‘Seize the day’ is the common translation of the classic Latin phrase. One day I’d like to do that… we’ve all been there. Things we’d like to do, places we want to visit, and experiences we would love to try. Turning these one-day ideas into reality, well sometimes life just seems to either drift or we let it get in the way. The trick is just to make a start. Do something. It can be anything, it doesn’t have to be a big profound life-changing event. It can be the simplest of things.
You always have to start somewhere. My somewhere has turned out to be my latest design project. The hardest of starts for me was to just say yes to taking it on!
‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step…’
This will be a project that’s going to take me on a journey way out of my comfort zone as I’ve bought an old disused Church Mission Hall on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides for a building design refurbishment project.
No safety net
Typically with property purchases in the UK, apart from the money, it’s all about location, location, location. Proximity to schools, shops, amenities, services and commuting distance. In this case, these kinds of considerations were not my priority which was in itself liberating.
My building is in another country. In fact, it’s on an island in the North Atlantic that I had never actually been to before! Technically it’s nearer to Norway or Iceland than London or Hastings. All I knew about it was from the scant piece of estate agent waffle coupled with the three poor-quality images posted on their website. Still, it was enough for me to take a chance and buy it.
It’s refreshing, exciting and scary all at the same time, but that is a good place to be. Only time will tell how this all works out in the end… nothing ventured, nothing gained right?
I had been busy trying to save as much as I could over the last few years for an opportunity such as this. Fair to say, over that time I hadn’t actually accumulated all that much. It wouldn’t even buy me a garage where I live in Hastings!
However, it was literally all I had. Time to buckle up and go all in. There are no loans, no mortgages (and no hidden treasures or family heirlooms as you so often see on TV!) to fall back on. If I fail, there is no safety net. Maybe that’s a good motivator? It certainly helps bring clarity and focus to decision-making.
Moon on a stick
Initially, I had been searching for buildings in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Italy and some Eastern European countries too. Plenty of interesting buildings in all of the countries. However with the uncertainty over the rules and regulations post-Brexit, language, visas and paperwork, eventually I felt this was not the best option for me. This narrowed the search back to the UK.
My net was cast wide, nothing was ruled out. Nuclear bunkers, water storage tanks, abattoirs, coastguard huts, cattle sheds, old petrol stations, churches, factory units, utility buildings, workshops, and pretty much anything that had walls or a footprint on or under the ground, were an option to be explored or considered.
So not only did I have a limited amount of money, but I also wanted the added challenge of trying to reimagine or repurpose an existing building or structure into something different. Something it wasn’t originally intended to be. Using an old structure with potentially a different use purpose, and seeing if it could be transformed into something new. Without constraints, design can often lack genuine challenges. It’s like having a blank sheet of paper where everything and anything is possible. Where’s the fun in that?
When you have a pre-existing structure, you have a starting point. Environmentally it is also good to reuse as much as possible, even if that means a whole building! Why build new when you already have a structure that could be reused? Plus, I really like the idea of bringing new life into abandoned buildings. I know it’s not for everyone, but remember this is my dream, yours might be something very different. Mine might sound like a complete nightmare to you!
As a graphic designer, creating or building a brand for a client is my normal kind of client design project. However, now I’m the client and this is not graphic design. It’s a mix of architecture, interior design and construction. In this instance of brand building, the building itself will be my own kind of physical brand expression. It will be the culmination of different creative ideas I’ve nurtured over a long period of time. It’s a project that for once won’t be printed or hosted online. This project will be built, used and lived in. The challenge is to turn my ideas and concepts into a built, usable reality. So, no pressure there then!
Special kind of ordinary
The small mission hall is a fairly innocuous building that comes with a long disused bus shelter! I know some interested parties simply wanted to knock the structures down. Start afresh, clean slate, no limitations, just build a bigger building to suit their desires. People wondered if this was my intention too. It’s not. I liked the fact that it was a very plain, ordinary-looking building. It fits in perfectly with the buildings on the Isle of Lewis. You would not think twice when passing it by. It’s very simple, plain and understated.
Mission Halls on Lewis generally look just like like this. They seemed to follow the exact same design template. This one was built by local members of the community (in approx. 1913) to be used by the members of the community. I loved the heritage, narrative and connection that the building has with the community it sits within. Why would I want to lose any of that?
