How to get it right first time

A trainee architect's first flat is a masterclass in how to turn a small space into a stylish home on a tight budget
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Main living area
Laying new pale oak floorboards throughout the 612sq ft flat increased the sense of spaciousness and allows flexibility in the use of the main living/kitchen/dining area

Like most young people, 28-year-old Frank Gilks was on a tight budget when he bought his first flat, but as a trainee architect he was keen to do for himself what he was spending his life doing for other people renovating property. The result is a masterclass for all first-timers in how to transform a small space into a designer flat without much money and using every inch of space.

Mr Gilks was living in a shared rented flat in King's Cross when he inherited enough money to give him a deposit on his own place. "I had always wanted to buy. I knew that paying £650 a month in rent was just giving away money," he says.

With his deposit ready he began house-hunting in Hackney because the new East London Line would give him an easy commute to work. He had friends locally, and he felt that the area, close to increasingly fashionable Victoria Park, stood a good chance of capital growth.

"I looked at lots of one-bedroom flats with gardens because of the scope to extend, but in the end I went for a two-bedroom flat with a room I could rent out as the lowest-risk option," he says.

Main bedroom
The ceiling of the main bedroom was knocked out to create an open loft space but with a much-needed extra storage area over the bathroom, reached by a stepladder
Late last year he found a two-double bedroom flat in a period building on the market for £280,000. He had hoped to spend considerably less and, having discovered the flat had been on the market for several months, offered just £250,000.

His offer was swiftly refused and weeks passed until December, when the vendors, still unable to sell, decided to take him up on it.

"The flat had been done up cheaply, and it had been lived in by students so it was very grubby," says Mr Gilks.

Once contracts had been exchanged he began to plan his renovation work.

He is an assistant architect at Morrow+Lorraine ( so he knew that he would not be able to afford serious structural changes, and the layout of the property worked well enough. The biggest problem was its size only 612 sq ft of space.

"I wanted to use it all to maximum effect and gain storage. I needed it to feel bigger," says Mr Gilks. He costed his plans at £25,000.

The kitchen/living room had an awkward L-shaped built-in kitchen - it was impossible to open the door without it crashing into the side of the cupboards. The ugly wall-mounted boiler had been left uncovered and there was dead space below it. The original sash windows were marred by ugly "institutional white" radiators below them. The solution was to move the kitchen to run it along just one wall.

With an eye on budget, Mr Gilks sourced the carcass from Mereway Kitchens (merewaykitchens), adjusting the design to fit the space precisely. He enclosed the boiler and used the space below it to fit in a dishwasher. The carcass cost less than £1,000 and Mr Gilks chose an oak work surface for a bargain £160 from British Hardwoods (

Plenty of space: painting walls and kitchen units the same colour creates an impression of unity and space

The doors are made of MDF and were cut to size and sprayed, for an immaculate finish, by Atmosphere Contracts and Design ( The slender handles are from SDS London (

Mr Gilks chose a Farrow & Ball ( paint for both the cupboard doors and the walls in a soft greeny-grey shade (called Light Blue). Unifying the room in this way made it appear bigger, as did the new pale oak boards laid throughout.

The final touch was to replace the ugly radiators with traditional cast-iron models from Castrads ( These cost about £320 each and Mr Gilks decided against having them spray painted, since the pewter undercoat suited the room and a coat of paint would have cost an extra £50 per radiator.

The bathroom was lined in white tiles, and the economical white suite came from Bathstore ( The main problem was that the bathroom had no natural light. Mr Gilks had a small window made to bring in light from the hallway and to provide ventilation. And for more storage, a utility cupboard was created between the hall and the bathroom.

The large mirror maximises the sense of space and light in the plain white-tiled bathroom
A false wall was built to hide pipework, and Mr Gilks took advantage of this to slot a shelving unit, with mirrored doors, into the space above it to give flush storage space without bulk.

His bedroom had ceilings less than 8ft high. "You could easily touch the top of the room," he says.

However, there was a loft space so he had the low ceiling knocked out, revealing the pitched roof above and raising the room's height.

He had to add new beams to support the roof and used them to hang a row of lights on from SCP ( Behind the bed, another false wall was built with cut-outs creating storage niches. And because the loft extends beyond Mr Gilks's room and over the bathroom, knocking through the ceiling means that this valuable storage space above the bathroom is now easily accessible.

Though the exercise was not aimed so much at adding value as making the flat more enjoyable to live in, and "putting into practice for myself what I do daily for other people", his £25,000 investment appears to have paid off. The flat is now valued at £350,000.

"I think that it is partly to do with the area, which is becoming more trendy," he says. "And it was also a good buy in the first place. But when I had it valued I did ask how much it would be worth if I'd not done anything to it, and they said £280,000."

It means that the project has created a paper profit of about £45,000 not bad after less than a year in residence.

"The £25,000 I spent has gone a long way," adds Mr Gilks. "Would I do it again? Definitely, but it was hard work being ready at 7.30am for the builders, talking to them, being on the phone to them and suppliers every lunchtime, then coming home at 7pm and going through what had been done. But it was a valuable learning curve."

Pictures by Simon Maxwell

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