The Dalston design challenge: from three dingy flats to bright and modern family home

Architect Ben Kilburn and his wife Jane took a dingy Dalston house split into flats and turned it into a bright family home packed with clever design ideas.

You just can’t prepare for  everything, as architect Ben Kilburn and his wife Jane found when they started looking in 2011 for a new house near their old one in Dalston. 

Ben, 49, and Jane, 47, a solicitor, began to outgrow their home of 10 years when first Tess, now 12, then Billie, 10, and Esme, seven, arrived. After 10 months of being shown unsuitable properties they were totally fed up, when an agent said he’d got a house he knew they wouldn’t like, because it was divided into three flats. “We jumped out of our seats,” says Ben. “It was that moment when your eyes meet across a crowded room and you fall in love.” 

A STROKE OF GENIUS: TAKE A TOUR OF THE KILBURN FAMILY HOUSE IN DALSTON TRANSFORMED FROM DINGY FLATS INTO A DREAM HOME...



A project like this is catnip to an architect, so on a gloomy November day the couple went to view the big, four-storey, 1870s semi-detached house. It was dark, dirty, battered from tenants’ bikes — and a wall went slap up the middle of the collapsing staircase, dividing the flats. Apart from two Carrara marble fireplaces, all original features had been ripped out or covered over, and there were what Ben calls “significant” cracks, both in the side and spine walls. 

However, since a good architect and a good builder can fix pretty much anything, the couple made an offer well below the £850,000 asking price — only to discover they hadn’t seen the worst of it. The side wall was bellying out at third- and fourth-floor level, and when they brought in a structural surveyor to work out why, they found a catalogue of horrors.

First, the old slate roof tiles had been replaced by heavy concrete ones that were pressing down on the house, causing the joists to pop out of their sockets. Then, the person who converted the house to flats had hacked through the timber structural bracing to the upper floors — so if not for the place next door propping it up like a tottering drunkard, the house might have fallen down.

 

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The living room features reclaimed Victorian floorboards and new double-glazed sashes

THE RISK PAID OFF
Feeling confident no one else would be rushing to buy, and having been quoted £50,000 to mend the “pregnant” wall, the couple reduced their offer further. To their shock, the owner put the house into a December auction.

At this point lots of people would have  thrown in the towel, but not the Kilburns. Ben was out of town, so Jane went to the auction alone. “You can track bids on your phone,” says Ben, “but you don’t know who is bidding.”

Having agreed that their max was £800,000, he then watched the bids zip up to that mark. Then they started rising in £1,000 increments. “It went to £800,000, £801, £802, £803,” he says. “Then it stopped.” Dismayed, he thought they had lost it by a hair, when, 10 minutes later, Jane rang to say they’d got it.



Next, just before the Christmas break, the couple were told they wouldn’t be able to transport their mortgage from the old house to the new one until the bulging wall had been rebuilt, inspected, and passed. They got that done by April — and their mortgage was moved. 

A happy ending? Not quite. Before going to auction, Ben had done the right thing and checked with the planners whether he could convert the house back to a single dwelling from the three flats. He was told it was no problem. But between that phone call and putting in their planning application, Hackney council changed its policy.

“Our hearts stopped,” says Ben. “We were sitting on a half-derelict investment, and the tenants had left, so there wasn’t even an income.” Luckily, their application went to planning committee — a bit like an appeal court — where it went through without a hitch. From that moment their luck changed. Between May 2012 and May 2013 they were able to rent a nearby flat and start the massive building programme.
 

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The family's bright, light-filled home library is part of the original, existing extension that looks out to the garden

TIME TO STRIP
They had already taken off the roof and rebuilt it, and rebuilt half the top of the house. Now they stripped out all the  rotten wiring and plumbing, ripped out the floorboards on the two lower floors, along with the windows, demolished the false ceilings, and took out the staircase. “Bit by bit, we got pretty close to taking the whole house down and rebuilding it,” says Ben.

Welsh slates went up on the roof, plus photovoltaic and solar panels. They insulated the roof, the walls and the floors. They replaced rotten floorboards with good, similar Victorian reclaimed ones; had the windows remade as timber double-glazed sashes; put in underfloor heating, new wiring, and plumbing for extra bathrooms; had new cornices moulded, and a replica staircase made with a gorgeous oak handrail. Slowly the house came back to life as an open, welcoming and sustainable family home with wonderfully high ceilings. 

A stroke of genius was to connect the spacious lower-ground to the raised ground floor by means of an existing small, two-storey extension. They removed the floor in it, creating a sort of large glazed chimney looking out to the garden, and it holds their library. You can call — and see — up or down between these two floors, so everyone feels connected, wherever they are. 

Looking now at this beautiful, serene house, which won the Architects’ Journal small projects sustainability award 2013, you would  never guess the transformation that went on here.

PROJECT DETAILS 
House in 2011: cost £803,000 
Money spent: £400,000 (excluding architect's fees, estimated at about 15 per cent, in this case £60,000. Prices vary, so agree them when hiring your architect) 
Value now: estimated at £2 million 
Architect: Ben Kilburn (www.kilburnnightingale.com) 
Builder: Padraig Flanelly at Moy Homes (07976 362665) 
Interior design advice: from Kate Hinckley (katiejhinckley@gmail.com

Photographs: Charles Hosea


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