That’s the advice of architect Dan Rowland, 38, who bought the garden flat he now shares with his wife, designer Nina Constantin, 36, and their six-month-old daughter, Isla, back in 2011, when it was so different it would now be unrecognisable.
What followed the purchase is a remarkable story of love, death and underpinning.
Constantin, who trained in furniture and product design in Leeds, runs two successful design businesses — one that does shop fit-outs and window displays for big retailers such as Ted Baker and Selfridges, as well as a prop-making business originally started by her parents.
Four years ago, Constantin was living in a shared flat in Notting Hill and, recently single, decided to go on the Match.com dating website. She knew she wanted to meet someone with a strong design background. Her first date with Rowland was at Gordon’s Wine Bar at the Embankment. “He brought out the plans for this flat,” Constantin says, “and asked me, ‘Can you read plans?’”
Not your usual chat-up line, but it worked for Constantin.
Rowland had already done up a couple of properties while training as an architect. He was living in Dulwich and scouring auction catalogues when the one-bedroom, one-bathroom basement flat in Ladbroke Grove came up through Savills. It was being sold off by a housing association after the tenant had died.
When Rowland went to the viewing, the place smelled terrible.
“It was rancid,” he says.
The back garden was piled so high with earth and rubbish that you couldn’t tell its size. As well as the living room at the front, there was an old coal chute and coal cellar, both full of rubble. A bedroom and poky kitchen, in a small dog-leg, were at the back.
My home: Nina Constantin and Dan Rowland
My home: Nina Constantin and Dan Rowland
1/6 What it cost
Flat at auction in 2011: £419,000
Money spent (excluding fees): c£250,000
Value now: £1.6 million
2/6 Urban renewal
Rowland took out the walls and extended the back to convert the dingy one-bedroom flat won at auction into a bright, modern three-bedroom oasis for himself, wife Nina and their six-month-old baby Isla.
3/6 Hands-on industrial chic
Working alongside the builders, Rowland designed many of the special features, including a kitchen table made of steel and oak, and computer-generated Corian sinks in each of the three ensuite bathrooms. All the floors are polished concrete and the exposed brick walls feature surface-mounted sliced reclaimed bricks.
4/6 Room with a view
Good lighting is essential in a basement flat, so most of the back wall was taken out and replaced with floor-to-ceiling glass. Full-height sliding doors and a French door installed in the kitchen and living room allow for tons of natural light and lovely views of the garden.
5/6 Garden party
To create this stylish garden, plenty of earth was removed and a willow tree relocated to a central spot. The excavation required lots of underpinning and steel, but the result is a spacious garden perfect for entertaining.
6/6 Family values
Rowland and Constantin collaborated on many of the interior details. Constantin brought her design savvy to the colour schemes in the bedrooms, contrasting light and cheery tones with subtler ones.
At the auction, Rowland overheard his main competitor say they didn’t think the flat could be converted into two bedrooms. “But the minute I saw it, I knew I would take walls out and make a three-bedroom flat,” says Rowland.
So, by the time he whipped out those plans in the wine bar, he had got planning permission to extend at the back and drop the depth about 2ft 8in to allow for a double bedroom at the front, where there had been the coal cellar (there is even a window, now), put the master bedroom at the front, with a terrific bay that gets so much light it doesn’t feel like a basement, and a big living-kitchen at the back.
He installed full-height sliding doors and a French door, so that the back wall is almost entirely glass, looking on to the stylish garden. Here, plenty of earth was removed and a corkscrew willow tree was moved to a central spot. With all the excavating, there was a lot of underpinning and a lot of steel required.
Naturally, Rowland and Constantin’s second date happened on site. “He’d taken all the walls out and you could see right through to the back garden,” Constantin laughs.
“But that’s when I knew he was the one, because he talked with such vision and passion. We see things the same way.” Rowland was at the house every day working alongside the builders, and designing and making things, too — such as nifty cantilevered steps down to the third bedroom, and a kitchen table and bench made of steel and oak.
The three en suite bathrooms, which use the same palette of ceramic tiles, sprayed MDF and poured resin floors, have computer-generated Corian sinks designed by Rowland.
The kitchen was built on site, bar its Corian worktop. “That way, it only cost £7,000,” Constantin says. It also has a 10ft-long glass splashback, which the builders didn’t think could be done. All the floors here are polished concrete, while an exposed brick wall actually uses surface-mounted, sliced reclaimed bricks to striking effect. But the first thing you notice is a triple pendant light that Rowland watched being blown.
“Lighting is the most important thing,” Constantin says. “As this was Dan’s flat, I didn’t have input at the start, but we worked together on details, and the interiors and colour schemes. I lightened it and added subtle tones — pistachio in the small bedroom, eau de nil in the master, and yellow and turquoise in the third bedroom.”
The job ran over time. “By then, we were desperate to move in, so we set a date for a party, regardless,” Constantin says. “Dan and I were literally laying the last bit of terrace as our first guests arrived.”
It’s hard to believe this spacious, light, stylish flat — used for the trendy, upcoming #HabitatVoyeur project, the Habitat home brand’s online “sneaky peek” into the way creative people live — came from such an unpromising start.
Rowland’s top buying tips:
* Take an architect with you. Look at the big picture, don’t be put off by superficial things that can be fixed, but do take advice.
* Check down the street and see what neighbours have done. Ours had extended at the back, which set a precedent that helped convince the planners.
* Look on Google Earth — you can see what people in the street have done.
* The difference between a good architect and a builder is that an architect is trained to see opportunities that a builder won’t.
Constantin’s top design tip:
Lighting is so important, it affects your mood and sense of wellbeing, as well as being transformative. I feel anxious in a badly lit space.
Get the look:
Architecture and kitchen design: Dan Rowland at studio1architects.co.uk
Additional design: Nina Constantin at formroom.com
Ceramic tiles in bathrooms from CDS Tiles, in W11, at cdstiles.com
Steel dimmer switches and other hardware from Nuline at nu-line.net
Floor-to-ceiling sliding windows by Sky-frame at sky-frame.net/en
Hand-blown triple lights in kitchen from Rothschild & Bickers at rothschildbickers.com
Teal Paintbox rug in third bedroom from Bluebell Gray at bluebellgray.com
Constantin sources furniture from places such as Rockett St George at rockettstgeorge.co.uk, Not on the High Street at notonthehighstreet.com, and etsy.com
Buxus balls in front garden are from Sangwyn Landscapes, which also built the garden, at sangwyn.co.uk
For more on #HabitatVoyeur go to habitat.co.uk/habitatvoyeur