Francois Belot and Andrea Buscone found a shared joy in their sensitive renovation and extension of an elegant Regency townhouse in south London
TEXT ALEXANDRA PRATT IMAGES INNA KOSTUKOVSKY
It was December 2019 when London-based couple Francois Belot and Andrea Buscone bought a classic Regency terrace home in south London.
“We looked at a lot of townhouses, but many had already been extended and renovated. We found them to be cold, shiny and not very comfortable, with lots of low-quality materials,” says Andrea, who runs his own property and concierge business in central London.
“This house had been rented to students and was good value, but the trade-off was the renovation. We saw that as an opportunity,” adds Francois. “It meant we could choose finishes etc., and control the project, making it ours.”
The couple has some experience, having renovated a flat together in the past, but this project was much larger, incorporating significant structural changes. The main elements of the project, in addition to a general refurbishment throughout, were a new extension on the ground floor and the removal of a wall upstairs to create a new bathroom. These developments also required a new heating system and waste disposal solutions.
Although the original kitchen was at the rear of the property overlooking the garden, there was an internal courtyard on one side and a small utility room projecting onto the terrace. Francois and Andrea decided to replace these mismatched elements with one single, open-plan space. This full-width extension includes an open-plan kitchen, sitting room and dining area, which naturally draws you through and out to the walled garden.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about what we wanted,” says Francois. “We know each other’s tastes, and we have very clear ideas on design.” After their first architect, who was based in Andrea’s home country of Italy, could not commit to their project in the way they expected, Andrea and Francois turned to London practice Atelier Ochre.
“They really listened to us, understood our priorities and provided solutions,” says Francois. Atelier Ochre worked with the couple on the planning and building regulation permission, and there were additional constraints concerning the property’s position within a conservation area. “We spent a lot of time thinking about flow and materials and our architect was responsive to that,” says Francois. “Daryl was clever and innovative.”
Andrea and Francois’ brief was all about their desire to bring natural, soft light into the main areas of the house. They did this by introducing glazed, Crittal-style French doors and windows from the dining area into the garden. There are also two large steel framed skylights: one above the French doors and the second further away from the garden in the kitchen area. This
lean-to skylight is above the original internal courtyard’s position, mirroring the historic roof pitch, and it now brings light into the heart of the ground floor.
“Another priority was sightlines,” says Francois. “I loved the idea of creating perspectives wherever possible. In fact, you can have a straight view from the entrance to the back of the house. It contributes to the flow and makes the floorplan instinctive.” He says it also echoes the ‘enfilade’ floorplan of Parisian apartments, “where one room leads to another, without a corridor.”
Andrea and Francois’ brief also focused on natural materials and textured surfaces, including natural stone, marble, and timber, all of which reinforce the connection to the outdoors. Upstairs, they added a new, smaller, bathroom for guests on the top floor. A room on the first floor had been divided into two small bathrooms and Francois and Andrea re-instated that as one supremely elegant bathroom.
It is now the ultimate in luxury bathing, with a reintroduced fireplace, herringbone marble flooring and a beautiful freestanding bath by Renaissance. The room boasts a large original period window, and enjoying a bath while looking at the trees and sky is one of Francois’ favourite things about the house.
“It’s rare to be able to look at the sky in London, and you can lie there and watch the sun coming up,” he says. “Removing the partition has meant we have a nicer, bigger room. It’s all about symmetry, and it was very satisfying to reinstate the original volumes.”
Working with their architect, the couple took on management of the project. Andrea, who has some experience in project management, put together a tender and they considered up to twelve building firms. It was a very detailed process and Andrea did a great deal of work to reconcile the varying quotes they received.
“It meant we were very prepared,” says Francois. “Andrea spent a lot of time researching the builders, including cold calling them to see if they picked up the phone. We also met ex-clients. It was a long and stressful process, but I can’t recommend what he’s done highly enough.” The building firm they chose was local, offering that all-important flexibility. The firm chosen (Dermarta Construction) wasn’t the cheapest, but was the one in which they had the most confidence, which was rewarded.
“Andrea did 95% of the decision-making,” says Francois, who works in banking and was unable to be onsite during the day. “We trust each other, and this creates savings and value in delivery, with no unnecessary delays or changes.” Andrea, who has more flexibility as a business owner, oversaw day-to-day works on the property during the seven-month project, which was completed in 2022.
