The morning after Max de Rosée and his wife Claire Sa bought their first house, they woke up to headlines screaming property crash and wondered what on earth they’d done.
But they forged ahead and turned a tired old Victorian terrace into a vibrant family home. Now, its mix of modern elegance, with bags of storage and good money-saving ideas is a winner. And the good news is that Belgian Max and his half-Portuguese wife Claire’s formula will work for any home, whatever the size. In small spaces, packing in storage is the most important thing of all.
The couple, both architects, knew this better than anyone, having taken the major leap into a house from a cramped one-bedroom flat, which they shared with their two lively toddlers. Transforming the new house also helped their architectural business take off — their estate agent was so impressed with what they did that he showed people looking to buy in the area, which led to work.
The couple, both now 41, met at Edinburgh university and married in 2005. They first lived in Claire’s one-bedroom flat in west London and worked for different architectural firms. Children began to arrive: Louis, now 10, was born in 2006, and Harry, nine, in 2008 — followed later by Madeleine, six, and Joe, four.
The family of four were crammed into the small flat. “We ate in shifts, you could only fit two plates on the table,” says Claire. Doing her job with toddlers around was a challenge, so she began working from a desk in the bedroom.
Max decided to join her and they set up their own company. It was definitely time to look for a house, with room to work from, too.
In west London’s maze of Victorian streets, they spotted a terrace house where the owner had raised six children. “It had good bones, but was very tired,” Max says, describing a tall Victorian house of three storeys with a basement leading to a walled garden.
A path ran down one side and there was a two-storey dog-leg extension at the back for bathrooms. “There was tons of interest and it was way over our budget,” Claire adds. But they loved it. Then, unexpectedly, the owner took it off the market. Upset, the couple wrote, asking her to reconsider — and she did.
“The day after we bought it, when the front-page headlines said, ‘Property Crash’, we realised we’d bought right at the top of the market,” Max says wryly. “But luckily, interest rates soon went down, which helped.”
Still in their little flat, they drew up plans. The principle work would be on the lower floor, where they would dig down a metre to increase ceiling height and push out at the back, making a roomy space ending in sliding glass doors to the pretty garden. They would also push out sideways, claiming the footpath, to make a utility room and loo under the stairs and much more width to the kitchen/dining area, plus a bike storage shed at the front. It’s surprising what just four feet can add.
Interior tips from Claire and Max
Claire: Our Quooker tap is 'the best investment in the world'.
Max: Natural materials such as marble wear so much better.
Claire: I don't like to see a TV in a room so hide it behind folding doors.
Claire: We designed a step that slides out below the bathroom sink, so children can wash easily
Claire: Radiators are super-expensive, so buy cheap ones from a plumbing store and box them in
At the front, they would turn a small front room into their office and tank the coal hole to create a handy, two-sided hanging closet leading, like Narnia, to a proper bathroom tucked in behind. Now they needed a builder. Every day on her way to work, Claire passed a building site. “They all had moustaches and looked Portuguese,” she says. “I was impressed with what they were doing, so I went and talked to them.”
Her hunch was right: she found their trusted builder — not only for their own home, but for subsequent jobs.
Now, the lower space has become the focus of family life; one big, airy room, its light doubled by a generous skylight. Good value MDF, routed like tongue-and-groove, smartens the kitchen island made from Ikea units which are topped with thick Carrara marble.
The couple like their marble with a few marks and scuffs. “It’s used for the tops of Portuguese bars,” Max says. “They constantly get bashed, yet they always look good.” At the back, a comfortable sitting area, heated by a woodburning oven, has a wall of tongue-and-groove floor-to-ceiling MDF doors that fold back to reveal a television, plus plentiful storage either side.
Caddies for all the family’s trainers are by the side door and box-seats with lifting lids hold more stuff. Bespoke box seats, repeated throughout the house, are an easy-to-do and elegant look that you can just throw things into.
On the raised ground floor, they simplified florid cornices and built clever book-cases-cum-radiator covers into the alcoves. Claire explains that iron radiators are expensive, but you can box in cheap ones very economically. They’ve also done that in the hall, forming a console table.
Despite the airy elegance of this house, there are plenty of conscious money-saving, sensible decisions. A much-loved area is the walk-in bathroom/dressing room off the couple’s bedroom and wear on the floorboards testifies to the constant dash of little feet.
The bath and double basins run down one side — with shallow pull-out drawers even under the sinks, which is smart; that handy space is so often wasted, Claire explains.
Full-height cupboards run right down the opposite side (what would you expect?) — yet the end pair of doors actually opens to an enclosed loo, so that the whole family can wash together and there’s still privacy. Another good idea.
This house works well and looks stylish — no mean feat with three boys and a girl tearing about, and a fifth on the way — “so many trainers!” Claire says — but the combination of unified, unfussy design, plus well-considered storage for innumerable things, keeps it serene.