Colors, Climbing Walls, and IKEA Hacks Fill This Charming English Cottage
Feeling lucky? Ollie Whitmarsh and Natasha Hart certainly were, after their Google search uncovered the ideal architecture firm, RL-a, to convert their cramped 19th-century cottage in southern England into a spacious family home. "My search was ‘architects, Margate,’" says Ollie, who works in insurance. "They seemed quite innovative, just from the website, and when we met we pretty much clicked straightaway."
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The meeting was even more serendipitous than it may at first sound—
RL-a’s Tim Ratliff and Tam Landells had only recently relocated their practice to a warehouse studio in the couple’s coastal town, joining hundreds of young artists, designers, and bearded baristas on their exodus from London, 75 miles away. Margate has become a celebrated destination for those priced out of the capital, with the blue-collar resort now a vision of what might happen if you were to drop Brooklyn’s trendy Williamsburg onto Coney Island.
RL-a’s office is just a mile east of the new art gallery Turner Contemporary, named for onetime resident J.M.W. Turner, and the Dreamland theme park, which boasts a 1920s wooden roller-coaster inspired by an early Coney Island ride. Ollie and Natasha’s cottage sits about a mile southwest of the gallery, within easy reach of town, countryside, and beach.
Eager to build on their young practice, Ratliff and Landells fully embraced the challenges the project presented, including the couple’s desire to keep costs down, and didn’t let ego get in the way of input. "They understood that our budget wasn’t huge," says Natasha, "and that we weren’t picky about materials. They weren’t telling us what to do. If we said we weren’t happy, they didn’t grumble—they looked harder."
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The architects, for their part, were happy to tap into the energy of the place. "There’s an excitement about the changes happening in Margate," says Tim Ratliff, "and Tash and Ollie were excited about having something quite contemporary and architecturally challenging."
The front of the house only hints at a modern makeover, with its four orange-framed windows and yellow door looking like something the couple’s seven-year-old son, Stan, or three-year-old daughter, Mabel, might render in Crayola. (A third child, Nora, was born this winter.) But inside, RL-a has joined a whole new steel, glass, and block building to the back of the old.
Exposed brickwork shows the building’s heritage (it reportedly once housed workers from the ironmonger’s forge next door), while an open-plan living space lets the light flood through. A wood bridge joins the two old and two new bedrooms upstairs, allowing for a partial double-height ceiling.
"We knew we needed loads more space, as the house was so unsociable before," says Natasha. "We both have massive families. Ollie’s one of six, and my family has a strong Italian influence, and as such, we’re very close. When we get together there are at least twenty of us."
Bargain hunting was key to furnishing the addition. At the center of the new space sits a large table that they acquired from the college where Natasha leads a student-support team. Strategically placed serving dishes cover the occasional student-carved expletive. But the couple aren’t complaining, since the asking price was a small charitable donation.
"We didn’t want to be precious about anything, so there are no materials that we worry about the kids damaging. They’ve already had a really good go at the floor." Natasha Hart, resident
IKEA sale items are dotted around, including the kitchen worktop, which was flipped to expose its turquoise underside, matching the blue of Ratliff/Landells’s color scheme. It completes the 1960s Hygena formica kitchen, an eBay find that required two excursions to the countryside to pick up, after Ollie left a door behind on the first run.
Natasha and Ollie were both born in Margate, but they’re enjoying the changes that the artistic community has brought with it, as well as the inevitable street-food vendors and coffee shops. Stan and Mabel are simply content to have a place where they can zoom around on bikes or stage battles with light sabers.
The semi-rural setting next to a bridle path also affords them a great view of passing horses. "The combine harvester goes by in the field behind," says Natasha. "Stan stands up on the slide and shouts ‘Look!’ It’s so quiet the rest of the time."
When Ollie and Natasha first moved in, a surveyor told them the land was worth as much with the cottage torn down as it was with it standing. But they fell in love with the historic building. A touch of architectural inspiration and a lot of collaboration have given it a new lease on life. A little like the couple’s own hometown.