Client of the Month: After a Year of Planning, Work Begins on Peter and Mary’s Dream Chelsea Home

Monday, March 13, 2017

Animators Peter and Mary were looking for a future home in Chelsea for them to eventually settle down in. After initially being too scared to buy it, due to it being Grade II listed and in need of total restoration, this period terraced townhouse came up for sale again, one year later. This time – with our help – they decided to go for it. After coming out of their second site meeting with spirits high, we caught up with Peter to reflect on the journey so far.

Listed renovations are a lot of work. What made you go through with buying this house?

I grew up in Wandsworth and I would often cycle over the bridge to King’s Road, and our family tradition was to do Christmas shopping there. Though we’re living outside of London at the moment, this area of the London has always felt like home and Mary and I decided that we would love to eventually settle there. Strangely, I never really realised I was a Londoner until I lived outside of London.

We first saw this house two years ago. It’s in the perfect location with a fantastic view out towards Duke of York’s HQ, but because it needed complete restoration we were worried about taking on such a big project. It is Grade II listed and that is something we were completely new to, so we had no idea how to go about that side of things. We had done many alterations to our homes over the years, and knowing how stressful building work can be, we were scared this house would be too much for us to take on.

So, we didn’t go for it and it was bought by someone else. One year later we were still looking and the estate agent casually mentioned that this house was back on the market and asked if we’d like to see it one more time. When we saw it again, even though it was still in a stripped out condition, we realised it was one of a kind. The house has such a great feeling to it. And the first-floor drawing room, with floor to ceiling Georgian shuttered windows, looking out on the great view, is very special.

The difference this time was that we had met John Dyer-Grimes through talking about alterations to our current house.

We took John round to see the Chelsea house and he was really enthusiastic about it, we were going back and forth with ideas immediately as we walked around. John started making rough sketches on the spot.

Suddenly everything seemed possible. Working with DGA would take away all the stress and uncertainties of having to deal with heritage people and the council. DGA would handle that and they would know far more than us about what we could and could not do to the house.

It seems almost fated that in came back in front of you after a year of looking.

Yes, that’s right. There was no doubt this time, we just had to go for it. And then, of course, we were worried someone else would buy it, but we got it.

And now it’s been about a year of planning and that’s mostly down to having to wait around six weeks every time we submitted a design because we had to send it to the planning department and for listed buildings approval.

A year is a long time to spend in the planning process. Were you ever worried or frustrated?

For me, because I do design work in my job, it was actually very relaxing. In the past, when we moved house, we made changes and additions gradually while, at the same time, living in the building. It has been completely different to make hundreds of decisions for each room ahead of moving in, but luckily, we weren’t working to any deadline so we could take our time with all those decisions.

I think Mary found it a little bit odd, because her creative style is to allow things to evolve naturally as she works and she always feels like a better solution is just around the corner. But because we had so much time we could still work through things very gradually and give ideas time to grow, and John and his team were very good at making the abstract feel solid.

The great thing about working out ideas in drawings, is that drawings are relatively easy to modify. Even though the layout of the building is remaining the same, there are still so many possibilities, especially to do with incorporating modern elements – such as heating, wiring, lighting – into a period house in such a way that everything feels right.

What were your objectives with the design for the home?

Even when completely empty and with so much work needed, the house has this fantastic character to it. We love the remaining Georgian features, such as the staircase, the window heights and the fireplaces. I think, because I’ve been brought up in London, I find something very reassuring about the classic Georgian and Victorian house layout, where you know you walk through the door and the living room will be to the left or right of the stairs, and if you keep going you’ll step out of a back door into the garden.

We wanted to preserve or in some places restore that original character, but update it to be more comfortable, with a modern kitchen and bathrooms and lighting. I think the mix of contemporary and period fits very well in London and it somehow doesn’t seem jarring at all. Maybe that’s because so many of these period homes have been modernised inside over the years. Whatever the reason, the mix of highly modern with Georgian high ceilings and windows feels right to me.

Saying that, we didn’t want to make it one of those houses where the façade looks period but the interior could be a hotel anywhere in the world. We want it to still be a late Georgian townhouse and much of the hidden work we are doing is actually to do with restoring and stabilising the basic structure of the house so it will stand for many, many more years.

Because we were starting with a totally stripped out house, this was the first time we’ve been able to step back and think, what would we really like our home to be like? Do we want music in each room? Where should the lights be? Even the little things like ideal places for power points and ethernet would be too much to change in our present home – there’s no way we’re going to be channelling into the walls of our current house now that it is decorated and being lived in.

You can be a lot more ambitious once you’ve got an architect on your side.

Well that’s it, isn’t it? In a sense, everything is possible. It’s really relaxing to consider every option and if we don’t do something, we’ve at least considered it. And John was very good about explaining the different cost implications. It’s all very well to say you want to do everything, but depending on what standard of finish you want, that’s going to have a huge impact on the overall cost.

That’s another aspect that’s been reassuring, because right from the beginning we’ve always been talking about an overall budget that we’re aiming for. When we’ve made changes during the design process, they’ve been reflected in the figures really quickly, which made it easy to think about how we wanted to balance the costs; if we cut a bit here then we can add a bit more here, or if we compromise on this detail that we won’t miss then we could afford a detail that we love.

You recently had your second site meeting. How are you feeling now that the boots on the ground work has started?

It’s such a privilege to feel that this is all happening on our behalf, to just turn up at the site, have our coffees and discuss the build and be shown around the house. We’re discovering the history of the house as they reveal some of the original structure, finding all sorts of odd details like little bricked up doors and, inevitably, some problems that only reveal themselves once building work starts.

That’s the thing with old builds, you have to deal with the ghosts of every prior builder and architect who’s tried to work on it.

Yes, all those little temporary fixes that were done in the past really do add up. So, this is the first time for many years, perhaps ever, that someone has been able to go in and get to the root of all these problems and make sure the entire house is sound. There have been damp problems in the past, partly caused by the design of the roof and leaking downpipes. Now, we have an opportunity to fix those problems in a long term way.

The prior owner, who we know loved the house, did some research on the history of this building, and it’s been fascinating looking at all the different families that have lived in it, since it was built in about 1840, and how many different ways the building’s been used through the generations.

We climbed the scaffolding and went up on the roof – probably the only time we’ll have the chance to do that – and it’s incredible to imagine what these terraces would have looked like when they were first being built on empty fields.

Getting that glimpse into its history must leave you with a far more intimate connection to the home that you would have otherwise.

Yes, it almost gains a life of its own. With the listed buildings people, their attitude is that these buildings are not just for the current owners but they’re also for future generations, so it’s our responsibility to preserve them. Everyone grumbles about having to deal with heritage laws but, at the same time, we all appreciate it because that’s why the terrace looks so nice, because people haven’t been able to spoil its character.

Saying that, I can tell some of its eccentricities bother John. There are no right angles anywhere in this house, and John – being an architect and a perfectionist – prefers right angles to the trapezoid shape that is the floor plan of this house. He has incredibly high standards, higher than either of us – so, by the time that he thinks something’s fine, then it’s definitely fine!