A couple looking to turn their cramped Victorian house in east London into a bright, open and spacious home for their growing family, used a fairly unproven architect to help them strike the right balance
TEXT ROSEANNE FIELD IMAGES ADAM FIRMAN
Finding a home in London with enough space for a family is no easy task, as Lorin and Saliha Van Nuland discovered when looking for one that would accommodate their changing needs. They’d not done major home renovations before, they were interested in doing a project, and this led them to take on a house in Hackney, although it wasn’t the standard ‘fixer upper.’ “You’re always trying to find the best of all worlds – which is challenging when you’re in London,” Lorin explains. “In hindsight I think we overpaid a little – it was a bit too ‘nice’ internally given that we wanted to do a project.”
They stripped the house back, reconfiguring the entire layout, excepting the master bedroom, added a rear and side return extension and converted the loft. An architect friend (who specialises in commercial projects) recommended they go with another practice, Studio 8FOLD. Lorin explains: “We were pretty much one of their first large projects, so it was a bit of a leap of faith on our part, but we did not regret it at all, they were fantastic.”
Planning & design
The design was a true collaboration with the architects, which Lorin says worked extremely well to resolve his and Saliha’s sometimes conflicting views. “When you’re designing a house as a couple, your decisions don’t always align, so considering what two people want is challenging and I think they did an outstanding job,” he says. “I veer more towards modern, Saliha is more rustic, so it was marrying up those two design ‘languages’ which they did really well.”
One of the main areas where Studio 8FOLD were key was obtaining planning permission. “The planning rules are still a bit arcane around here,” Lorin says. “Hackney is one of the more flexible councils in London, but they were still a little disappointing in terms of the design restrictions they imposed.” The couple wanted full height glass on the loft conversion, intending to make that the master bedroom, but planning wouldn’t allow it. They also wanted to extend outwards in the bathroom and put the shower in a ‘box,’ but these ideas were also shut down by planning. “The architects were very helpful in steering the design towards something that could make it through planning,” explains Lorin.
Overall they were most pleased with how the practice managed to achieve a sense of space that the house was previously lacking. “The house is not that big, but through the design – particularly in the loft, it feels super spacious, because of all the natural light,” Lorin says. One feature in particular that helps keep light flowing through the house is the open staircase in the extension, which features metal cut-out risers.
Lorin and Saliha did agree that the main objective should be to create more space in the house. “I wanted to increase that as much as we could, as well as bring a lot of light in, and get another bathroom,” explains Saliha, adding, “We also wanted to make it homely for the family.” Having worked with children previously, she was confident she knew how to make the home comfortable as well as suitable for children – and since completing the house the couple have welcomed their first son.
Throughout the project the couple faced a few further design challenges. The kitchen was one of the biggest, thanks in part to difficulties getting it through planning due to their intention to knock the walls down and create one large open space. “We played with a lot of different models – built into the dining area, an island, no island; in London you don’t have much space so you have to make sure it doesn’t feel too cramped or crowded,” explains Lorin.
Originally, the kitchen door was planned to sit on the opposite side of the back wall to where it ended up – a change Saliha made midway through the project. “I said ‘I want to walk all the way through from the living room into the garden, let’s change it’,” she says. “So we had to change the design again, but it made more sense to me to do it that way. It’s okay to review things, if it’s still possible to change, go for it.”
In the same vein, Saliha and Lorin changed their mind on paint colours halfway through painting – both internally and externally. “You don’t know what it’s going to look like,” Saliha says. “They thought I was crazy! But I need to look at it all day long so I’d rather have it the way I want!” Lorin concurs that choosing paint colours was one of the trickiest parts of the design process. “To try and make them flow is not easy,” Saliha adds. “But we managed, and it’s fun now.”
Getting the work done
Both Lorin and Saliha had an active role on the project – Lorin project managing, and Saliha sourcing products. “It was helpful to have our architect friend to ask for advice in that regard,” Saliha says. The contractor helped Lorin with the project management but it was mostly him, which he says was “extremely stressful! I think for people doing this for the first time, you have to make so many decisions without a reference point,” he explains. With products varying hugely in cost he and Saliha found it tricky to know what was worth spending extra money on, and where they could spend a bit less. “Emotionally you always veer towards the most expensive option, somehow it feels like it must be better!”
When it came to finding a builder, the couple got several quotes, and their chosen contractor, Geosky, quoted both the lowest price and shortest timescale. This was a “red flag,” says Lorin, making them “question if there was anything hidden, but there wasn’t.” Saliha continues: “They’re just very hardworking people, we were very impressed.”
The quotes varied hugely, with the most expensive coming in at around 80% more than their chosen builders. But despite the cheaper price, Lorin and Saliha admit it was still more than double what they initially thought the project would cost them. “It was a pretty bitter pill to swallow!” Lorin admits.
