Doubling space and value: from boarded-up workshop to contemporary Bethnal Green home

A boarded-up ‘ugly’ workshop became the perfect project for two new business partners, who transformed the shabby building into a cosy home.
Some people dither for years over starting a business, but not architecture practice Kirkwood McCarthy. “It was a debate over three bottles of prosecco,” laughs Sophie McCarthy. “But the next morning at the office, we still felt exactly the same, so we did it.”
 
That was in 2013. McCarthy, 34, had met her future business partner, Fiona Kirkwood, 30, the year before when both were working at the huge global firm, Woods Bagot. “I sometimes worked 100 hours a week,” McCarthy says.

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What also triggered the jump was that Kirkwood, who had moved here from Australia to study, had just bought an “ugly” little building in Bethnal Green.
 
The one-storey shack, which was an upholsterer’s workshop at the end of a lane of similar buildings, was built by the economical but structurally dubious method of putting a lid of unreinforced concrete across a rectangle made from other people’s walls.
 
It also had a tiny yard with an outside toilet. The street frontage had been boarded up for 40 years and callers went in round the back. “You could have pushed it with your finger and it would have fallen down,” says McCarthy.

 
But when Kirkwood and her fiancé, Benjamin, spotted it through an estate agent, it had the added bonus of planning permission for a small two-bedroom house.
 
Since it is difficult to get a loan to turn commercial property into residential, Kirkwood and her partner applied instead to the Bank of Mum and Dad, and then made a cash offer directly to the owner, who sold it to them on the spot. They completed in summer 2012.
 
What happened to Hoxton in the Nineties is happening in Bethnal Green today. The former bastion of mobsters and of the East End rag trade, with its rundown housing and old Victorian pubs, is smartening up faster than you can shake a stick at it. This small quarter of artisanal workshops near Columbia Road is just part of that transformation.
 
Since Kirkwood didn’t like the existing design for the house, she quickly submitted another, pushing things, she says cheerfully, as far as she could to see how the planners would react — and the planners rejected it out of hand. But this usefully clarified what could be done.
 
The next application for a three-storey, two-bedroom, two-bathroom house — with an extra floor created by digging a basement and with a tiny back yard, all of which stayed entirely within the original plan’s massing but was laid out differently — sailed through.
 
And the project was ideal for the newly formed partnership to work on.
 
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Perfect blend: the unusual black balcony bricks already look weathered into the surroundings
 
CREATING SPACE AND LIGHT
Considering that the plot including the yard is a mere 440sq ft, it is amazing what they have squeezed on to it.
 
But that isn’t the only genius idea here, for inside, the levels are staggered. The lower two are open to each other vertically at the back, not only letting much more light in, but making both spaces feel roomier. It’s the same effect as using mirrors, confusing one’s perceptions of space.
 
Another light-creating trick is that the short run of bespoke, perforated steel stairs that lead up to a mezzanine wet room and bedroom also let light sift down into the open-plan living space and kitchen in the basement.
 
From the back of the mezzanine bedroom, a balcony overlooks the living area. This vertical connecting space is suffused with light by double-height windows with a French window looking out to the brick-stepped yard.
 
The yard is just a series of brick steps up to the back gate, but perfect for barbecues — and it makes the yard an extension of the living area.
 
Finally, tucked under the aluminium-clad sloping eave is the master bedroom and en suite bathroom. There’s a full-size bath and the wardrobe doubles as the wall between the bedroom and bathroom. There’s even a tiny balcony.
 
A RESTRAINED PALETTE
The pair were adamant about using an appropriate palette. Given that this is an area of brick buildings, they used five different bricks and pavers.
 
The basement is floored in herringbone Dutch pavers that Kirkwood grouted herself, one party wall has been left exposed and the original back yard wall was built up higher using reclaimed London stock.
 
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The basement: open-plan living space and kitchen, with floor of herringbone Dutch pavers

On the balcony they used an unusual black brick, so that from the outside it already looks weathered into its surroundings. The rest of the palette is white paint — smart American oak floors and black window frames, steel stairs and ironmongery. This all helps the space to feel uncluttered.
 
“But it isn’t all expensive,” says McCarthy. “For example, we tested lots of flooring, from £300 to £30 a square metre, and the one we chose, for looks and wear, cost £30.”
 
What the two partners have done on this midget plot not only makes a great calling card for what they can do, but for how architects in general can get the best out of space.
 
“What we tell people,” says Kirkwood, “is to look for the area they want and amount of space they need — because there is so much you can do inside to change it.”
 
Cost of original building in 2012: £200,000.
Cost of works: £300,000 (excluding fees).
Value now: £950,000

 
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