Seeing the light

A dark and run-down Regency villa has been rebuilt ‘from the inside out,’ with a new basement level and exciting glass features which draw in the light


“When we first bought this house back in 2013 Esther and I didn’t have any children, but by the time we moved in we were married and our two sons had been born,” says Nishant. “The project took so long because we chose a complicated route – excavating a new basement on a semi-detached house in a well-known Conservation Area. It was a difficult project, especially as we’d never tackled any building work before.”

Esther and Nishant met at Harvard Business School – both now work in private equity – and had previously been living just around the corner in a small mews house which was their first home together. Planning to start a family, the couple began searching for a larger property.

The rundown four-bedroom house they found had once been divided into bedsits and was marketed as offering ‘significant potential for developing and extending, subject to the usual consents.’ Situated in the heart of South Kensington, the house stands on a characterful, tree-lined street surrounded by a mixture of early Victorian architecture, which is highly unusual for the area.

“The house was probably in the worst condition of the whole street and hadn’t been touched since the 1940s. It had been owned by a couple who were trying to renovate it themselves on a DIY basis,” says Nishant. “Being in complete disrepair meant that it was very well priced, but there was just one functioning bathroom and no proper kitchen, so they were using hot plates to prepare food.”

Purchasing the house proved a long, drawn-out process, and the couple then approached several architects to discuss their ideas, but realised that gaining planning permission for these ambitious designs would be impractical. Visible external alterations were restricted by the sensitive nature of the setting, and the four-storey property was divided into a warren of small, dark rooms, with limited ceiling height on the lower ground floor.

“The location had a huge impact on what we could do and gaining planning permission proved to be quite an epic struggle,” says Nishant. “Typically, this type of house can be dark, particularly in the entrance hallway, so introducing light was our top priority. As we couldn’t build upwards, we went down and created a basement with an extra bedroom and bathroom, a TV room and utility.”

Nishant is Indian-American and Esther is German-American. Experience of homes in their respective countries coloured their aspirations and helped to inspire a love of simple, modern, open interiors. “Having so many storeys and stairs isn’t ideal for a family, but we hoped that creating light, bright spaces would help to counteract the vertical nature of the house,” explains Nishant.

Cox Architects seeks to provide creative and practical solutions to architecture, landscaping, and interior design briefs – from the smallest residential refurbishment project to large newbuild houses – and the practice was challenged to transform the damp, dark, tightly enclosed house into an open, light-filled five-bedroom family home. At the same time, Esther and Nishant wanted to increase floor space with a new basement, modernise all services, and massively improve the building’s long-term energy performance.

“‘The pit’ was their name for the shallow yard at the back of the house, and the existing staircase was taking up valuable floor space and complicating the plan, while the building’s small side wing was underused and dysfunctional,” explains architect Steve Cox.

“We needed to obtain consent in a Conservation Area to alter the side wing, and thereby unlock potential. Planning permission was achieved to extend and raise the wing, and the new staircase became the signature note for the entire house.”

In addition to gaining Conservation Area consent, planning and Building Control approval, and producing a detailed design, Cox Architects also tendered for and selected the building contractor – project managing the entire process from start to finish. Party wall agreements were also needed from the neighbouring flats before work could go ahead.

“We were very much guided by Steve, who is a perfectionist, and carefully designed every detail,” says Nishant. “Having someone who was so involved and invested in our project really took the pressure off and allowed us to enjoy the process.”

The 185 square metre house was completely rebuilt from the inside out, and 46 square metres of basement added to create a five-storey, five-bedroom family home with two double reception rooms and four bathrooms. The main concerns were to bring as much natural light to the interiors as possible while upgrading the entire building to modern standards of service and finish.

Lionhead Construction was engaged as the main contractor for the project, working with their in-house team of tradespeople together with external specialists and subcontractors, such as the glazing supplier and staircase manufacturer.

“The first stage was the demolition, stripping out the interiors to the bare walls, and then the digging, which was the biggest challenge,” recalls Nishant. As the house is located on a narrow street, and has a small front and rear garden – servicing the site, taking away earth, delivering and storing materials were challenging for the builder, particularly during the excavation of the basement. Fortunately, this issue was eased somewhat when a neighbour kindly offered the use of their driveway for deliveries.

“Mechanical excavation was out of the question for most of the time, so huge volumes of heavy London clay and gravel had to be dug by hand and removed bit by bit via the narrow street access,” says Steve Cox.

