of these home improvement projects seems to have been their love of antiques. “We continued to collect salvage over the years, even after the first stage was built. We had collected so much, we really wanted to use it, so the house kept growing, almost organically.” Indeed, when the Bleakleys completed the schoolhouse conversion in 2002, they had a stockpile of antiques left over. But what they had in mind wasn’t further extensions. “The original plan was to sell up and build a new home, but that fell through, (the site we wanted was sold by the agent to someone else without telling us!), so we decided to expand where we were.” In total, they applied for four planning permissions. “The planners liked the style of the house, and we were lucky in that everything we asked for we got!” By 2006 they had built their outbuildings and added another extension, completing the second phase.

“We ran into a lot of trouble in the first stage of the build,” said Brian. “We had a problem with nearly all of the tradesmen, nobody really knew what they were doing. Some were building in the salvage upside down! In my head I knew exactly what I wanted but communicating that was another thing! The specialists did not have the same ideas as mine so it was difficult to work with them. I hired regular tradesmen instead, and guided them through the build with my vision, and that worked out well.”

“After this experience, we were able to call on those who were reliable to work with us on the next stages of the build; I kept a list of good workers, such as the electrician and plumber. Other tradesmen were found through luck. For instance, I bumped into an old acquaintance, someone I went to school with and it turned out he’s a bricklayer/stonemason!”

“The final phase of this project was actually a last minute idea. We still had it in our head to sell and move at that stage, even though we didn’t build to sell, we wouldn’t have put as much effort as we did if we were!, we fancied the idea of moving to the northern part of England, closer to where I do most of my business. But we decided not to put the home on the market, it just didn’t seem like the right time. This was in and around 2007.”

This last phase added yet another extension, to bring the total to 4,500 sqft, completed in 2008. “We’re magpies. We collect things like antique beds, which take up a lot of room. This is a habit that demands an ever growing house! We had rented commercial storage space to warehouse it all, but costs were ridiculous, so we decided to use everything in the last upgrade, and if we couldn’t use it we decided we’d sell it. Granted, we still have a few things up in the attic but we stopped collecting to the extent that we did!”

Overall, Brian only has one minor regret. “We chose to put in standard pine upstairs, for the floors, but with hindsight I think the pitched pine would have blended in with the rest of the house a bit better. Apart from that I can’t really think of anything.”

Home schooling

The building materials on the entire build are mostly all reclaimed. “For instance, we have 16 chimney pots, each 3ft to 6ft high, luckily all with the same pattern! We went through a lot of trouble sourcing them, because we wanted to make sure the house didn’t look like it was built in different stages. We still have a few in storage just in case one breaks!” Indeed, apart from mattresses, insulation and boiler, nothing is really new in the house, with the exception of some bespoke furniture. “We found a wood carver in England who built us the Tudor style solid oak table we have in the dining room. It’s got 10 inch wide bulbous legs; it’s so heavy it took four people to shift it! Some chairs were made to match, others are original. While they’re fine for us to sit on, now that we’re renting they’re a bit too wobbly, so I’m getting them repaired. It’s something I’ve been putting off for years because it’s expensive.” Throughout the building there are hundreds of antiques, some of them original, others made by craftsman.

“We salvaged the original schoolhouse windows but since they weren’t secure enough, we kept them for internal use. In 2005, I bought 5m3 of mahogany in a salvage yard, which was half the price of the cheapest pine you could get at the time. In those days, nobody wanted dark wood so it was very cheap. I used it for doors and window frames, and then got stained glass double glazed. I had to go to four or five different joinery workshops to fill the order. The boom was on, and there was a waiting list for everything, so the companies often supplied their bigger clients first, they were working flat out. I just kept going to different joiners… if I’d stuck to just the one it would have held the schedule up, because the windows needed to be done before the bricklayer could get working. Over all three phases, the stained glass was probably the hardest job of the lot.”

“The cheapest way I found was to go to a big glazing company and give them the initial templates for the stained glass double glazing. However they would not give you a warranty on them (for normal double glazing you get 10 years as standard) and they refused to accept any responsibility when working on it. In one instance, the guys dropped them and even though they were cracked they put them in! It had to be taken apart and put back again at my expense. Then I found a local chap who stands over what he does, I paid more but at least it was done right.”

“In a regular new build, you’d normally leave a gap for the windows and the blocks can be laid around it. If the measurement is out by a few centimeters it’s ok. But getting double glazed stained glass meant the window frame had to be the exact size, so what I did was make templates for the stonemason to work with. During the builder’s holidays four summers ago, I bought four dozen sheets of 1/2 inch plywood to make 72 templates!”

“Most of the tradesmen assumed all the windows would be the same size, especially the two arches on either side of the door, but there was a variance of two to three inches. Plus, we had to be exact because the reclaimed brick and stone was to be left exposed… Inevitably some of the measurements were out, so where we did have problems, we plastered over it on the inside and we filled some of the gaps from the outside with silicone.”

