Transforming a run-down industrial unit in east London into a modern maisonette

Cookery writer Rachel Walker transformed a Victorian workshop with low ceilings and a concrete floor in Bethnal Green into a fresh, two-storey home with a little outside yard and a front-to-back living room...
Cookery writer Rachel Walker is no stranger to inventive tricks. “When the washing is almost dry, I fold it up neatly and put it on the Aga,” she says. “It dries looking as if it has been ironed.” These skills have been put to good use in converting a run-down former industrial unit in east London into a modern maisonette with a big, open kitchen at its heart — all on a tight budget of £50,000. 

The Victorian workshop space in Bethnal Green, with low ceilings and a concrete floor, is now a fresh, two-storey house with a little outside yard and a front-to-back living room.

Walker, 28, who last summer married Tom, an insurance broker, went to Oundle School, then Oxford University, earning extra money as a cook and doing “bonkers” jobs up and down the country along the way. She is now the food editor at Reader’s Digest, developing recipes for the magazine. 

She and Tom rented, until one day they reached breaking point. “We loved cooking and entertaining, but we only had a tiny, windowless kitchen,” Walker explains. “I was catering an executive breakfast, and had 200 muffins stacked all over the place. We were on the fourth floor, and Tom was racing up and down the stairs putting warm muffins in a cab.” 
 


It was time to go house hunting. Walker was determined to stay in the area, so they walked around until they discovered a grid of old workshops in E2, some of which had been converted to residential. They tried to buy one and were gazumped three times, then tried another, just two doors down, to the same effect. At the end of their tether, they made one final offer and it was accepted. They heard that the deal had gone through when they were on their honeymoon. 

From then on, things moved fast. The two-storey workshop had a grim basement, with dark-painted exposed brick walls and layers of lino and rotting underlay on the floor. On the ground floor, a huge shower room, almost in the centre of the flat, stopped light flowing through and made the rest of the space feel small. Squashed behind the bathroom was a little kitchen, leading out to the tiny yard through big glazed doors. 



They hired a young architect and friend, Hannah Fothergill, who understood their wish for a big space to cook for friends, with the open-plan kitchen absolutely at the heart of things, and just a small loo practically tucked into a cupboard. 

Walker wanted an Aga, too. “I was brought up in an old house in rural Leicestershire with an ancient one, the sort you can’t switch off,” she says. So she has had one of the new electric ones installed. She not only dries her washing on it, but cooks overnight, including her breakfast porridge. She has now become an Aga ambassador and does demonstrations on it. 
 
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Industrial chic: the bedroom has surface-mounted electrics and built-in storage

Finding the builders was another stroke of luck — when the architect put the job out to tender, Walker was dismayed by how hefty the quotes were, so she tweeted for recommendations for a good builder and a small company replied, recommending themselves. “They came round that night and we hired them,” she says. 

Her hunch paid off. The young team at Propia, headed by Charlie Hurlbatt and James Wells, helped her to save money. Because the home had once been a workshop, it had surface-mounted electrics. Instead of sinking them into the exposed brick walls and plastering over them, which would have been expensive, they embraced the industrial look and had new metal conduits mounted, leaving the brickwork — which is in surprisingly good condition — bare. 

Propia was instructed to construct the open-plan kitchen around the Aga, using it as a central theme, to create a cosy and homely space. 
 
The builders fitted an Ikea kitchen and found a cheap solid timber worktop. They also made a wall of lug-pull drawers in the downstairs bedroom and created storage in a sliding wardrobe, which features LED lights inside that come on as the door opens. 

The work started at the end of December and took just eight weeks to complete. In March, the couple moved in. 

For entertaining, Walker wanted a long refectory table, but was horrified to learn that they cost thousands. “So I went to the guys under the railway arches who weld roof racks and said, ‘If you can weld roof racks, surely you can weld me a table?’” 

The result — a steel frame with a top of scaffolding planks, and two matching benches — is a triumph, and cost just £500. “Asking people — and being nice to them — can get you a really long way,” says Walker. 

With its industrial bones still intact, the finished maisonette looks great. And the couple love being part of an artisan community. “I know it’s ridiculous, but I’m still pinching myself,” she says.

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Money-saving solution: the refectory table and matching benches were made from scaffolding planks by a local roof rack welding firm


WHAT IT COST
Maisonette in 2014: £515,000
Works: £50,000
Valued now at: £775,000

GET THE LOOK
Rachel Walker is an Aga ambassador. To book a demonstration, go via her blog at thefoodieat.org or email her at thefoodieat@gmail.com. Agas are available at agaliving.com.

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