Underpinning the original foundations with concrete was carried out in a strict sequence – minimising the risk of structural movement above – and the completed concrete box was lined with a tanking system and insulation to form the new rooms, including a home cinema and all the mechanical services.

Externally, the entire brick house required repointing, with matching reclaimed bricks sourced for new-build elements. Double glazed replacement timber sash window frames were approved for the front street elevation, with more contemporary glazing elsewhere.

Glass plays a crucial role in the transformation of the house, and a seven-metre-long frameless glass skylight floods the stairway with natural light. Walk-on glass hallways ensure that light filters down to all principal floors, and an external walk-on glass balcony on the ground floor prevents overshadowing the rooms below.

“Our architect devised all the glass features, which are positioned so the house is now bathed in light throughout,” says Nishant. “Having rooms open to the staircase also allows light to percolate through the house.”

By extending to the side on two floors, the winding main staircase could be moved from the centre to the edge of the building’s plan, freeing up useable floor space. Crafted from mild steel, with ash treads and handrails, the new staircase features walk-on glass landings, with shadows cast from the rooflight against the upright steel banisters.

“The staircase and skylight were the real game changers for the house,” says Nishant. “They have totally altered its look and feel by opening up spaces and bringing light right into the heart of the building. Spending money on the bigger structural alterations was an investment, although we did end up coming in over our original budget.”

Removing walls and eliminating hallways ensures that the interiors are now unrecognisable. The entire building has been rewired and newly plumbed, with underfloor heating laid throughout.

“We wanted to make the house as high tech as possible, so completely rewiring it for wi-fi and Cat 6 cabling was important,” says Nishant. “All the plant and workings are housed down in the basement, and we can control the underfloor heating from our phones.”

Breaking through the top floor ceiling to expose the roof structure uncovered a pleasant surprise: the roof was in excellent condition and would not require replacing, as originally anticipated. Removing the old ceiling also created an attractive vaulted space, with enough height for a mezzanine study level, which is accessed by a ladder and lit from above by a rooflight. This has proved ideal for Nishant as a workplace during lockdown.

“There was a debate about whether the children’s rooms should be on the top floor but, in the end, we chose to have our main bedroom and ensuite up there, with the boys on the next floor down,” he says. “They share a Jack and Jill bathroom, with curved white doors made by our builder, which disappear into the bedroom walls when they’re closed.”

Ash has been used for plank flooring, bespoke internal doors, and joinery throughout the house, creating a cohesive feel, with ceramic floor tiles laid in high-traffic areas. “We have a habit of taking our shoes off in the entrance, so laying floor tiles in this area makes it easier to clean,” explains Nishant. “The same concreteeffect tile leads downstairs to the new kitchen, where in the hallway we have a wood floor.”

Externally, 40 square metres of glass micro mosaic tiles on a modelled substrate were used to cover the 7 metre high back wall of the rear garden, to bounce light down to the lowest floors and provide a subtle, shimmering backdrop to the main living spaces in the house.

On the upper ground floor, the spacious sitting room features a contemporary threesided glass gas fire, designed to supplement the underfloor heating. “It’s a very open space, and we knew this could potentially be the coldest room in the house, so we installed a powerful fire,” says Nishant. “It was an extravagance, but really warms the house and creates a lovely feel.”

In contrast, the lower ground floor kitchen is the warmest area, and has been fitted with simple cabinetry and bespoke storage solutions, which retain the pared-back Scandinavian feel favoured by the couple. They chose speckled white Corian counter tops, with a large ash island which is where the family tend to spend much of their time.

“Our builder created fantastic bespoke storage and furniture, such as the ash dressing table in our bedroom,” says Nishant. “We didn’t get physically involved at all with the project, but we did buy new furniture to suit the design and liaised with our architect when choosing things like the bathroom sanitaryware.”

Overall, this extensive renovation project took almost three years to complete, with delays predominantly caused by the basement excavation. “Building a new house would have been significantly easier,” says Nishant. “We stayed living in our old house during the build, and got married, then went on to have our two sons. By the time the work was completed there were four of us moving in!”

Noah is now five, Isaac is four, and the house has adapted well to a young family. “People are genuinely surprised when they first visit because it’s so traditional outside, but inside it’s white and contemporary,” says Nishant. “Living in a house designed specifically for us, with such bright interiors, has made a huge difference to our lives, and we appreciate being here every day.”