How John and Jemima Turned a Derelict House into their Dream Home

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Jemima and I had moved six times in six years, each time using our homes as an opportunity to broaden our property development skills and experiment with new ideas for our fledgeling practice. But with two growing children, it was time for us to settle down and build our forever home.

As many of you reading this will know, the search for the perfect property was very stressful. A succession of offers falling through had left us feeling dispirited, so picture my surprise when Jemima came home in tears to tell me, “I’ve found the house of our dreams.”

A dream home for an architect is very different from the norm. In short, it was a wreck, but one with a solid Victorian structure and ample potential for improvement. The previous owner, who had passed away at 95, hadn’t touched the house for 45 years, and it showed.

Victorian property for renovation in Putney
This was our first look at the house; overgrown, dark and neglected. Definitely not somewhere you would want to move in to right away, but the absolute perfect candidate for restoration.

Like many Victorian homes, the rear was a higgledy-piggledy mess of different sized structures and windows, on top of which a misplaced rear extension had been tacked on, along with an ugly little lower ground lean-to which housed a tiny, dark kitchen. The cherry on top was a thick layer of ivy and a completely wild garden.

The interior – though neglected – was full of Victorian period details such as cornices, ceiling roses, original timbers, decorative tiles and fireplaces, some of which were only discovered as we started stripping back the walls to expose the original structure.

John Dyer Grimes sitting in front of period fireplace in Putney
Behind me is one of the many Victorian fireplaces which we carried over into the final design. You can see the restored version in the photo of the finished living room below.
John and Jemima Dyer-Grimes in their Victorian period restoration in Putney

Our objectives became clear: we would open up the cramped floor plan, introduce more natural light indoors (which currently disappeared after midday) and improve garden access, while preserving and restoring the priceless Victorian fabric.

First, we would have to demolish both of the incongruous rear extensions to make way for a new, glazing-rich design at the back. This resulted in a surreal moment where there was a door to nowhere on the first floor opening up into the garden.

Victorian restoration in progress in Putney
My favourite photo from the project, just after we had demolished the rear extension, creating a surreal door to nowhere.

Through our previous home development ventures, Jemima and I had developed a taste for uninterrupted views of the garden from the front door. In this case, we took this design to the extreme by replacing the entire rear wall behind the staircase with glass – flooding the interior with light and creating a stunning “wow” moment when first opening the door.

In place of the dingy lean-to extension, we built a contemporary side extension with matching materials and knocked down the adjoining wall to create a far larger kitchen – made to seem even bigger with a mirrored wall on one end.

Kitchen renovation and extension in Putney
On the left, the tiny, dark kitchen crammed into the old lean-to extension. On the right, the bright, mirrored open plan dining room which took its place.

All this work would have been for nothing had we left the ground floor half-buried, so we brought in JCBs to dig out around half a metre of earth so that the kitchen floor would be flush with a new patio, with steps up to a fresh, open lawn.

We worked with heritage craftspeople to restore as many of the original Victorian features as we could or make authentic replicas where it was missing or beyond saving. We even made a few Victorian-style additions of our own, such as an architrave in the hall, to better integrate our structural changes.

All the fireplaces were painstakingly removed so that they could be taken away by a specialist fireplace company to clean up and repair before being put back in again.

The spectacular winding balustrade of the staircase had lost all but two of its spindles, but luckily they were in good enough condition to be taken to a carpenter for a full batch of perfect replicas, allowing us to completely restore the staircase to its former glory.

The most dramatic transformation was the stairwell, now backed by a spectacular three-storey window. The original balustrade was restored and the timbers sanded and polished to a brilliant shine.

My personal obsession was the brickwork, which I cleaned and repointed myself so that I could get it exactly right. I’m sure our new neighbours thought I was mad when they saw me up on the roof shaving away at the chimney brickwork with an angle grinder!

The project was tremendously satisfying, and our children shared in the excitement as they ran around the derelict house and the bulldozers and diggers (though it was a health and safety nightmare). For almost a year, it filled our evenings and weekends and any other time off we had, and looking over the photos for this article overwhelmed me with nostalgia.

Derelict Victorian house in Putney conservation area
Restored conservation area Victorian house in Putney
The house is in a conservation area, so not much has changed at the front other than the removal of the odd blinders around the windows. The front wall, though almost identical, was entirely rebuilt as the original had to be condemned.

In an uncharacteristic change of pace for us, Jemima and I haven’t carried out any further works on the house since we completed it – though we are eyeing up future plans to better accommodate our children as they grow into teenagers.

We never converted the loft or extended on top of the garage, but the idea which most excites me is to build a pod in the back garden to serve as a studio or teenager’s den. But for now, we’re happy to leave our design work at the practice and come home to a space perfectly designed for our family.

Contemporary extension and renovation in Putney
Compare this photo of the house as it neared completion with the photos above to see how much has changed and, surprisingly, how much has stayed the same.

If you want more, click here for a photo tour to see what our finished home looks like.

John Dyer-Grimes