A spiritual renovation


A passion for saving old houses meant that Glasgow architect Emma Jane literally took her work home with her, with an old church officer’s property


For some time, Emma had been searching for a renovation project when in 2019 she came across a former church officer’s house in Glasgow’s Shawlands. “I was after something unique,” she recalls. “I had looked at an old manse on Mull and a former Forestry Commission cottage near Perth, but I was outbid on both. I was rather disillusioned when I looked on the Church of Scotland property website and saw this.”

With a busy work schedule and no time to view in the week before Christmas, Emma called on her parents to step in and do the viewing for her. “They said it’s a total wreck, you’ll love it! And I did.”

Emma took ownership in February 2020 and by this point had given up her role as an architect in a city centre practice. “I really wanted to specialise as a conservation architect, and I was offered a job as a planning officer in Helensburgh. The role was part-time which I thought would allow me to renovate the house and keep earning. However, within a month they’d offered me a full-time job.”

What was supposed to be a six-month renovation ended up taking 18 months. “Even without the change in my working circumstances and the pandemic, with a property like this there’s never a job you do that you think should only take a day. I think I spent six months sanding woodwork!”

The trade-off however was dealing with the property’s twists and quirks. “I think that’s what attracted me; it’s so unusual and also the fact that it’s a main door in the heart of Shawlands with a private courtyard.” The property is indeed a one-off with original sash and case windows to the front which mirror the facade of the church next door. At the rear the sandstone gives way to white glazed brick in which nestles a narrow turret window overlooking the quirky enclosed courtyard.

Built in 1912, the B-listed property was the last of the church accommodation to be built, as Emma explains: “The church hall at the back came first, then the tenement, then the main church building, and then the church officer’s house. It’s a funny little infill.”

The house itself is three storeys. On the ground floor there’s a sitting room which runs the length of the building, in the basement is a WC, kitchen with access to the courtyard, and upstairs are two bedrooms and a bathroom.

When Emma moved in, the property was connected to the church by a door halfway up the stairs. “There’s a notched step on the stairs and that’s where the door used to be. The stopcock for the church was also in this property and we had to relocate that as well.”

Starting a renovation during Covid also proved challenging. “My first idea was to work from top to bottom, but I quickly realised the kitchen was going to be the biggest job.” Emma’s dad started ripping out the kitchen but as it was during lockdown, the tips weren’t open to get rid of the rubbish. Their solution was to fill the rubble bags, put them in her Land Rover and trailer, drive over to her parents and store the bags in their garden. When lockdown lifted, all these bags had to go back in the Land Rover and be ferried to the tip.

Access was also an issue as the house; its staircases are so narrow that anything too big or bulky required access through the church hall at the rear of the courtyard and then through the church itself. “Thankfully, the pastor at the church was really lovely. She saw the house when I moved in, and she’s blown away with how it looks now.”

While Emma was keen to get cracking on the kitchen once she started, plans began to evolve. With everything ripped out, the basement went back to earth and brick. “We removed the walls and then tried to push everything back as far as we could. There was a big upstand behind the kitchen cabinets, and I didn’t plan the dog leg either, it was just going to go around the corner, but then I realised we needed more space to fit in the appliances. When I thought about the seating nook it made sense to put the heating pipes underneath to create a toasty bench.”

The spongy timber floor was beyond saving, but by removing it, Emma was able to gain a further 5 cm in height in the room. “It doesn’t seem much, but it makes an enormous difference in a basement.” The timber was then replaced with a damp-proof course, an insulated screed, normal screed and then flagstones. “They were a mission! We had to carry every single one down the stairs. They’re incredibly heavy and so thick, and after they were laid, we had to seal each one twice.”

This wasn’t the only change in the basement. The kitchen door was removed and made into an archway. The original WC – which you couldn’t stand up in – was made into a cloakroom and a new WC was created at the bottom of the stairs. The only structural change was the addition of a lintel for the downstairs WC for which a building warrant was required. 

