Nobody wanted this pair of old cottages, that is, until this couple spotted them and turned them into a light-filled house
You or I would probably never think of turning the inside of our house through 90 degrees. For Cathi du Toit and Peter Thomas (both architects), it was the first thing they agreed on after purchasing their rather odd one-and-three-quarter cottages in north London.
Cathi and Peter had been hunting for a ‘project’ for 18 months. ‘Having reached the end of my tether, I saw this place completely by accident in an estate agent’s window,’ says Cathi. The owners were a couple in their nineties who could no longer cope with the building. Consequently, it was a wreck. ‘There was no bathroom – just a sink and a tin bath,’ says Peter. ‘It was in a state of near-dereliction.’
The layout was odd, too. Made up of two cottages, the first faced the main road, while the second, an old, single-storey works with an attached garage, had its entrance on a side street and was an awkward extra space to the rear of the house. Factor into the equation a bedroom that could only be reached by going through the other bedroom, no real bathroom, a top floor with a butterfly roof so low that you couldn’t stand up, and, as Cathi puts it, the place was a ‘bit fusty’ and it’s hardly surprising that no one would touch it with a bargepole. Except for Cathi and Peter, that is. They’d been pleading with estate agents for months to as Cathi puts it: ‘show us something that’s wrecked!’
At last they’d found their ‘wreck’. ‘It’s not often you have two houses that are split,’ says Peter. ‘It means there were difficult spatial problems to understand. It took us about six months to come up with a set of drawings that reflected what was here.’ It was made more difficult when in the deeds it turned out that the present owners held the freehold of the cottage next-door-but-one, and yet another garage space. Naturally, Cathi and Peter were asked for more money but they were already pushed to their limit. Luckily, with theirs the only offer on the table, the buyers didn’t pull out.
Months of playing with different designs ensued. ‘There were at least 20 other houses we could have come up with,’ says Peter. Their solution was radical: re-orientate the house to become part of the neighbourhood. The original entrance led off a busy road and turning the house meant it now looked on to a small cobbled street, packed with front doors to other cottages.
To facilitate the rotation, they ripped out the entire interior. Local planners were very resistant. ‘They were very nervous, because it was so radical,’ says Cathi. But both Cathi and Peter were determined to prove that you could fit a great modern design into an older building. The layout of the house wasn’t designed for modern life – there were lots of small, pokey rooms and corridors, whereas Cathi and Peter wanted a light, flowing space that led easily from inside to out.
In the absence of lots of juicy period features, the house was a blank canvas that gave the pair a fantastic opportunity. The payback was that the exterior must remain much as it was, so much so that, although they’d ripped out chunky fireplaces and chimneys inside the house to create more space, they had to prop up the chimney stacks to fulfill the pretence. ‘They hover in mid-air,’ laughs Peter.
The result is a resounding success. It’s certainly the best modern conversion of an older house that I’ve seen. It’s inventive, and embraces modern life without being formulaic. Like many, they have ripped out plenty of walls, but they’ve cleverly created a variety of spaces for different activities and moods by using folding panels or, as with the bathroom, a translucent glass sliding door.
They also did away with the butterfly roof, allowing for an additional floor, and replaced it with a pitched glass roof over the master bedroom. This allows in a massive 80 per cent of the building’s total light: a key consideration for Cathi. ‘Light is very important for me coming from South Africa,’ she says. ‘I love this roof. It’s made a huge difference to my life. I used to feel emotionally put-upon by the weather.’ This unusual addition has led to it being nicknamed by their neighbours.
‘The Greenhouse’, as it’s now called, has become something of an icon in the neighbourhood. It’s easy to see why. 'I love this roof. it’s made a huge difference to my life,’ says Cathi.
Words: Claire Barrett Images: Helén Pe
Architects: 51% Studio www.51pct.com
Main contractors and specialist joinery: Triple Dot 07870 554 851
Specialist furniture and woodworking: www.untothislast.co.uk