Renovating: from run-down wreck to dream Georgian home - adding £800k in value

Architect Nick Leith-Smith found a dilapidated dream house in south London. All he had to do was bring it slowly back to life.
Knowing what you want really helps when buying a house. Architect Nick Leith-Smith — who designs stores for luxury shoemaker Manolo Blahnik — and his Portuguese-Brazilian wife Susana, 37, a banker, had their hearts set on a specific type of house in a particular area... and it didn’t take them long to find it.
 
The couple were searching for a place to raise a family and decided they wanted a Georgian house in a particular area of Stockwell, south London. Fortunately there are still plenty that the Second World War bombs missed, though many people are only now waking up to the charms of this part of town.
 
The house they bought, in 2011, was on Susana’s cycle route from her Clapham flat to her office, and was the third they looked at.
 
Though it was in poor condition, and the carpets were virtually jumping with moths, Leith-Smith, 40, could see “the bones were incredibly good”. It faced east-west, which guarantees the best light, and had a mature 40-foot garden, including two trees as old as the house.

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“If you buy an old house,” he adds, “be prepared to replace all the wiring and plumbing, and probably a lot more, so budget for it.” The slate roof had to be renewed, too, but it created an opportunity to add insulation. And those carpets have now been replaced with dark oak floorboards.
 
This four-storey, 1820s house had a Nineties extension on the back, that, while basic, the couple were happy to keep. Lit by skylights, the kitchen/diner contained country-look units with an Aga, concrete flagstones, and cheap old white aluminium doors, which they upgraded with Crittall ones. Sensibly, they parked themselves in that part of the house while works were done above, and while their first child, Olympia, now three-and-a-half, was born.
 
Leith-Smith explains that if you buy a Grade II-listed house in a conservation area, you have to accept that you don’t own it, you’re just “borrowing” it. Planners don’t take kindly to any changes that appear to be mere whims, and tend only to pass things that maintain or improve the property.
 
Upstairs, Leith-Smith saw that two original bedrooms, with their outdated bathroom and small separate loo, could be improved by moving a door opening to create a much better flow on the entire floor.
 
“Moving that door just 50 centimetres was probably the most difficult thing I have ever got through planning, in 15 years as an architect,” he laughs. But the proof that he was right is that you don’t even notice — what you do see is a glamorous front-to-back master-bedroom and dressing room with floor-to-ceiling wardrobes he designed.
 
There is a bathroom with a floating basin console he designed in bold Arabescato marble, a claw-foot bath and posh taps. The bespoke walk-in shower has cobalt-blue micro tiles, and the loo has a thick, sand-blasted door. The unstuffy elegance continues with a padded peacock bed, yellow Designers Guild curtains, and geometric wallpaper.
 
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Old and new: bold modern furnishings suit the grand Georgian rooms

The couple, who met on holiday in Ibiza, like counterpointing the old house with new décor. They took care to replace missing bits of cornice, restored the beautiful mahogany handrail on the stairs, and love spending weekends hunting for great furniture.
 
Their old/new glamour continues in the first-floor drawing room. Unusually, this sunny room goes right across the full width at the back, because the staircase sits near the front door, which is a real space-saver and allows for the generous drawing room with original French windows.
 
Here, Leith-Smith designed a mirrored alcove using joined pieces of antiqued glass, giving a French effect. He also made a cocktail cabinet from Portuguese chestnut that they shipped back.
 
“Susana’s parents had built a house near Porto and there were some planks left,” he says. In addition, he used the wood to make a 10-seater table for the basement dining area downstairs.
 
He loves designing interiors. As well as the Blahnik stores, he is shortlisted to design a bar in Mayfair, so doing furniture, such as his latest piece — a copper-clad floating cupboard unit — comes naturally. Raised in Hong Kong where his father was a pilot, he loved drawing, and his vocation came quickly: “The minute I realised you could make a living designing houses and furniture — when I was about seven — that was it.

Leith-Smith’s tips for buying an old house
  • If you buy a listed house, be prepared for a long planning process.
  • Unless there are major structural faults, most problems can be fixed.
  • Get a full structural survey and have a chat with a sympathetic architect before committing.
  • Lighting is very important. I put in an extra line of cornice and dropped LED lights behind that. I used a Rako system that has a radio-wave dimmer system, so you need much less wiring. 

What the project cost
House when bought in November 2011: £1.2 million
Refurbishment cost: (without architects’ or any other fees) £250,000-£300,000
Value now: about £1.95 million
 
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