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Flat Out

in 'Selfbuild & Design'
July 2014

Story: Debbie Jeffery
Pictures: Charles Hosea

'Poor quality original brickwork has been clad in sweet chestnut boarding with insulation beneath, and a new steel staircase links the sitting room to the garden below.'

'Plastic windows were replaced with timber double-glazed sashes, the existing lightwell was enlarged and reclaimed brick paving has been laid, with new railings onto the street. Decorative mouldings were specially made for the front of the house in order to reinstate the style of the original Victorian facade.'

'Ben designed the kitchen units and oak banquet seating. Vintage red and yellow chairs were found on eBay. The floors in this part of the house were completely stripped back to bare earth and rebuilt using painted floorboards over underfloor heating.

'Removing an internal wall on the upper ground floor has created a spacious sitting room which spans the full depth of the house and features two period fire surrounds, which were the only remaining original features. A clean-burning multi-fuel stove was installed in one of the fireplaces.

'The existing full width rear extension has been remodelled to connect the lower two storeys, and contains bespoke bookshelves reached via a ladder.

Home truths

What was the high point of the project?
Seeing how well the design works for us as a family has been a real pleasure after such extensive building work.

...and the low point?
Discovering that a mains water pipe had burst and flooded the kitchen was a low point.

Your best buy?
Having the kitchen cabinets made in lacquered MDF to my own design saved thousands of pounds, and was probably about a quarter of the price of a designer version.

...and the biggest extravagance?
Paying out for the solar panels and photovoltaics was initially expensive, but we'll eventually make that back thanks to the lower fuel bills. Payback is about eight years, and last year we received payment of £600 for the energy we're producing, which will continue for 25 years and is a pretty sound investment.

'Original floorboards were salvaged and painted in the first-floor principal bedroom.

'The second floor of the house has been devoted to three bedrooms and a bathroom for the children.

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Ben and Jane Kilburn have combined three flats in a Victorian semi to create a spacious, energy-efficient family home with some contemporary twists, reveals Debbie Jeffery

'When Ben and Jane Kilburn first viewed their current home in Dalston, Hackney, the neglected four-storey Victoria semi had previously been converted into three flats. Reinstating the building into a single family house presented an opportunity for the couple to start from scratch and design a spacious five-bedroom home for themselves and their children - although the project proved to be far from straightforward.

'"We'd lived in our previous house for about 11 years, and bought it before we had any children, so when our three daughters were born both the house and garden became too small for our needs," says Jane, a solicitor.

"The layout of the house works so well for us as a family"

'After house-hunting for nine months during 2010 the couple found their current home, which was literally just around the corner from their old house. "We wanted to stay in the area because the girls were settled at local schools, and this property offered scope for more living space and a bigger garden," says Ben, co-founder and director at Kilburn Nightingale Architects.

'The Kilburns immediately realised that the house had major structural issues, with cracking internally and visible bulging to the top two storeys of the flank wall, which bowed out to an alarming degree. When a structural engineer confirmed that this section of wall would require rebuilding they made an offer below the asking price, which was rejected. The owner of the house then decided to sell at auction, which resulted in a stressful time for Ben and Jane.

'"We thought he was bluffing until we walked past the house and saw the auction sign, so we had to quickly scrabble around to get funding in place for a 10 percent deposit," Ben continues. "Only one lender was prepared to offer us a mortgage, and after all that we ended up winning the auction and paying the same price we'd offered the vendor in the first place!"

'The couple needed to wait for nine tenants to vacate the building before they could begin work converting the flats back into a single home, but during that time they experienced unexpected problems with the planning application.

'"I'd spoken to Hackney planning department early on and explained we wanted to submit an application for a change of use, which they'd agreed in principle," says Ben. "Some weeks later the case officer called to say that changes meant it was now 'contrary to policy' to reduce the number of living units from three to one. Our hearts started beating very fast, because we had already bought the house and placed our old home on the market."

'Fortunately planning permission was granted when the committee hearing was held five weeks later, and work could begin on site in April 2011, with a building contractor employed to make the house structurally sound.

'The building was stripped back to a shell and has been substantially rebuilt in places. The roof had been clad in heavy concrete tiles in the 1970s, which only added to the problem of the bowing flank wall, and it was agreed that when the top of the damaged wall was rebuilt the roof tiles should be removed and replaced with slates. The timber structure was also reinforced to ensure that it could cope with carrying an array of solar panels.

