A family in London found the ideal Victorian property for a renovation project that would provide the space they needed – though it needed a major overhaul to the layout, plus some contemporary touches of their own
Text Roseanne Field Images David Butler
With their sons growing up fast, James Whyte and Tina Reiss were sorely in need of more space, but didn’t want to move out of their beloved London. Finding a Victorian house in Finsbury Park provided an almost ideal solution, but something was still missing. “It hadn’t been renovated for 20 years, and was clearly ‘someone else’s’ house,” explains James.
Despite this, they loved the three storey, 300 m2 house; it was the right size, and they were drawn in by its “heritage and charm,” says James; ‘it had lovely features.” However, over time the layout had become “disjointed,” says Tina: “the living spaces had become isolated from one another.” They wanted to create a layout that would work better for them as a family, make better use of the garden, and ultimately make the house ‘theirs.’
Friends had mentioned Levitate Architects to them, having used them for their own house redesign. “We’d seen the results and thought they’d be perfect for the task,” says Tina, adding “I’m not someone who obsesses over interior design, so this was all new to me.” The family were intending to stay in the house for the foreseeable future, so wanted to make sure everything was done right. Spencer Guy, director at the practice “quickly proposed an idea we liked,” says Tina, so it was “a case of fine tuning that until we pinned down all the details.”
When it came to deciding how to alter the house, the family had a few priorities. “The focus was predominantly on the lower levels of the house,” says Tina. It was important to them that the rooms would work socially but also give the family the space they needed, especially as their sons got older. “Our youngest was just born when we started thinking about all this, so we had to have a clear idea from the beginning,” Tina explains.
They wanted a layout that meant if one of them was in the kitchen cooking or washing up they wouldn’t be “cut off from everyone else,” explains James. And while they wanted a home with a contemporary look, it was also important to honour the property’s Victorian features, so they had a “constant presence.”
Above all else, the most essential element for Tina and James was a strong connection to the garden. “We wanted it to feel like a part of the house so we could just walk right from the kitchen to the garden,” says Tina.
Spencer developed their ideas into more solid plans; for example the playroom on the lower ground floor and work bench at the centre of the kitchen-diner grew out of “some vague ideas we initially approached Levitate with, in terms of a real social hub for the family and a space for the children to call their own,” Tina explains. She adds: “I liked the way Spencer was attentive to the needs of our children as much as us.”
The house isn’t located within one of London’s many conservation areas, but their scheme wasn’t unusual or challenging in terms of its design, so they didn’t face difficulties with the planners. “There was nothing too risque or controversial for us to float with them,” says Tina. “As a result it went through pretty smoothly.” She credits Levitate with being a huge help with planning, removing the worry factor for them.
MAKING IT WORK
When it came to challenges however, the scale of the work needed meant the couple decided to break the work into two phases because of the costs involved. James admits this was “a difficult decision.” Phase one included the renovation to the existing home, underpinning and structural steel work to prepare for the second phase. Phase two consisted of removing the floor of an existing living room at the back of the house, lowering the floor of this space to ground level. This created a double-height kitchen/dining area and the extension out into the garden provided the “all-important outdoor connection,” in Tina’s words.
The couple decided to install bifold doors which when fully retracted create a complete, open corner. “We love the way the inside is perfectly merged with the outside,” James enthuses. They also included polished concrete surfaces both inside and out, to further blur the boundary between the two areas.
The final step to ensure the seamless transition for James and Tina was to have a sleek flush finish to the doors. They were warned by Levitate however that flush thresholds such as they chose can be problematic. “It’s what everyone wants – but achieving it isn’t as easy as it looks,” says James. “You have to ensure the junction doesn’t allow rain to blow in under the door.” Luckily, this hasn’t been a problem they have suffered, and he in fact says the installation was “fairly straightforward.”
