hen Christian Brailey and Faye Johnson viewed a poky studio flat with tobacco-stained walls, ancient carpets and rotting windows it did not look like their dream starter home. But as an architect and landscape designer, the pair could see the potential of the property.
The couple used all their insider knowledge of design to transform their decrepit studio into a spacious, airy and stylish one-bedroom flat, adding more than a third more living space by craning in a stylish wood-built extension constructed off site and delivered by lorry.
Almost four years later they are now enjoying an unrecognisable home, with pared-down interiors and rooms overlooking a stunning walled garden. Here’s how they did it.
How to spot potential
Back in 2018, the couple were living in a rented one-bedroom flat in Camden Town. “It was Christmas Eve and we were going to my parents’ house in Hertfordshire for Christmas,” says Brailey, 32. “The traffic was bad and the satnav directed us through Muswell Hill, an area we didn’t know at all.”
As they drove through the leafy streets of Edwardian villas, the couple were instantly hooked. “We were both like: “Wow, this is lovely,” says Johnson, 30.
They were impressed enough to spend the holidays checking out properties online, and they viewed a studio flat carved out at the back of a grand period house on New Year’s Eve, mostly on the basis that it was almost the only property in the area within budget.
Despite its aged nicotine décor, failing windows, damp and mould, the couple were smitten and agreed to pay £315,000 for the flat. “It was the worst place on the best street,” says Brailey.
On the plus side — location aside — the flat came with a 1,000sq ft garden. Although it had been thoroughly colonised by rampant brambles and weeds, it screamed potential.
And since Brailey is the director of Christian Brailey Architects, and Johnson the founder of Faye Johnson Landscape Design, they were in a perfect position to unlock it.
The sale took several months to go through. By the time they finally moved in, it was summer.
They began by cleaning up the flat up as best they could, painting the walls, ripping up old carpets, sanding down floorboards and clearing the garden.
Adding space to a studio
Brailey had already been drawing up extension plans and, by November 2019, he and Johnson had won planning permission to add a long, narrow extension, set along one side of the garden to create a home with an L-shaped footprint.
Its open-ish plan layout has a living room leading, via a short run of steps down to a kitchen and dining room, with a bedroom at the end of the garden.
The extension increased the size of the flat from 463sq ft to 700sq ft. And to make it feel as spacious as possible, the extension is dug down around a metre into the ground to give extra high ceilings.
Getting stuck in with DIY
Work should have started in spring 2020 but was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Rather than do nothing, Brailey and Johnson decided to start the work themselves.
They spent weeks digging out the foundations of the extension, removing bucket after bucket of earth and rubble from behind their flat and levelling off the sloping garden.
Keep the neighbours sweet with off-site construction
Meanwhile they commissioned a company to build their timber-framed extension off-site — some 180 miles away at a workshop in Devon.
They opted for Canadian Douglas fir plywood, partly because it is pleasingly knot-free and partly because it would be strong enough to accommodate the 11ft-tall doors and large windows they wanted.
When the builders finally arrived on site in the summer of 2020, the couple decamped to Brailey’s parents’ house where — with social distancing at the forefront of their minds — they moved into a caravan.
Back in London, their team began ripping out the innards of the flat, removing its back wall, and pouring concrete foundations ready for the extension to arrive.
Despite Covid-related delays, by December their extension arrived from the West Country and was craned into place over just four days.
“It is certainly not a cheaper way to build,” says Brailey. “The main reason we did it was the quality you can get working in workshop conditions; the details are far greater than anything you can achieve on site.”
They couple were also mindful of minimising aggravation to their new neighbours, who were mostly working from home at the time. Building off-site cut the timetable by several weeks.
Waste not, want not
With the shell in place they could get on with the basics: fitting underfloor heating, insulating walls and ceilings, and installing a mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system, which ensures the highly insulated flat is never stuffy.
They picked low-maintenance finishes: polished concrete floors and off-white lime render for the walls.
Taking a waste not, want not approach, the couple had the excess concrete packed into timber moulds to create slabs that have been used in the garden, and to form the chunky kitchen worktop and splashback.
The kitchen was made from an Ikea carcass, with cabinet fronts made from plywood offcuts. The simple matte white mixer tap is from Vola, the inexpensive steel handles are from Häfele.
Johnson and Brailey went to Fisher & Paykel, a New Zealand firm, for minimalist appliances including a dishwasher tucked into a drawer.
Views of the garden from the full-height end window of the living room take centre stage, while a sandblasted glass skylight adds extra light.
Brailey made the timber towel rail in the bathroom from more offcuts of plywood and the trestle dining table from wood flooring rescued from a skip.
Meanwhile in the garden, Johnson salvaged as many plants as she could from the overgrown space and transplanted them into new beds, augmented by a lush mix of ornamental grasses, olive trees, lavender, rosemary, white allium and delicate clumps of erigeron karvinskianus.
Ruby-red astrantia adds punches of colour, and three old metal water tanks the couple excavated while digging the foundations have been repurposed as seating and garden planters.
Space-saving furniture and storage is key
To save space, most of the furniture — including the wardrobes and window seat in the bedroom — is built in.
And the couple have eked every inch of storage space they can out of the property, turning a void above the bathroom into a cupboard, adding storage behind the bathroom mirror and utilising the understair cupboard as a utility room/ plant room containing everything from the boiler and washing machine to bikes hung from the wall.
Finally, after seven months of caravan living and having spent £125,000 (excluding VAT), the couple returned to their larger, lighter and far more comfortable home.
“We bought probably the only flat we could afford in the whole area,” says Johnson.
“It is now a lovely place to live in, it feels like a really spacious home and perfect for a couple. It has been very hard work at times, but it feels very worthwhile now.”
Five ways to maximise space in a small home
- Dig down and drop floors to create increased ceiling heights.
- The bigger the windows you install, the lighter and brighter the space will feel.
- A limited palette of colours and materials will make a small space feel calm.
- Underfloor heating does away with radiators, freeing up valuable square footage.
- Built-in furniture takes up less space and looks more streamlined.