Transforming a Victorian townhouse basement in Islington

Formerly a damp, cramped, smelly basement, this sunny, streamlined kitchen-diner is now the heart of Charlie and Mark Richardson's Barnsbury home.
Polished steel magic: see the photos of how Charlie and Mark Richardson turned their dark basement into a bright and sunny living space. Images: David Butler
The idea of involving an architect in a project always sounds expensive, especially these days, when getting our money to work hard is so important. However, when it came to turning their damp, cramped, smelly basement into a sunny, streamlined kitchen-diner, Charlie and Mark Richardson took the plunge.

Now the couple are convinced that working with architects not only saved them money but produced ideas they never would have thought of. This bright, clean-lined room has become the heart of their home.

Back in 2005, Charlie, a psychiatrist, and partner Mark, who works for major charities, were looking to move from bustling Camden but couldn’t decide where to go. “We were just driving about,” says Charlie, “because there was so much of London we didn’t know. Then we stumbled across Barnsbury.”

Just south of Islington, the Barnsbury Conservation Area is a cherry tree-lined residential neighbourhood. There are modest late-Victorian houses mixed with a few grand villas. The lack of local shops may be inconvenient but it does make the area quiet. 

First the pair fell for one of the smaller houses but that sale fell through.  They had also noticed a bigger two-storey house with a basement for sale nearby, but that was dismissed as way beyond their budget. “So,” says Charlie, “we put in an outrageous offer, 15 per cent below the asking price, and to our amazement it was accepted.”  The empty house was in an appalling state, “with soiled, electric-blue nylon carpets throughout”, Charlie says in disgust. The basement was the worst part — dark and damp with a mean, ground-level barred window-cum-lightwell at the back. In the middle of the basement, brick piers jutted out, the remnants of a former wall. “It felt like a prison.”

Over the next few years, having ripped out all that carpet, they sorted out upstairs, painting it subtle greys and off-whites, and adding oak-block flooring, minimal Vitsoe shelving and simple furniture for a spare, streamlined look. 

But they were still stuck with the ghastly basement, and without funds to fix it. Then in 2011 the rotting ground-level back window, reminiscent of a clumsy, barred cucumber frame, began to leak.  “Mushrooms were growing out of it,” says Charlie. “We had to decide whether to replace that for £10,000, or do it all.”

Soon after, they received a mail-shot from a young, two-person practice, Zminkowska De Boise. In an impetuous moment they called them. “And we immediately clicked.” 

The architects, Hannah and Richard, came up with four different schemes for Charlie and Mark to consider, from just replacing the window right through to structural gutting, smoothing, and reflooring, and making a bespoke, American white oak kitchen. Mark and Charlie raided the piggy bank and went for the full fit-out, and haven’t looked back.

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Perfect for family fun: Take a further look inside the £55,000 refurbished Barnsbury basement 
Hannah and Richard put the job out to tender for the couple, and got wildly different quotes. The final look is pared-back and minimal, with a run of oak cupboards right along one wall, hiding everything from the fridge to the microwave, but broken for interest by a neatly inset bookcase. On the other side, there is a long sink unit with more cupboards. With such clean lines, attention to detail makes all the difference. Unusual details can also be hard to inject, however, involving  in-situ trial and error, and a lot of care. 

Charlie and Mark are perfectionists. They love the unobtrusive little lug handles that took ages to find, and which the joiner neatly cut in to the oak cupboard fronts. They didn’t want their Silestone kitchen sink counter made from two joined pieces, but from one long, seamless one. 

The poured resin floor, a lovely greyish white with hand-finishing marks, had to be re-poured after a setting fault. But their architects and contractor persevered — and everything got done within the original quote of £55,000 plus VAT.

The pièce de résistance is the replacement window/skylight at the back. Still a sort of long glass box at garden-level, it is beautifully made, with new drains round it so it won’t leak, and an inset tube light.

On the kitchen wall directly below it, a matching, mirror-polished steel false window, framed in oak, can be tilted up. Acting as a reflector it catches sky and throws extra light back into the room. The architects based this magical idea on the mirrors and skylights in Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It works.

Charlie and Mark have a two-year-old son, Orlando, and  their spacious kitchen-diner is the ideal place to spend family time together. Bright from front to back, smooth and calm like the rest of the house, stuffed with storage that all glides away behind bespoke doors, this is a labour of love that really paid off — though Orlando is more  interested in his train set.
The details
Award winner: Charlie, Mark and Orlando’s basement in Barnsbury was runner-up in the interior design category in the New London Architecture forum’s competition and exhibition, Don’t Move, Improve! (newlondonarchitecture.org).

Get the look: the total cost of works was £55,000 plus VAT, which included the fees of architects Hannah and Richard of Zminkowska De Boise (zdbarchitects.com).
Worktop in Silestone (a quartz composite) from silestone.co.uk
Waxed poured resin floor by Solacir at solacir.com
Mirror-polished steel panel by Rimex Metals (rimexmetals.com).
Steel “Narni” cupboard handles by Hettich at hettich.com

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