They then faced an eye-wateringly high unexpected cost early on in the project, when opening up the roof revealed the house’s four chimneys were supported by gallows brackets only – something no longer accepted by Building Regs. “We had to put steels in, which was very unpleasant,” says Lorin. “It cost around £15,000 overall.”
Subcontractors were sourced by Lorin and Saliha, but it wasn’t a huge undertaking as only a handful were needed. They installed an eco-friendly woodburner in the living room – they had wanted an open fireplace, but environmental rules in London meant they couldn’t – which required a specific contractor. They also needed a specific contractor to install a fire curtain in the living room to comply with regulations regarding open plan living. “It’s a bit absurd because it’s a really small space, but it was that or a sprinkler system which was even more expensive,” Lorin explains. “Other than that, Geosky did everything themselves.”
Once work was underway, they faced no major delays, and in fact completed it in less time than the nine to 12 months they anticipated. They started in April 2019, and were finished by November; getting completed before Covid hit was, Saliha admits, “very lucky!” They lived elsewhere while the work was done, though we’re close enough to have weekly site meetings with the architects and builders and be on hand to make decisions whenever necessary.
Work could have been completed sooner had they not faced a couple of delays with materials. Lorin says he found coordinating lead times with the overall programme one of the more stressful elements of the project. He gives an example of the glass for the rear extension, the arrival of which was delayed by a couple of weeks which he says threw the entire schedule off. They also faced problems with their kitchen, which came from a Danish company. Being keen cooks, they adjusted the design midway through the project to incorporate a bigger sink, but this meant waiting an extra month and even delaying their moving in date. It was “a huge headache,” Lorin says.
He adds that there was one other major disappointment, in terms of improving the home’s efficiency. They installed underfloor heating in the kitchen and bathrooms, new windows and better performing insulation. However, Lorin had hoped to add a heat pump and solar panels but found “planning isn’t very accommodating for that in London currently,” he says. The flat roof on the loft conversion would have been ideal for solar panels, but it would have meant submitting a separate planning application which would have been both costly and time consuming.
Interior design & layout
When Lorin and Saliha bought the house it was two storeys with two good size bedrooms and a tiny third bedroom. The house now boasts four bedrooms – two on the first floor and two within the loft conversion – with what was the second bedroom converted to a large family bathroom. “It’s unusual to have such a large bathroom, but it’s really nice, we’ve got a freestanding tub, big walk-in shower, and giant sink we can bathe the baby in,” Lorin explains. “The design idea came from an Italian island called Alicudi,” explains Saliha. “Everything was made out of concrete, it was rustic and easy to use, no splashing from the sink…it’s my favourite room!”
The ground floor is fully open plan, with the living room at the front descending into the kitchen in the rear extension. They also added a toilet under the stairs, and a second bathroom within the loft conversion. A studio at the back of the garden provides Saliha with a space to paint, and storage space has been incorporated wherever possible throughout the house, including a small space off the living room. “It was something the architects came up with,” Saliha says. “Initially I didn’t want it, but actually I’m very grateful to them, storage space is something we really needed.”
Saliha has mixed feelings about designing the interior. “It was fun, but it’s a lot of responsibility,” she explains. “You question yourself, and at some points we were just tired of making decisions!”
The couple included a few extras, such as Sonos speakers throughout the house and a reverse osmosis water filter system, which Saliha highly recommends. They also installed fibre cables and outlets throughout, though Lorin now says it’s unnecessary! “Don’t waste money on it, because you simply don’t need it; everything is wireless,” he advises. Saliha’s only minor regret is choosing not to install a shower tray with the walk-in shower (against the architects’ advice). “Water gets everywhere, but I was so stubborn – maybe I should have listened! But design-wise it wouldn’t have looked as nice.”
Overall they’re both over the moon with the results, with Lorin saying the design of the skylight-enhanced loft conversion is something he’s particularly pleased with. “It just feels so spacious. People can’t believe this is a Victorian house because it just feels so big,” he says. A couple of elements – a skylight in the side return extension and the woodburner – were almost culled because of budget constraints, and both Lorin and Saliha now pick them as some of their favourite aspects. “It feels so light in here, it makes it such a pleasant house to live in,” says Lorin.
Having a house they can grow into as a family means there are no plans for another project in the UK currently. However, they would like to buy a property in the Mediterranean, and work on creating a summer house for the family. “I have so many other ideas!” Saliha says.
Lorin admits the money they’ve spent on this house means if they were to try and sell, they’d be unlikely to see much profit. “It was a passion project,” he says. “From a financial point of view it’s not the best investment, but we get so much joy out of living here it’s worth every penny.”