'The doors were the first thing to go': we gutted a Sixties London house to create our contemporary dream home

Architect Ralf Eikelberg found an over-divided and cramped Sixties house in Ham and created a contemporary open-plan and flexible family home.
Architectural designer Ralf Eikelberg is standing in his light, open-plan, two-storey home in Ham, near Richmond. The Sixties-built house — where he lives with his Turkish wife Kitle and their four-year-old daughter, Ida — is all very Austin Powers, emphasised by a collectable Moroso Fjord chair. “We totally gutted it,” says Eikelberg, beaming.
 
Ida is glued to the huge TV that shuts away in a stylish bespoke cabinet painted burnt red. An exposed steel beam spans the space that was formerly boxed in.
 
“There used to be a huge gas-fired heater right in the middle here, too,” says German-born Eikelberg. “Basically, a giant hairdryer — which didn’t work.” Now, smart vertical radiators take up little floor space — and belt out heat.
 
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The kitchen is all stainless steel, though softened with oak tops. Off it, there’s a utility room and a larder that used to be the bin store, with more steel.
 
The stairs, with a new, clean-lined timber balustrade designed by Eikelberg, are carpeted in Sixties yellow, lit from a skylight punched right up through a tiny loft space. The grey-green slate floor of the kitchen complements the other colours well, and light now comes from three sides and above.

Even though the square-plan house is only 1,155sq ft, it feels bigger. The whole downstairs space has original picture windows at the back that look out to a generous terrace and a communal garden beyond. “We kept the glazing,” says Eikelberg. “It’s in keeping and in good condition, and that saved a lot of money.”
 
When they bought it, the house was overdivided. A cramped lobby led straight to a small downstairs loo, then a door to the first room, then a double door to the dining room, then another door to the kitchen. “All doors. And one carpeted bathroom,” he shudders. “It was horrible.”
   
Now, where there are doors at all, they are sliding pocket ones that save space. They are usually open, except in the two upstairs bathrooms: one that connects cleverly both to the hall on one side and the revamped master bedroom on the other; another little one off the guest room that doubles as the couple’s home office.
 
Here, Eikelberg designed a desk with a top that folds down when not in use, a trick he has also used in the kitchen to make a fold-out dining table.
 
Back upstairs, another good idea they had was to make the guest bathroom sliding door opaque glass, which brings lots of borrowed light into the office.
 
The other really interesting thing is the tactile, deep grey concrete-board that clads the under-stairs cupboard and also the walls of the master bedroom. Giving a super-smart, almost velvety-looking washable finish, this stuff is MDF dipped in concrete and is as cheap as chips.
 
“Some of my clients are asking for it now,” says Eikelberg.
 
“I wasn’t so sure of the idea at first,” Kitle adds. “But I really like it.” Rated for outdoors use, it can be easily wiped down, which makes it child friendly.
 
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Outside space: the house has a generous terrace with a communal garden beyond

Outside the house, children are having a great time playing on a well-tended grass space surrounded by a sweep of townhouses, watched beadily by the communal cat. It’s so idyllic, and quiet, that it makes you wonder why we don’t build more of this type of development, with spacious, adaptable houses and good landscaping.
 
Developer Wates built this mini village in 1964, on 60 acres of land. Ham is very near to posh Richmond, and has its own collection of impressive Georgian homes, including magnificent 17th-century Ham House. But because of its lack of a direct Tube link, Ham is a still-affordable pocket in a desirable area that feels almost like country.

These three-bedroom houses, dotted with lots of green in between, still sell for about £650,000. Compare that with Richmond and you can see the attraction.

After studying interior design in Germany, Eikelberg came to London in 2002 to study architecture and learn English. Kitle, a psychological counsellor, came the same year to study English “for a couple of months”. The pair met at a language school and married in 2006.
 
Their first flat was a tiny 319sq ft bedsit, but it was in King’s Road in Chelsea and they loved it. They stayed there for five years, moving to Ladbroke Grove afterwards, having Ida in 2011.
 
By 2013, it was time to buy a house with outside space for Ida, and they settled on the area around Ham because it has an excellent German school and was relatively affordable.
 
Eikelberg liked the idea of a fairly modern house, and when they found the private estate, he studied all the house typologies to work out what would suit them best. The minute their house came up, they put in quite a low offer, which was a risk, but the owners wanted to retire, and accepted it.
 
Things moved fast, and they completed in January last year, keeping their flat while Eikelberg’s architecture company did the designs and he hired a builder. The works, which are essentially internal, took five months.
 
“There were a few heated discussions about plans and colours,” says his wife. A keen cook, she admits she wasn’t sold on steel at first, as she was worried about marks and cleaning it easily. “But in fact, it just makes you more careful, and I really like it.”
 
“She was a difficult client,” Eikelberg jokes. “These house types offer huge potential to change around inside and, unlike period buildings, the fabric is usually in better condition.”
 
WHAT IT COST
House in 2013: On sale for £530,000, bought last year for £485,000
Works: (with Eikelberg doing a lot himself and no professional fees) £100,000
Value now (estimate): £750,000
 

GET THE LOOK
  • Interior design, bespoke furniture and architecture: Ralf Eikelberg, from London Atelier Architects 
  • Builder: Norbert Skarzynski at Project TC 
  • Steel kitchen units from Ikea 
  • South American green slate floor tiles from Fired Earth 
  • Hermelin 2D07 yellow carpet from Vorwerk 
  • Viroc cement board from viroc 
  • Fjord 2002 chair by Patricia Urquiola for Moroso or other stockists such as www.nest.co.uk
  • Upright radiators from Zehnder 
  • Opaque glass bathroom door and all sliding doors from Eclisse 
  • Engineered UV-treated oak flooring from Source Wood Floors 
RALF EIKELBERG'S TOP TIPS
  • The design should be in keeping with the house. We didn’t make ours too radically modern — it is sympathetic to the Sixties feel.
  • Good-quality vertical radiators have a strong modern line, are efficient and only take up a little floor space.
  • If you are on a budget, don’t automatically rip out things such as perfect-condition windows. Upgrade or change them later if you wish.
  • Sliding pocket doors save lots of space and look great.
  • A skylight over the top of the stairs made the whole stairwell really light and drew light down to the ground floor, too.
  • We wanted to lower the floors to gain more room height, but it was too difficult and costly to dig out the concrete, so instead we put stylish recesses in the ceilings, which we lit with LEDs on their own circuit. These are attractive, give a sense of borrowed height, and at night create a beautiful soft light.
  • A simple mirror at the end of the little hall reflects all the way to the garden and doubles the sense of space.
  • Bespoke furniture that folds down or hides things is really worth it to make your space work harder for you and look more streamlined. Made with coloured MDF, it needn’t cost the earth.
  • On the staircase landing walls, “one-coat” plaster has an attractive soft tone, and is quick and cheap to apply. Any plasterer knows what it is. We love the colour, so just sealed it.

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