Schoolhouse, synagogue or mill: the case for conversion

An old schoolhouse, a former synagogue and a disused mill are attractive propositions for those willing to transform them for residential use. But are conversions worth all the effort?

We've all worshipped at the altar of TV's property restoration programmes, from Kevin McCloud's Grand Designs to Dermot Bannon's Room to Improve, observing the highs and lows of an often stressful process, and watching other people's money disappear as they try to convert unloved buildings into warm and welcoming homes.

Architect Andrew Lohan, of Design Space, has garnered plenty of experience converting a Church of Ireland church and a primary school, both in a small townland outside Westport, Co Mayo.

The church, called Kilgallán, featured on Grand Designs, where presenter McCloud described it as "the best church conversion I have ever seen", because, he said, Lohan "preserved and exposed the old materials, mixed in more modern ones, and designed in the new bedrooms and living spaces without destroying the feeling of the space".

Why convert?

When you buy an old church, school, barn or mill what you’re getting for your money is a sense of light and space that is absent in most modern-day builds, Lohan explains. “If you do it right, you get a home with height, character and space.”


How do you do it successfully?

When breaking up big spaces think about using walls and screens that don’t reach the roof or the side walls so that you can fit in the rooms that you need but still “feel the space” – what drew you to the building in the first place. “Work with the building to bring out its character, not cover it up,” Lohan says.

Think about the garden or outside space and its relationship to the church or school, he adds. Both usually have high window sills to stop the “audience”, the congregation or class, from getting distracted. Can the sills be cut down? Lohan did this at the school, replacing the rear windows with French doors that lead outside.

What’s involved?

A conversion costs more than a standard build. “On listed buildings you pay to preserve the character of the building both inside and outside. It doesn’t necessarily just benefit you. In a way it is for posterity as well.”

The South School, Abbelyleix

Abbeyleix’s South National School, on the outskirts of the town, was built in 1843 by Lord de Vesci to serve the Church of Ireland population in the area. Like much of the town the educational property was built in a cottage orné style incorporating beautifully carved limestone, including a date-stone recording March 1843. The protected structure is set on four acres and the 364sq m (3,922sq ft) property has an AMV of €375,000 through agents Ganly Walters. There are three rooms upstairs.

This is a huge property, Lohan says, remarking on the scale of the doors to the ceiling height. The school is still subdivided: one half for the boys, the other for the girls, as it would have been when it was constructed, with the half to the left of the exterior shot the original property built in 1843. The other half was added in 1893.

The property faces south to the front. On his own schoolhouse project Lohan removed the window sills to the rear and installed French doors to open the space up to the outdoors. With this protected structure permission to do the same is unlikely to be granted.

Lohan estimates the conversion could cost €200 per square foot, which adds up to €784,400 for the refurbishment.

The Synagogue, 46 Lombard Street West, Dublin 8

This could be a serious bachelor pad, Lohan says. “Outside, this building is not pretty but it is not a protected structure. Removing the wires from the walls, getting rid of the grey paint and the security windows, something the residential homes on the street do not have, would improve it. There is no garden or parking outside.”

“Even though it is probably the size of two standard three-bedroom houses, I could see you being able to put two bedrooms into the meeting room space to one side of the ground floor and another two into a similar space to the front. The main part of the building looks quite cold. Insulating the roof would be a priority.”

Lohan would like to open up the roof more by adding roof lights and maybe a balcony. The property measures about 308sq m (3,326sq ft) and is asking €700,000 through agent Owen Reilly. Lohan estimates that it will cost about €105 per square foot, or €350,000, for a “good quality refurbishment”.

The Old Mill, Tinahely, Co Wicklow

An old corn mill, on about three quarters of an acre, on the edge of the River Derry, in the village of Tinahely, Co Wicklow, is for sale asking €285,000 through Rathdrum-based agents PV Byrne. The property comprises several buildings including the stone and brick structure pictured. “The space is enormous, too big even for the Brady Bunch,” Lohan says. “This is more a development than a refurbishment.” He estimates it will cost from €160 per square foot but “to do a really good job you will need about €1.5 million”.; Kilgallan. com;


1.Check planning, zoning and whether the building you’d like to buy is a protected structure. If it is listed this will add to the cost of refurbishment and your dream house plans may be restricted. 2. Think about how you’re going to install services. Historically, churches often did not have water or toilets. Ask if there is enough land to install a septic tank, for instance. There are minimum permitted distances that septic tanks can be built from the building and your boundaries. 3. Ownership of graves is always retained by the church. On church grounds, rights of way to graves for relatives need to be maintained.

4. Conversions cost. You could keep costs down by living on the site during renovation but that can be a challenge. You may want to consider separate accommodation.

5.Have a contingency budget for unexpected problems – something will go wrong or things will take longer than anticipated.

6. For tall buildings like churches you will need to install a lightning conductor.

7. Churches often have covenants limiting their use. Gambling and alcohol are often not permitted, similarly using the name “The Old Church”are often not permitted.

8. Make sure you can fit what you need into the building without ruining it .