“And if the builders try to put up the costs in one place, then I say okay, so we will lose it elsewhere,” adds Andrea. “It sends a message.”
The construction of the extension was masonry, with steel-framed glazing in black. “We never considered using timber-frame,” says Francois.
The couple also had to navigate council constraints put on them in the conservation area they were building in. These included keeping one side of the extension – where the utility room was originally placed – in traditional style, with a small window that matches the French doors stylistically.
The couple also discovered ways to be cost-conscious on their interior finishes, without compromising quality.
“Interior designers are very expensive,” says Andrea. “Francois and I have the same tastes, so we were our own interior designers, and planned everything in advance. We also negotiated a lot of discounts on interior materials by selecting fewer suppliers during Covid, when the cost of building materials rose by up to 40%.”
One key area where they found savings was the kitchen. Designed in a classic galley shape, it has a long island forming one side, behind which is an open walk-through below the skylight. The kitchen cabinetry in ‘charcoal’ they bought is from British firm Howdens. This is then enhanced with a high-quality quartzite countertop with waterfall sides, fluted stone tiles on the walls and an American walnut floor.
“It would have been a messy gamble to ship everything in from Italy,” says Andrea, who valued Howden’s ease of installation, using local teams. “Very expensive kitchens have long lead times, and offer poor value for money.”
Consistency was an important factor when Andrea and Francois designed their interiors.
“It was very important to us that the old part of the house should retain its character while being connected to the new part in a natural progression,” says Francois. This can be seen in the colours, which are from a similar palette throughout the house, and the high-quality, natural materials chosen.
“We value natural materials in Italy,” says Andrea. “You are more relaxed; you want to spend more time at home.” Andrea took this to its logical conclusion when he chased the “right” reclaimed bricks from five different providers, even asking the postcode of the original house they came from to ensure consistency of the ‘new’ brick walls.
“He was told off quite bluntly by the people selling the reclaimed bricks,” laughs Francois.
The couple also re-instated all six original fireplaces in the house, ordering new marble bullseye surrounds from Italy, well in advance.
“We had the flues opened before the spike in oil prices,” says Francois. “But we’d had a bit of damp originally and our specialist said it was due to lack of ventilation. These houses were not designed to be energy efficient, but to breathe. The previous extension didn’t allow air to circulate. Now, the damp is gone.”
With a new water tank moved to the attic to allow for the new top-floor bathroom, they faced a logistical puzzle of where to place the waste pipes from the new bathroom on the second floor. Their location in a conservation area meant placing them at the front of the building was impossible.
“Our architect did a great job,” says Francois. “He used an old boiler room and some structural design to allow the pipes to go out the back of the building. There was a lot of thinking behind it. We were fortunate we didn’t have to cut through joists.”
Getting the logistics rights was a challenge throughout the project.
“When you get a lot of materials coming in, it’s better to get them in earlier, rather than later,” says Andrea. “Once you miss your slot for delivery, it leads to greater delays. You need to stay in touch with your builders and fitters.”
“We had the cast iron bathtub delivered and stored on the ground floor, and the builders had “forgotten” to bring it upstairs in time,” recalls Francois. “It is very heavy (250 kg), and very awkward to handle (as the bath gets very slippery in your hands when you sweat). The builders were ready to give up, as the bathtub also had to negotiate (vertically) the bend in the stairs. In desperation, Andrea asked around and two strongmen from the local powerlifting gym took up the challenge…and the bathtub finally made it up the stairs!”
Now the project is completed, Francois and Andrea couldn’t be happier with the outcome. The new layout of their ground floor creates a magical setting for their regular dinner events, and even as an occasional film set or photoshoot location! Yet it is the details that make it such a personal space.
“We spent time in this house while it was unrenovated,” says Francois. “We saw the good, the bad and the ugly. People get very emotionally engaged with these projects, and we were no exception. It was an adventure to renovate it, and this is our creation. The anticipation, the stress, and the decision-making all brought us closer together. It’s an achievement.”
Andrea agrees, saying: “Going back to a home that is part of ourselves – there’s a real joy in that.”