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Converted for Life

in Green Magazine - Houses
Issue 34, November 2013

By Will Jones

Photographs: Charles Hosea

'This four-storey Georgian terrace has been transformed from a series of rundown rental apartments into a single family home (as was originally intended), giving it a new lease of life.'

'Kilburn Nightingale's renovation brings maximum light even into the basement kitchen, making it a room that is loved by all of the family.'

'Poor quality brickwork was clad in durable sweet chestnut, which will weather with age and change colour.'

'left Recycled painted floorboards make for a quick, simple and cost-effective floor covering throughout most of the house. top Previously compartmentalised rooms were opened up to create one big space.'

'Classical features such as the cornice and fireplace play off the modern furniture.'

'clockwise from top left Bringing light in and making a feature of next door's colourful brickwork; masses of storage space makes for happy living; the "hit and miss" stairs, fun and space saving; double-height windows means light into the upper living space.'

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British architect Ben Kilburn turns a transient urban stopover into a sustainable family home.

'Sustainable architecture can take many forms and encompass a broad range in magnitude, from off-grid holiday cabins to master-planned eco cities. But what all environmentally biased projects should consider is not only the obvious green aspects – headliners such as solar panels and rainwater harvesting – but also the suitability of the new building within the physical environment and the fulfilment of potential, the viable longevity, of the design. British architect, Ben Kilburn (partner in Kilburn Nightingale Architects), has taken on this challenge with a personal project to create a home that will serve him, his partner and three daughters now and in the future.

'Kilburn found an existing semi-detached mid-Victorian era house in Hackney, East London, England. The property had previously been separated into three apartments, as have many others in the area, and had fallen into disrepair. The architect's plan was to convert, repair and remodel the building to create a comfortable whole-life home for his family.

'Taking this long-term attitude to the design of the project was paramount to its success because it meant that Kilburn was considering not only the immediate costs of construction, impact of energy prices and re-sale value of the house; he was investing in the building and the neighbourhood for his family's future. As such, potential problems were not "papered over" but considered and rectified before they could even become an issue.

'Starting with the structure itself, Kilburn found that the top two storeys of the four-storey house were unstable. "The flank wall – the one running from front to back – had an alarming bow in it, partially caused by the roof being clad in heavy concrete tiles some time previously and so it had to be demolished and rebuilt," he says.

'The front and rear walls were also strapped to the floor joists at each level, using steel ties, and the corners of the building reinforced with concrete ties. Internal load-bearing walls were also strengthened, as was the roof structure, to allow for the added weight of photovoltaic panels.

'Next came the task of insulating the building, something that had been sadly lacking. From the walk-out basement upwards, Kilburn has designed-in insulation of varying types to raise the house's thermal performance from abysmal to well above British regulatory requirements.

'"We insulated some of the exterior walls internally with insulation bonded to plasterboard. At the rear there is an external thermal quilt on the existing walls, which are covered in sweet chestnut cladding. The roof now has a dense layer of insulative quilt and all external windows, including lay-lights, are brand new double-glazed, argon-filled units," says Kilburn.

'With the structural and thermal performance nailed down Kilburn could consider the liveability of the building: how he and his family would occupy and use it. Gone are the compartmentalised rooms in many areas; instead, living spaces and levels are connected to give the family a sense of togetherness whether they are in the same room or on different storeys.

'"A key to the success of this project for us is that we have connected the lower ground and upper ground floor spaces with a double-height space at the rear of the house," says Kilburn. "This joined living space maintains a degree of connection, which allows separate activities or more communal living. The double-height space and large rear window also allow direct connection from upper and lower floors to the garden, bringing together living space in all its manifestations.

'"The upper floors of the house are more conventionally private, but an open staircase from the lowest part of the house to the top maintains some connectedness and a goat bell outside the kitchen can be heard on the top floor as a call to meals!"

'Kilburn's design skills have been put to the test by various challenges on the project but he has also had time to express a quirky nature that sees a giant bookcase feature in the living area and the "hit and miss staircase" solve the issue of how to save space and provide access to the attic play room.

'These unique elements are the stars of the show but they also integrate well into the architect's desire to maximise the potential of the home both now and in the future. And, this can also be said of the energy strategy for the house. In addition to the photovoltaic panel array on the roof (which supplies electrical energy) Kilburn has installed solar thermal panels that are connected to the hot water tank (and the radiant heating), while a 4.5 kW government approved clean-burning stove is fuelled by air-dried logs to heat the upper ground floor living space.

'The architect has also taken care to integrate recycled and reclaimed materials throughout the interior design. The wooden floors, for instance, were salvaged or reclaimed from other houses in the area but important as these elements are they pale into insignificance alongside the over-arching sustainable nature of this new family home.

'"We have taken a house in very poor condition both inside and out and radically improved it," says Kilburn. "There is also a shortage of large single-family homes in the area, as so many have been converted into flats, so this conversion improves that situation and adds to the social mix in the street."

'And here is the crux of the sustainability debate. Ultimately, an urban green home will only be successful if people want to live in the neighbourhood in which it is built. Kilburn's long-term "whole-life" plan for his house and his family is a stepping stone towards reseeding community within an area that is currently awash with small apartments and transient residents. He is taking the first steps in re-creating a cohesive neighbourhood and that should always be the ultimate sustainable goal within our cities.'



Kilburn Nightingale Architects

Passive energy design

Insulating the entire external structure, including roof, walls, ground floor and basement; and installing double-glazed, argon-filled windows upgraded the thermal performance of the building.


Wooden floors were salvaged or reclaimed from other properties and finished in paint. Sweet chestnut was used for external cladding to the rear and window frames due to its stability and good weather resistance.


All windows, even the smallest lay-lights, were replaced with high efficiency double-glazed, argon-filled units. The architect attributes the good thermal performance of the building partially to this.

Energy production

A 2 kW (eight panel) photovoltaic array provides some of the home's electrical energy requirements. Hot water is provided via a solar thermal system that is linked to the water tank. Warmth comes from a 4 kW clean-burning wood stove (which adheres to UK regulations with regards to burning in urban areas).