'Internal alterations over the years had weakened the spine wall of the house, causing significant cracking in a number of places, and to correct this straps were installed to tie joists back into the brickwork at all floor levels, and concrete ties were inserted at corners to hold the building together.

'Once this work was completed and had been inspected by the Kilburns' mortgage company they were able to sell their previous home, flip the mortgage to their new home and move into rented accommodation in the same road.

'"Fortunately our daughters Tess, Billie and Esme loved all the excitement, which made things much easier," says Jane.

'The fact that the house had previously been arranged as three flats meant that Ben needed to completely redesign the internal layout, so walls and ceilings were removed to create more open living spaces - breaking down the conventional horizontal layers of a typical Victorian home.

'"The design fell into place pretty quickly," says Ben. "As a practice this was an opportunity to develop our ideas on how to make period homes more flexible for modern living, and more environmentally efficient. We knew that the two upper floors would be used for bedrooms, and the attic space could be converted into a playroom. That left the lower ground floor and the upper ground floor as two storeys of living space. Often with tall period houses people end up living in the lower ground floor kitchen and don't really use the floor above because it's rather disconnected and remote."

'To avoid this scenario the upper and lower living areas have been linked to one another by the addition of a new double-height library space at the rear of the property, and are also connected to the garden by a large screen of glazing. This sense of openness is enhanced by a number of new windows in the flank wall, bringing light into the middle of the house.

"Move out of a house before you begin work, be realistic about costs and don't be afraid to be radical and adventurous at the design stage."

'The lower ground floor has been remodelled to provide a kitchen, dining and living area, with the library opening up to a sitting room above. This upper living space is loosely separated into a more relaxed area, closest to the balcony overlooking the rear garden, and a slightly more formal living room at the front of the house for entertaining guests.

'First and second floors contain five bedrooms, two new bathrooms and a principal en suite, and the attic has been converted to provide a flexible study/sleepover/play space. Access to the attic is via a 'hit-and-miss' stair that is designed to take up as little room as possible.

'Remodelling the house so dramatically also offered the opportunity to make significant improvements to the energy efficiency of the property, and consider different ways of upgrading older housing stock. Photovoltaic and solar thermal panels were fitted, and the existing fabric has been extensively improved with new insulation to the walls, roof and ground floor.

'The poor quality rear brick extension was wrapped in insulation and clad in sweet chestnut boards, with new windows in the back wall crafted by a local joiner in sweet chestnut and left untreated on the outside. A studio, constructed in the back garden, also has large glazed double doors facing back towards the house, creating a link between the two.

'Materials and finishes have been kept simple and were chosen to be hard-wearing and durable. Flooring throughout most the house is of recycled floorboards, which are painted, and bathrooms have a rubber floor finish. Walls and ceilings have been extensively re-plastered, and fibrous plaster Victorian mouldings and ceiling roses were reinstated in the main living areas. The staircase was completely rebuilt from top to bottom as a modern interpretation of a Victorian staircase, with a new carved oak handrail.

'Overall the project took around a year to complete, with Jane and Ben sourcing many of the fixtures, fittings and furnishings themselves — including junk shop finds and eBay purchases — which helped them to stay within budget.

'"We always planned to live here for many years to come, so this was never a money-making exercise — although we're pleased to discover that we have actually made a substantial profit on paper, which is a real bonus," says Ben.

'"The layout of the house works so well for us as a family, and despite being quite open plan you can still sit upstairs watching TV while someone else is downstairs listening to the radio with no problem. It's a wonderful space for parties and entertaining, and the children enjoy bringing their friends home. We couldn't
be happier with the way everything has turned out."'

Ben and Jane paid £800,000 for the three flats in 2010 and have spent £400,000 rebuilding and remodelling the five-bedroom house, which is currently valued at around £1,8m.



  • Architect Kilburn Nightingale: kilburnnightingale.com
  • Structural engineer Price and Myers: pricemyers.com
  • Builder Moy Homes: 0208 931 9009


  • Windows Morgan Thomas Construction: 020 7739 2288


  • Kitchen Tidy Joinery: 020 7700 0588
  • Sanitaryware Bathstore: bathstore.com
  • Solar thermal panels Valliant: vaillant.co.uk
  • Photovoltaic panels Sharp: sharp.co.uk
  • Underfloor heating Uponor: uponor.co.uk
  • Wood-burning stove Morso: morsostove.com
  • Rubber floors Dalsouple: dalsouple.com
  • Light fittings Ikea: ikea.com, Artemide: artemide.com, The EC1 Lighting Company: ec1lighting.com