Fortunately for Emma, drainage wasn’t an issue as it came straight down from the upstairs bathroom, and she was able to tap into that. However, she did have to resolve the issue of pipes and floor levels. “Initially we were going to have to build a step into the loo which I didn’t want. I decided to fit the toilet marginally higher and that solved the problem. It’s not excessively high so that you’d notice.” The sink is fitted in the former access hatch to the kitchen which they no longer required. “It is still a compact loo, but your knees don’t hit the door in this one!”

Upstairs, the main bathroom is rather more spacious thanks to its new layout. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to find so I went back to the bare brick walls.” However, Emma got more than she bargained for when she removed some of the plasterboard and realised she could actually see into the church. After some remedial work, privacy was restored, and Emma swapped the location of the sink and WC to create more floor space. The bath is still in its original location, but the sink was under the window, and “you almost had to step over the loo to get to it.” The walls went in and out, so they brought the shower wall forward to make the room more uniform.

In the two bedrooms, the built-in wardrobes were removed, floors sanded, and some
budget-savvy decor was introduced. “I love William Morris wallpaper, but it’s so expensive so in the front bedroom I used it like a frieze which gave me the effect without the huge expense.” The panelling is all original and most of the furniture was bought at auction. “The back bedroom is my favourite room, as when the church is lit up you get a beautiful glow through the stained-glass windows.”

Throughout the house anything that was original, and that Emma could retain, she has – even down to its external colour scheme. When she bought the house it was red, but it had previously been green. “I had to prove to Historic Environment Scotland that the house originally had green woodwork – thankfully a bit of paint removal proved my point.”

Emma was so keen to get the colour as true to the original as possible that she wandered the streets of Glasgow looking at front doors and putting notes through letter boxes asking what shade of green the owners had used. “People did reply to me and eventually the colour I settled on that was closest to the original is the same shade as my trusty Land Rover, Hilda!”

Of course, before the painting could begin all the sash and case windows were removed and refurbished with new ironmongery and sashes. The internal solid wooden doors were also stripped of the hardboard that covered them, and have been dipped and stripped, and the floors have been repaired, sanded and painted.

Emma was also determined to make the most of her unique outdoor space, but it required some seriously hard graft. Her initial idea was to create a grass section broken up with railway sleepers, but when she found 500 reclaimed bricks on Gumtree she changed her plans and decided to build a wall instead. The jury is still out on the logistics of getting railway sleepers to the courtyard as opposed to painstakingly carrying the bricks through the front door, down the spiral staircase, through the kitchen and out into the courtyard. The chippings were also a Gumtree find but they all had to be laboriously cleaned using a hose connected to the upstairs bathroom tap. However, once the roughcast wall was painted and Emma taught herself to build a pergola, the courtyard came into its own.

“It’s so private, nobody really overlooks you because of the angles of the other buildings and the shrubbery. Sometimes there’s band practice on in the church and it’s lovely to sit out in the courtyard and listen.” She is very proud of the pergola which she built herself; the mirror inside it is from a sliding door which was part of the built-in wardrobes in the bedrooms. “It was so difficult getting things in and out of the house that anything I could reuse I did.”

Unfortunately, when it came to installing the new Wren kitchen, there was no opportunity to upcycle, and Emma had to request permission to take the flat pack kitchen through the church, into the church hall and then transport it across her courtyard into the reconfigured basement. “I actually don’t think the kitchen was in the basement when the house was first built. There are hints that downstairs was more of a storage area and I think the kitchen was part of the sitting room on the ground floor although there really wouldn’t have been much space.”

This 18 month project has certainly been a labour of love, but Emma is also very grateful for the help she did have help. “I had a wonderful tradesman – Ger from GM Property Maintenance. He carried out all the professional trades and the structural works and he taught my brother and I to do the screeding.” Emma’s family were also a huge help and kept onside with lots of cups of tea and cakes. “My family have been my back up team especially as I thought I would have a lot more time to do
this myself. Fortunately, my brother really likes sanding floors!

“On the positive side, I think during Covid this project has kept us all sane. Despite it being demanding work, most of the time we were smiling, having a laugh and my dog went back to my parents most days covered in paint!”

This house has been a great project for Emma’s portfolio but with her new job also comes new possibilities. “I’m loving living here but now I know I can work from home I can work anywhere. New possibilities are opening up and I would like to find another quirky property to save. I think my next move might be more rural, a croft perhaps?”