The double glazing is two inches deep, which helps with energy efficiency. “The glass protrudes so we had to go for that depth. It’s beautiful to see the sunshine refract on the panes, the light really is special.” With so many windows on such a large house, the Bleakleys split up their heating requirements. “Because of the style and shape of the house it wouldn’t be cost-effective to have one heating system for the entire home, so we opted for two oil condensing boilers. Realistically there is no point in heating the whole house, so that way we only really use one of the two. There’s only so many rooms you can live in! One of the boilers heats down where we live and we also have wood burning stoves to provide spot heating where needed, and some atmosphere!”

“Due to the shape of the house, which is not square but long, it would cost more to heat. And the front and back are exposed so that also increases the heat requirement, even though the sides are well protected by vegetation. That’s why we went for very good insulation. As compared to the cost of building there really is no point in trying to make savings on insulation, the cheapest one you can get won’t save you all that much money as compared to the better performing ones.” The double height in the first extension house also drives the heating bills up, but that’s a design feature the Bleakleys wouldn’t do without. And they made up for it: “In the first phase we used slate for the floor finishes but we had trouble getting the stone to match, so in most of the new build we used black limestone, and insulated well underneath. Even on a cold day you can go around in bare feet!”


Brian says the overall cost and value of the house are hard to work out, due to having collected so much over time. “The value from a rebuild point of view is much higher than what we paid for the antiques, which we picked up over a period of 10 years. Being in the property business I’m a bit paranoid about insurance, always read the small print. Not everything might be covered. If the premium is cheap it’s probably for good reason. For our home, they wanted to come out to assess it, and they told us that the style of property to rebuild would cost twice what it would be if I were to do it all over again — it wouldn’t look exactly the same but I could recreate it. Still, they doubled our premium!”

“They have a point. For example, we ran out of stone arches for the window surrounds, in the year 2000 they cost us £150, now I can’t find them for less than £1,500! The supply has dried up so prices have skyrocketed. In the first phase of the build we bought nothing from specialised salvage yards because they were too dear, but for the other phases they were the only places which could supply them. It’s cheaper to buy things in England, but I’m always limited by only having a small van or estate car, so what we ended up doing is getting a lot of the stained glass there.”

The Bleakleys also did quite a bit of the labour intensive work themselves, which helped them save on costs. “Elizabeth really helped in the last two phases. The walls on the inside were sandblasted but we couldn’t get anyone to point them so she did it herself. And she really pulled out all the stops when it came to cleaning the 22,000 reclaimed Belfast bricks we ordered! They come in pallets, and look beautiful because they are power hosed on the outside, but inside it’s a different story… Some are more like rubble. In our case 70% to 80% were ok. The reason we cleaned them ourselves is that bricklayers tend to throw away the ones that have cement on them. You can easily have half the brick dumped that way, and a lot of skips required! The old mortar comes off easily, but the 1950s/1960s cement is a time-consuming hammer job.”

“Whether snow, rain, hail or shine we were out there, and it could get pretty rough. We paid a couple young lads to help us out but they left after a day. Unless it’s a nice summers day it really is tough. Elizabeth had to put up with the dirt, but she’s just as passionate about antiques as I am so it was all well worth it.”

What next?

“I know everyone who builds their own home says it’s unique, but ours is really very different, if only because of the amount of architectural antiques. So much so that we were going to set up a wedding venue and honeymoon retreat when the BBC told us that in order to be on the House of Year programme it had to only be a residence. So we waited to be featured on that, (where we won the merit award!), to launch the business.” In order to accommodate the guests’ needs, the rooms are multipurpose. “We have three lounges, one of which acts as both dining room and lounge. We’re very pleased with the look we have, it’s a very unique house!” And if the Bleakleys’ plans to move to England were to come to fruition, they already know how they’d go about it. “We would do a new build. I can’t wait to get started on another project! If I could do it now I think I would, just move and do it…”


70 arches, including doorways, stone reveals, etc.
72 windows, of which 42 are stained glass
9 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, 3 lounges
7 fireplaces
4 sinks and 2 ranges in the kitchen

House size: 4,500 sqft
Site size: 3/4 acre
Cost: salvaged components on whole building £100,000, construction £300,000, site £60,000
Value: Brian got the house estimated by five estate agents when it was finished, ranging from £690,000 to £1.2m! Sign of the times?

Build spec

Build type: reclaimed masonry, cavity walls
Insulation: foil backed PIR on walls, floor, and roof
Windows: custom-made double glazed stained glass, mahogany frames
U-values: not available
EPC: not available

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About Astrid Madsen

Astrid Madsen is the editor of SelfBuild & Improve Your Home magazine. She previously held the same role in an Irish trade publication, before that she worked at the National Standards Authority of Ireland. She graduated with a BA in Urban Studies from Columbia University in New York and holds an MBA from the Instituto de Estudios Bursatiles in Madrid. France of origin, she now lives in Portarlington, County Laois, where she's taken on the task of renovating a listed building! Email astrid.madsen@selfbuild.ie

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