Small space ideas:how to get the most out of tightly-packed central London homes

It might have looked like a sweet little cottage in need of love but it was a monster refurb. At least the architectural designer who helped transform it was a saint.

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The trick to being a smart Londoner is making the space you’ve got go further. Go up, down, or out; reconfigure the space to make it work harder or redecorate to make it look better. Any one of these will help, but the real triumph comes when you manage to do them all.

As architectural designer Richard MacRae of Suffolk studio EDRM knows, if you go for the works it takes a good nature, patience, and much more time and money than you ever imagined. “It’s like having a baby,” he says. “Afterwards, you enjoy the result so much you forget all the pain.”

MacRae was asked to pull this trick off for a busy working woman with a small Regency terrace cottage in a central London mews.

The house started life 200 years ago as a modest one-bedroom home for one of Queen Victoria’s dressmakers. The dark front basement kitchen had a low ceiling, and there was a privy in the yard. Over the years the small yard had been closed over with a roof lantern to create a room with a loo and a laundry. Strangely, the guttering remained inside the house. The owner called this her “water feature.”

Inspired: architectural designer Richard MacRae came up with the masterplan for a total overhaul of the now-charming 200-year-old central London mews house (Juliet Murphy)


Award-winning London architects DSDHA were asked to investigate whether she could build upwards, or dig a full basement right under the house. In tightly packed historic bits of London, each case is carefully considered. If you are fortunate/unfortunate enough to live on the Grosvenor Estate you not only have the council planners to contend with, but also the rules and regulations of the estate.

Every application for alterations costs money, and takes time. A neighbour objected to any increase in height, while the estate contested digging down. It was back to the drawing board.

That’s when MacRae was asked to look into other options. He suggested lowering the floor of the existing basement room to increase head height, and making a smart guest bedroom and bathroom. This would allow the removal of the bathroom in the extension.

In turn, the extension would become a big, bright, sunny, clean-lined conservatory room with a semi-open kitchen at the far end. The whole house would also be renovated and redecorated.

Stunning volume and freshness: contemporary country is the look in the new, improved conservatory, with panelled walls, including one mirrored, a cast-iron filigree dividing rail and a renovated roof lantern with practical self-cleaning glass (Juliet Murphy)

Once the plan was decided, all the applications — to Grosvenor, then to the council planners — and negotiating with the neighbours over party wall agreements, took nearly two years and cost £25,000 in fees. Each application, investigation, engineers report and survey costs money. Applications for skips have to be approved and paid for, and if you apply for party wall agreements, you pay for your neighbour’s surveys, too, so costs soon spiral.


Finally, the building started. “Ripping out is satisfying,” MacRae says. “You see dramatic progress every day.” But tons of rubble had to be carried up by hand. “Skips cost a lot and must be licenced. And in a narrow mews, skip delivery is tricky, upsets the traffic flow and everyone around.”

Eventually, the excavations revealed six-and-a-half precious feet of extra depth — result! The walls were underpinned, the damp proofing, tanking and a pump were installed, underfloor heating went in, plus screeding and new wood floors. The extra basement ceiling height was transformational.


MacRae has a fantastic eye for making small changes with big results. The closed–in stair wall became glass where it ran up the side of the living room. Below, an internal window was cut into the wall in the basement that now gives a long view right through from kitchen to the newly refurbished front basement bedroom. That bedroom has a pocket door in sandblasted glass, so even when closed, light diffuses through.

Creative with colour: Farrow & Ball’s top consultant Joa Studholme advised Celadon and silver wallpaper for the reception, where a leather sofa in warm tan was scaled to fit the space (Juliet Murphy)

Tread-sensitive stair lights come on for glamour as well as practical lighting, while a big wall mirror adds more light. And a 32sq ft black-and-white-tiled bath/shower room is finished with a touch LED-lit mirror that never fogs, and a mirror-fronted, ceiling-high cupboard.

The light well off the basement bedroom has been glassed in with a smart folding window and holds plants.

In the newly improved conservatory, a cast-iron filigree railed wall dividing it from the front room was stripped back, renovated and painted — a charming touch — and the doorway to the conservatory was widened for flow and light. The old roof lantern was revived with high-performance self-cleaning glass, and fresh leadwork. This was a great money-saving idea, as the old structure was sound.

The conservatory walls were panelled floor-to-ceiling for a contemporary country look, then one entire panelled wall was mirrored. Plentiful top light plus reflected light gives this core room stunning volume and freshness.

A bespoke built-in corner banquette and metamorphic table that goes up and down, unfolding from a coffee table to a dining table that seats six, maximises the space.


The talented top colour consultant at Farrow & Ball, Joa Studholme, enhanced the room with a palette of soft grey-greens. Finally, a Chesney’s electric “wood-burning” stove using ultrasonic technology makes realistic-looking flames, creating a centrepiece and atmosphere.

The fun part: gentle, pared-back colour palette and clean-line furnishings (Juliet Murphy)

Throughout the home, Studholme tonally linked paints and wallpapers, from a glamorous metallic paper in the master bedroom, complemented by iridescent turquoise micro tiles in the en suite bathroom, to pale greys, creams and willow green.

Celadon and silver wallpaper in the entrance room makes a warm and sophisticated backdrop, while an extravagantly multicoloured Lacroix fabric gives a pop of colour to two armless chairs that can be pushed together, and a leather sofa has been scaled to fit the space in warm pale tan.

None of this was quick or easy to do and delays were often frustrating. But you have to lay good foundations for such a job, and details can make or break. As MacRae says, once the backbreaking groundwork’s done, the next stages — underfloor heating, joinery, plumbing, lighting and decorating — flow on.


Whatever you think the cost of a project like this will be, double it, and the same goes for time. Richard MacRae says: “You need contingency money — AND contingency good humour and contingency patience.”


Photographs: Juliet Murphy

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