Their son Pietro, now aged four, appeared in due course, and the couple knew they wanted another child. Marta arrived two years later.
Justin originally trained as an architect, so has a keen eye for space and floorplans. "And we liked it round here. You can walk to Hampstead Heath and we wanted a garden, three bedrooms and a kitchen-diner."
This bit of London has a grid of charming Victorian houses, many divided into maisonettes, in pretty, parallel, tree-lined streets. The houses are similar, with bay windows at the front, and a dog-leg at the back making a side return.
Once they saw the advertised garden maisonette, it was an easy decision to make an offer. Lived in for 17 years by the sellers, it had been badly divided up, so you had to pass through one dark room to get to another, like a train, and the place was in poor condition. Justin immediately saw the potential to make the space work harder. "You don't often find a 1,300sq ft two-bedroom flat that you know you can turn into three bedrooms," he says.
The couple had a clear wish list, which is an important start for any project. It included an en suite guest bedroom upstairs that could be shut off from the main part of the flat just by sliding a pocket door across the hall — a cute, cost-effective touch.
Scandi-styling: an airy fell and front-to-back flow is achieved by white walls, wood finishes, clever lighting and uniform floor tiling inside and out
Downstairs they wanted a full-width extension and good flow front to back, which is great for entertaining — and the children can race up and down on their scooters. This was achieved by roofing over the wasted side-extension, removing pointless partitions and applying a consistent palette of materials.
They also, cleverly, tucked in a little skylit, plywood-lined study that can be open or shut to the kitchen-diner as required, using a door with a big glass section that folds right back. This ingenious space has a simple ply bench where both parents can work. So in this house there are no computers on the kitchen table for the children to spill squash on. Pietro and Marta have, however, taken a toll on the white walls by bashing into the corners on their bikes, says Justin, smiling.
London-on-sea: whitewashed larch cladding and shutters (left) sparked the maisonette's "Hampstead Beach House" nickname. The skylight study (right) can be closed off from the kitchen-diner as needed.
Michela wanted a "Scandinavian" look, with openness, white walls and wood. This effect was achieved economically by using birch ply for shelves, some of the flooring and the work surface. On top of that, the architect had larch cut into smart, arty fronts for the very ordinary Ikea kitchen carcasses, and added other touches that punch above their weight in design terms, such as ceiling channels with inset tube lights.
The garden was a priority for the couple. When they first looked, it was a shaggy, green splodge. Now it is a sleek and appealing outdoor room with a barbecue. The basalt-effect ceramic tiles used indoors run right outside and pave almost the whole space. Larch has again been used for bespoke planters round the sides and as storage at the far end of the garden, holding Justin's windsurfing kit.
The same softly whitewashed larch was used to make cladding on the back of the house and folding shutters over the windows, which together inspired the architect to give the house its nickname of Hampstead Beach House. The other key touch is the huge, square, pivoted door dividing house and garden.
No-fuss transformation: a key feature, this huge pivoting door opens out the ground floor to the garden
This impressive window/door goes quickly and cleanly right back, for a no-fuss transformation the couple love. Michela, brought up in a garden-less flat in bustling Rome, says her airy, spacious, and calm new abode feels more like a holiday home. With the glass garden door set wide open, kitchen and garden combine into a "banqueting hall" for glamorous, summer dining alfresco with their friends.
The New London Architecture forum's Don't Move, Improve! exhibition is free to visit at The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, W1, until February 6. Hampstead Beach House was runner-up in the best extension category.
- Cost of two-bedroom maisonette £645,000
- Basic cost of build (excluding architect) £160,000
- Total cost about £225,000
- Use an architect - they will have fresh ideas.
- Get a fixed-price lump-sum building contract through the architect. It saves money and helps budgeting.
- Plywood is a great, ecological all-rounder, but not tough enough for high-traffic floor areas
Architect: Hayhurst and Co (hayhurstand.co.uk)
Contractor: Square Foot Solutions (squarefootsolutions.co. uk)
Pivot oak door to garden made by Orange and Black Ltd (orangeandblack.eu)
Larch cladding by Vastern Timber (vastern.co.uk)
White stain for timber Osmo natural oil woodstain (osmouk.com)
Black ceramic floor tiles at Ariostea (ariostea-high-tech.com)
Tube lights from Crompton Architectural Lamps (cromptonlamps.com)
Door handles from Williams Ironmongery (williamsironmongery.co.uk)