But the hard work paid off, and now the maisonette he shares with his French girlfriend Agathe Barbier in Trevelyan House, a Grade II-listed tower block, is super-stylish.
To save money on an already tight budget, the couple stayed in the flat as much as possible while building was going on, only camping at friends’ and relatives’ homes when it all got too much.
Trevelyan House was built in 1958 by stellar architect Denys Lasdun. It was intended to be a pioneering form of housing to replace slums and bomb damage, with a butterfly shape around a central core, eight storeys high and made of reinforced concrete and brick.
Fifties maisonette gets a retro look for our times
Fifties maisonette gets a retro look for our times
Ewald Van Der Straeten and Agathe Barbier next to the cube kitchen "dropped into" the living space of their Fifties flat. The outside of the cube is made of smart dark grey MDF.
Pictures by Charles Hosea
2/5 Kitchen with a view
The big window opening makes the room an integral part of the living area, creates an almost theatrical atmosphere - and demonstrates the cube's impact as a welcome alternative to the tired kitchen/sitting room arrangement it replaced.
3/5 Green appeal
The kitchen units are faced with eco-friendly, durable bamboo ply, known as Plyboo. It has a good colour, good acoustic properties and is lightweight yet incredibly strong. The bespoke steel work surface was grappled in with difficulty - but is, of course, a superb fit.
4/5 Statement colour
Petrol blue paint and a groovy second-hand pendant lamp add style in the master bedroom. The whole maisonette has been made over in a cost-effective, practical way, including concealed pipes and conduits and flush switch plates, to give clean lines and the illusion of bigger space.
5/5 Modern storage
Van Der Straeten designed purpose-built storage, painting the insides of cupboards with bright colours. The couple's inspired finishing touches to their home have resulted in a retro-style makeover that Denys Lasdun, the architect of the block, Trevelyan House, would surely have appreciated.
Impressively, Lasdun fitted in 24 maisonettes, each 800sq ft with a balcony. Its attractive layout means that the block sits among nearby terraces, and the flats get light from several sides — in Van Der Straeten’s case, from three directions, which makes his home bright and sunny.
Over the decades, however, the interiors got tired and the original metal windows were replaced with clumsy uPVC ones, leaving the flat in need of a revamp.
In the Nineties, when people first started buying this type of flat from councils, mortgage lenders were either cautious or flatly refused, worried about so-called “concrete rot”.
But attitudes have changed, and this flat was just what Belgian Van Der Straeten wanted.
In 2011, the architect met Barbier at a picnic. They got on well, but didn’t pursue a relationship until months later, when Barbier was organising a trip of British-based design talent to France and invited Van Der Straeten to take part. After that, for six months, they commuted across town to see each other, but it took an hour-and-a-quarter each way, so Van Der Straeten started house hunting.
“I had a set of requirements,” he says. “I wanted purpose-built, nothing Victorian, and a view over rooftops. I’m not scared of having a council freeholder, either. They get a bad rap, but they can be good value.
“I started looking in east London and saw this flat on Keatons’ website at 11pm one night. So I took the earliest booking the next morning.” It was the only flat he looked at, and he made an offer on the spot. It was run-down and divided into small rooms. The electrics were surface-mounted in cheap plastic conduits and pipes ran all over the place.
All of that is like a red rag to a bull to an architect, so Van Der Straeten spent the next few months plotting alterations. Everything had to be stripped right back, but as the flat was listed, all the alterations had to go not only to the planners, but also to the conservation officer.
Luckily for Van Der Straeten, he met a progressive planner who liked his bold idea of taking out the tired kitchen-sitting room arrangement and dropping a futuristic kitchen cube into the new living area. It has been created sensitively, almost as if one could just lift it out again.
The inset kitchen also has a slightly dropped ceiling, hiding all the services. Its interior is faced with a new material called Plyboo — a type of plywood made of bamboo that, like bamboo itself, is incredibly light and strong. It has a good colour and good acoustic properties, and is also eco-friendly, prepared with few chemicals.
All the cupboards are faced with Plyboo doors, while the floor is bamboo. Van Der Straeten had a bespoke steel work surface made, which had to be grappled in with enormous difficulty. “Luckily,” he says, “I’d made a pattern and checked all the measurements, so I knew it would go in.”
The outside of the box is made from stylish dark grey MDF. Vertical radiators are concealed behind smart perforated panels that the builder made. The big window opening in the kitchen not only makes the room an integral part of the living area, but creates an almost theatrical atmosphere — and the worktop is good for sitting on, too.
As well as being functional and neat, the cube transforms the whole flat.
The other changes throughout Van Der Straeten’s home are practical and cost-effective. The pipes and conduits have been concealed, and switch plates are flush, creating an illusion of a bigger space.
He designed purpose-built, modern storage, painting the insides of cupboards with bright colours. The upstairs bathroom and toilet were ripped out and re-done with clean-lined grey slate, glass and modern white fittings, while the master bedroom has been given an upgrade and some petrol blue paint.
The new flat makes a perfect background for Van Der Straeten and Barbier’s mid-century modern furniture, which they buy from antiques fairs.
Created in the spirit of Lasdun, it’s easy to imagine that he would enjoy this flat.
What it cost
Maisonette in 2012: £250,000
Money spent, excluding fees and VAT: £80,000
Value now: £465,000 (estimate)
Get the look
- Architect: Ewald Van Der Straeten at Bradley Van Der Straeten
- Builder: Robert Kiersztyn via firstname.lastname@example.org
- Kitchen units: from DIY Kitchens
- Dark grey MDF: from Winwood Products
- Ironmongery: from Hafele and Franchi
- Oak-veneered doors: from Morgan Builders Merchants
- Steel sink: from Franke Kitchen Systems UK
- Steel bespoke worktop: from Iron Metal Works
- Slate: from The Natural Slate Company
Ewald Van Der Straeten’s tips:
“People in the UK don’t always think as long-term as in Europe. Use durable materials, such as Plyboo, even if it is quite expensive, and attractive switch plates, which cost more but look great and last. Quality repays itself not only when you sell, but in your daily life. Your environment has a huge psychological impact. I don’t want to live with nasty fixtures and fittings.
“Invest in light and space — it is crucial to your wellbeing, so make it as good as you can. Council flats, particularly ones like this, are still underappreciated and undervalued, though that attitude is changing fast. Some are better than others, but well-designed ones like these — or the Barbican, of course — are good.”
- The flat will be open to the public for Open House London on Sunday, September 20.