The kitchen design was key to the family’s needs, of course. “We wanted to have a social kitchen, but it also had to be super functional,” explains Tina. “The cupboards and storage space around the kitchen is the result of a lot of hard work by Spencer and the joiner Rob Vialle of Vialle & Co, who some friends had introduced us to.” Tina went with him to visit a kitchen he’d worked on previously which gave the couple ideas for how to arrange several aspects of their design. For example, “it helped us get options for how we could maximise recycling without it being visually obtrusive,” she says.
The couple used one contractor for phase 1, but another contractor had to be found for phase 2, because the first had gone bust. The second main contractor was found on the recommendation of a friend, who then took care of finding the majority of the subcontractors. “We found a few, but they were mostly provided by our main contractor,” says James.
Levitate remained involved throughout the construction, taking on a project management role, although the couple remained closely involved throughout. “It’s one of the key things we found,” explains James. “Even though they were managing the project, we still needed to make sure we make time to keep on top of the decisions that had to be made.” They remained living upstairs while the work took place, which was ideal for making sure they were as involved and present as necessary. “It was nice to be able to keep track of things as they developed,” James says.
Being there also proved useful on a couple of occasions during the build. “I was standing with the builder as they were pulling out a wall near the reading nook that they were going to rebuild and I made a snap decision not to rebuild it!” James explains. While onsite they also realised they would need more plug sockets than they originally planned for.
Work started in March 2012, and everything was completed by August 2019, and James admits that adhering to both the original budget and timescale wasn’t possible in the end.
THE RIGHT LOOK
The original property being of Victorian heritage meant the changes James and Tina made externally needed to be minimal to avoid compromising desirable original features. However, to include a contemporary touch, they incorporated a lantern skylight above the seating area within the extension, which has been finished with standing seam zinc cladding. “It adds a hint of modernism to the otherwise restrained external alterations,” says James. They drew inspiration from various sources, including personal recommendations, a self- build trade show, and their own online research.
Internally they had more freedom to include modern features and achieve an overall contemporary look. It was also imperative that it was filled with light, says Tina. “Partly that is achieved by using large areas of glazing, but the semi-reflective surfaces of the polished concrete and the work surfaces really helps,” she explains. They also wanted to ensure the open theme continued throughout the interior of the house. “We wanted it to be connected, so that whoever was cooking didn’t feel like a scullery servant!” Tina says.
The new layout at the back of the home is more “ordered” than that of the original, the architects explain, which they describe as a “tangle of staircases terminating in the garden.”
Entering the house from the front, visitors pass a formal living/TV room, while a study is accessed via a light-filled hallway, from which stairs lead up and down. Upstairs, the bedrooms have been fully renovated, though their layout remains unchanged. Descending to the lower ground floor, Tina explains the first thing you see is the Acer palmatum (Japanese maple) in the garden through the windows. A seating area sits closest to the garden, with a large workbench used for food preparation behind it, and a playroom for their children behind that. “They’re spoilt for choice – they have their own rooms, the playroom and the TV rooms,” says Tina. “As it turns out, they prefer being in the main living space with us, doing homework or playing board games.” Another set of stairs leads back up to the street level, via the study.
Tina and James had already installed solar PV panels prior to phase 1 to help the family live more sustainably. The redesigned home integrates further energy efficiency measures; they reinsulated the walls and installed a new boiler and a highly efficient underfloor heating which runs through the entire lower ground floor. The heating is weather-compensated to provide a stable temperature across each day and through all seasons, meaning the boiler “doesn’t have to work too hard,” says Tina. They also have food waste and worm composting bins in the kitchen. “We try to reduce our footprint as much as possible.”
Overall James and Tina say they’re “very happy” with the result, although she says “there are always small things that are so easy to overlook.” One such example Tina highlights is that she thinks they could have installed more plug sockets, and repositioned the ones they do have. James mentions the concrete floor and Dekton worktops as particular favourite features. “There are little things that really make a difference,” he says. “The way the angles of the room come together overhead is surprisingly attractive.”
With the project complete, the couple are satisfied they’re finally enjoying the full potential they knew the house had. On that basis, they intend to remain living in it for a while and another project isn’t something James currently foresees. “It’s not imminently on the cards for us,” he says. “We plan to stay here for some time.”