In London, a Moldy, Cramped Apartment Becomes a Surprisingly Spacious Sanctuary
It’s a special talent, seeing what isn’t there. At this ground-level flat in Muswell Hill Conservation Area in London, window frames were rotted out, the walls were stained orange by cigarette smoke, and moisture buildup led to a layer of black mold. Somehow, Christian Brailey and his partner, Faye Johnson, saw past the surface layer, envisioning a light-filled home with room enough for themselves and, down the line, a family.
"It was in very poor condition," says Christian, bluntly. "There were four layers of vinyl tiles on the floor, the layout was basically one room, and the bed was dangerously close to the cooker." The huge garden at the rear was really the draw, as it allowed he and Faye to imagine an extension off the original flat.
The couple first saw the property at the beginning of 2019, but didn’t buy until August of the same year. The lengthy sale process gave Christian time to speak with a local planning consultant and assess the site, at which point he realized the garden was nearly double the size advertised. And, the building’s existing foundations were roughly six feet deep, allowing for yet more space; the floor could be lowered without having to underpin the building.
Eight weeks after submitting their planning application with a 3D model Christian created, the couple received consent to move ahead with the plans for a renovation and extension. But instead of acting right away, they decided to wait another year to save up. Unfortunately, the mold situation got so bad that it became a health risk for them to remain living on the property. Then the pandemic hit, forcing their hand.
"We decided to move to my parents in Hertfordshire, but we were still coming into London for work, so we lived in a caravan in their driveway to maintain isolation," says Christian. "It wasn’t great timing as there were material delays and it meant the prefab timber frame arrived for erection during the winter," says Christian. Fortunately, rain held off until the builders were able to make the frame wind and watertight, which only took four days.
Whereas before the studio flat felt cramped, not to mention dingy, the new spacious layout has clear, cleverly designed, distinct zones. Through the new timber front door is a utility room, which houses a mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system (MVHR), the boiler, and storage under the flooring that’s accessed via a hatch. Just ahead is the full bath, which took the place of the old kitchen. "We dropped its ceiling to allow for a crawl space above," says Christian. "The lower ceiling makes for an intimate space, too, which is nice as you don’t need the bathroom to feel grand."
Down two steps is the living area where a huge 11-and-a-half-foot-high window provides a view out into the garden. To the right, three more steps lead down into the kitchen. Next is the prefab extension jutting out from the original flat, creating the long end of the new L-shaped layout. It houses both the dining area and the bedroom, which looks out into the garden through more wall-height windows.
Both the steps and the split level create welcome divisions between the entry, the living space, and the double-height kitchen. And, since the extension is sunken, it keeps a lower profile and simultaneously preserves treasured views of Alexandra Palace, a nearby conservation area.
Christian took special care in future-proofing the new scheme. Along with installing the MVHR, he upgraded the property’s envelope with high-performance double glazing and natural wood-fiber insulation, chosen for its breathability and acoustic and thermal advantages. This all amounts to low energy consumption and a minimal energy bill.
"Amazingly, we only needed the heating on for one or two hours a day this winter, and, even though we’ve almost doubled the floor area, our heating bills are lower than before," says Christian. What’s more, should the couple need a second bedroom if or when they have children, they have secured permission from their freeholder, building control, and local planners to convert the dining room into a second bedroom.
The couple were also careful to stay within budget. "We bought a rejected skylight from a company called Roofglaze," Christian says. "It was 40 percent cheaper than buying brand new and there was nothing wrong with it other than it was the wrong size for another project. We also bought low-cost kitchen cabinets from Ikea, which we assembled ourselves." The couple even reused the leftover polished concrete from the original floors which would have otherwise gone to waste, instructing their joiner to build wooden molds for the stairs, backsplash, and exterior paving slabs.
Christian and Faye couldn’t be more pleased with the finished project. "The level of comfort is so high, and designing something exactly how you want it is amazing," says Christian. Fortunately for him, not only has the project given he and Faye an amazing place to live, but it’s also created a portfolio piece for his new architectural practice, Christian Brailey Architects. "It’s great to be able to invite clients to come around to our flat and see our home," he says. "It has become the foundation of my business."
This Radiant London Extension Takes Cues From Car Design
A Terrace Home in London Gets a Luminous Extension While Keeping a Low Profile
Architect of Record: Christian Brailey Architects/ @christianbrailey
Structural Engineer: Architecture for London/ @architectureforlondon
Joiner, Electrician & Plumber: Miles Builders/ @milesbuilders_
Timber Frame: Emanuel Hendry Ltd/ @emanuelhendryltd
Skylight: Roofglaze/ @roof glaze
Canadian Douglas Fir Plywood: Decor Solutions
Polished Concrete Floor & Worktops: The Concrete Flooring Contractors/ @theconcreteflooringcontractors
Lime Plaster: Lime Green products Solo Onecoat/ @limegreenproducts
Kitchen Appliances: Fisher & Paykel/ @fisherpaykel
Kitchen Tap: Vola/ @vola.denmark
Bathroom Fixtures: Laufen/ @laufen.uk
Bathroom Tiles: Tiles Direct/ @tilesdirect
Sofa: Muuto Outline sofa/ @muutodesign
Get the Renovations Newsletter
From warehouse conversions to rehabbed midcentury gems, to expert advice and budget breakdowns, the renovation newsletter serves up the inspiration you need to tackle your next project.