Case Study: A Thoughtful Restoration

Plans to refresh a residence in a former chapel turned into a labour of love and a thoughtful restoration.

Owner Gayle Plunkett and her husband moved from Cairns, Queensland, to Tasmania in 2013, purchasing the former manse in Deloraine for their home. When a chapel next door came on the market, they jumped at the chance to buy the property given its historical link to their own home.

“Our original intention was to lease the property, but the more we delved into the history and fabric of the chapel, the more we appreciated how special the place was,” said Ms Plunkett.​​

The 1860s Baptist Chapel had been used as a residence since the 1960s. During that time, the interior fit out of the day with thick carpet, heavy curtains, layers of acrylic paint and, externally, soil pushed high against exterior walls, had created a damp issue that needed to be addressed.

Rising damp is a common problem in old buildings as many were constructed without damp proof courses. As salt in the soil is drawn into the wall, salt crystals form and cause the masonry to break down. To address the situation, Ms Plunkett removed the barrow loads of soil and inserted French drains to further direct water away from the wall. The bottom 1000mm of external render and up to 1400mm internal render, which had visible signs of decay from salt, was removed and replaced with new render made with lime in the traditional way.

Internally, the situation was more dire. “We had intended not to touch the lath and plaster walls but when we exposed the floor we discovered that the timber floor framing was sitting on the wet foundations and a dry fungal rot had taken hold, and, the walls had no bottom plates and sat directly onto the affected flooring. We managed to take off only the bottom 300mm of lath and plaster to install a bottom plate and replaced the original with matching materials and finish.”

Removing the original joists, bearers and the floor boards in the main room was also not what Ms Plunkett had in mind, but was a necessary step to eliminate the potential of the dry rot spreading to other timbers in the building. Even every loose scrap of timber under the floor had to be removed.

“We did as much as was needed to reverse the issue of damp, mould and rot, but kept all the original fabric that was not affected.”

With the problems remedied, the remainder of the works was more straight forward, though no less slow and steady.

Baptist churches are usually very austere with little decoration. The original foot print of the building was a central meeting room, with a hat room and second smaller room. There were no religious icons or stained glass windows, and the full-immersion baptismal bath was external at the front of Chapel, and part of it may still exist below ground.

Later extensions of a Victorian era verandah and, in the 1930s, an additional room for toilet facilities at the rear, provided the simple solution of using the original rooms as living and sleeping areas to protect the integrity of the place, and centralising amenities in the enclosed verandah and rear addition.

As Ms Plunkett reflects on her restoration journey, she is pleased that the Chapel’s original front door still hangs today as the entry to the main meeting (now living room) space and that people can still congregate around the original fireplace. She is even more pleased with the experiences shared with the tradespeople.

“We had a number of young people working on the site. Being part of their introduction to traditional skills and seeing how proud they were of the results of their work was very rewarding.

“This became a labour of love and we tried our darnedest to do our best”. It seems the local community and visitors agree.

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