I don’t want an externally ostentatious building. The understated exterior will make a great foil for some of the ideas I’d like to carry out internally. I want to embrace, and in some cases repurpose as much of this heritage into something that works in the 21st century too! It’s going to be a creative challenge for sure, but that’s the whole point of the building for me.
It took months and months for the various legal necessities and paperwork to complete before I could finally say that I actually owned the building. Even writing that now feels strange. Hard to believe it has finally come to fruition. With the money transferred and a completion date set, I was now the proud owner of a Small Mission Hall in the Outer Hebrides!
I had just come back from a pretty epic road trip to an amazing vintage VW car show in Hessisch Oldendorf in Germany when everything with the sale was completed. Just enough time to get back to the UK, wash my clothes, re-pack my bag and set off again to see exactly what I had let myself in for. Good job I like road trips!
Arriving at the building for the second time ever was a very strange sensation. It was still taking time to sink in that I had actually bought it, and that this was now mine! It even comes with its very own defunct bus shelter and store to the side of the building – just so you know, in my mind that’s a really cool thing!
Rather than my more touristy, sightseeing first visit to the Outer Hebrides, this was a working trip for me this time. There were lots and lots of things to try and get done. At the moment the building had no services in terms of electricity, drainage or water supply. In the past, it did have electricity, so the connection was there, but it had been disconnected many years ago.
I had spoken with the previous supplier (SSE) who assured me that this was no problem and that it could be reconnected within 24 hours… sadly this turned out to be not the case! They were horrendously slow and really awful with their communication. I ended up being here for the whole month and was still no closer to having any electricity in the building! Fortunately, I had plenty of other things to keep me occupied! Good job I also had off-grid capabilities in my camper too, it made camping on-site a little easier!
Reduce | reuse | recycle
One of the first things to do was to clear the interior space of the building. I wanted to see the reality of the actual space I have to play with design-wise. The pre-existing mission hall interior was very basic. A small entrance lobby space with a low ceiling and a part dividing wall that was used to create a cupboard/storage area behind it. The main hall was also a single-volume space, however with a part vaulted ceiling. The room consisted of a small raised pulpit-type area at the front and then two rows of pews on either side of the central walkway. That’s it, building tour is complete, that is all there is! Around 35 square metres of space to play with. It’s going to be an interesting challenge.
The pews were not ornate pieces of oak with elaborate decorative carvings. These were far more rustic and utilitarian in nature. The Mission Hall would have been built on limited funds using basic available materials. Still, they were part of the building’s heritage and narrative and could be used in its future refurbishment. They would be a good source of aged timber that I could potentially reimagine or repurpose into other aspects of the building’s interior design moving forward. So my plan was to break these down and initially store them until I had worked out what they could be reused for.
The windows were not stained glass. They were totally rotten standard wooden windows and in one case, broken and boarded up. These will not be reused. In fact, I’m more surprised they have lasted as long as they have! I plan to upgrade these anyway to double or probably triple-glazed units.
I will need to apply for planning permission and a change of use for the building. Because of this, much of the building will need to be brought up-to-date with current Scottish Building standards in regard to insulation and accessibility requirements. This in itself could well present quite a few design (and financial) challenges moving forward!
There were also lots of admin types of things to do on this first proper visit to the building. I arranged meetings with the local council planning and building control departments. Had meetings with local contractors and found out about getting the mission hall registered as a building so that it actually existed on the national address database systems. It wasn’t currently on the Post Office address records, no big thing I thought, but apparently, it is.
Being on the system is an essential component to dealing with a whole range of other utility and council services that I will be needing to connect with moving forward. Like many things with this project, every day will be a school day!
Getting it registered and on the system required the building to have a name or number. Speaking with various local people, I wanted to find out what it was locally known as. It soon became clear there was a consensus and a clear winner emerged. No building number was needed, it was generally known as the Small Mission Hall.
Small Mission Hall
This was the name I have now registered the building as. Way cooler than having a number! It takes a little time to propagate on the various UK address databases, but I got all the requirements sorted in the end and even received my very first letter in my newly fitted post box! I have big plans for the Small Mission Hall moving forward. Having established its written postal address identity, I couldn’t help but come up with its own visual design identity too!
My first stint of time working at the building went by quickly before I was required to go back to work on a London-based graphics project. At least I have made a start, as that’s often the hardest thing to do. In this case, there are going to be many much harder challenges to come. Can’t wait to come back and work on the next phase of the refurbishment.
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