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How a chapel on the Suffolk border became a beautiful home

PUBLISHED: 17:28 13 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:57 20 February 2013

Lime green euphorbias, clipped boxwood topiary balls and a pathway edged with lavender create a neat and modern approach to the Chapel porch in the lovely garden designed by Lisa Finch

Lime green euphorbias, clipped boxwood topiary balls and a pathway edged with lavender create a neat and modern approach to the Chapel porch in the lovely garden designed by Lisa Finch

Interior designer Dawn Howell brought all her skill and vision to bear when converting a former Methodist chapel on the Suffolk/Norfolk border into a stunning family home

Interior designer Dawn Howell brought all her skill and vision to bear when converting a former Methodist chapel on the Suffolk/Norfolk border into a stunning family home



Words: JANE GRAINING


Photographs: KAREN BHULLAR




The village of Metfield is located close to the borders of Suffolk and Norfolk. These days its a highly recognisable name because of the popularity of the breads and cakes made by Metfield Bakery, the first organic bakery in East Anglia.
Dawn Nowell bought the old Methodist Chapel in the village in 2007, having ridden past it for years.
I used to do the annual church cycle route which went past the Chapel and often admired it. As soon as I heard it was up for sale I decided to go and investigate further, eventually buying it at auction. The Chapel was built in 1866. Its a lovely solid building, very well made in red and white brick with a slate roof and has ten beautiful sash windows. Also it had all the services connected, water, electricity etc which made it a more viable project to take on.
A Primitive Methodist Chapel, in recent years it had been divided in two with the front half used for religious services and the rest as a village hall. As the congregation gradually dwindled away and with the far gable end bowing out, the building was obviously in need of repair and the decision was made to sell.
Dawn is an interior designer and project manager who has worked on commercial assignments for hotels and barn conversions for holiday lets and also on design and decoration in private homes. Her interest in interiors really kicked off when she took a specialist paint course some years ago.
My son was very young and I started by painting childrens chairs for him and friends, and friends of friends. Then I moved on to painting murals first in childrens bedrooms then in living and dining rooms the whole thing just evolved.
The conversion of the Chapel to make it work as a comfortable, up to date living space was a challenge, but one that Dawn was entirely happy with.
I have worked on many different projects over the years and love working with a building, playing with the space and the construction within the space, whilst retaining the integrity of the building.
Before any work could begin the interior had to be gutted and cleared. The partition divider was removed, as was a false ceiling covered in pink fibre board. The original ceiling was still there with lovely mouldings but it was in a terrible state so it had to come out too. There was, however, a bonus in that the wonderfully dramatic shape of the roof and all the beams were finally on view.




I was on site every day and worked as an unskilled labourer at weekends, clearing the site of debris and rubble so it was ready for the builders to come in on Monday.





Other major works included replacing the incongruous flat roof on the back extension, which now houses a wet room and utility room, with a pitched roof and repairing the weights and ropes of the huge sash windows.
The original wooden floor, which was completely rotten, had to be dug out and they had to excavate to allow for insulation and underfloor heating throughout.
Dawn worked with craftsman builder Ivan Philpott, with whom she has collaborated on lots of other projects. He is very skilled. Its like having three men on site! she says. Ivan built the centrepiece of the Chapel, a fabulously sculptural staircase which curves in a gentle helix, up to the mezzanine floor being cleverly supported by a hidden metal frame made by Easitron at Linstead.
Dawn is a great advocate of using the skills of local trades like that of structural engineer Adam Power and Nick Bailey who collaborated on the design of the mezzanine which has two bedrooms, a bathroom and a spacious landing.
Lots of conversions of ecclesiastical buildings have a galleried floor which extends the entire width of the space and intrudes into the windows. I really didnt want that, Dawn explains. Instead they built a structure about a metre in from the side walls which is supported by columns ingeniously devised so that now, plastered and painted white, they disappear into the wall space.
As someone who likes to get her hands dirty, Dawn was very involved with every stage of the conversion. I was on site every day and worked as an unskilled labourer at weekends, clearing the site of debris and rubble so it was ready for the builders to come in on Monday. She relished being so involved with the work she says, and I was working on a tight budget so every little helped.
The interior decoration and design she kept very simple. I like a building to be shown in all its glory, to stand on its own and for everything else to be a quiet backdrop creating calm, relaxing interiors.
The most important element was light! Walls and ceilings throughout are white. The key was to walk into the Chapel and be aware of the full magnificent 34ft height of the building in all its glory with the timbers showing and light flooding in through the stunning curved windows.
She had shutters made and painted white, which fold back into the window recesses when not in use, and used oak for floors, worktops in the kitchen, stair treads and window ledges and doors so nothing jars and the design theme follows through.
Furniture, like the oatmeal sofas on the ground floor, are in neutral, subtle tones but accessories like cushions have covers in fresh clean greens and blue hues echoing the colours of the surrounding countryside. The artworks are bold screen prints and oils in strong colours and graphic shapes by her friend the artist Mary Webb, who is mounting a major exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in 2012.
The piece de resistance of the Chapel is the clever lighting and audio visual system which took months to wire and plan creating a six zone lighting system with hidden speakers throughout and technology in place which can be easily updated as and when. Recessed lights in the oak window sills, flooring and sides of the staircase create a soft ambient light at night, while the huge white origami lampshades hung from the main joists bring texture and cast a dramatic pattern of shadow over the smooth white walls.
The Methodist Chapel has a new lease of life and has been converted in keeping with the strength and spirit of the fine craftsmanship of the original building.
Its been a labour of love, Dawn admits, but one that I have totally enjoyed.

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