Looking to downsize from their double-fronted house on the Heaver Estate after their children had grown up and moved out, Julia and James Simpson embarked on a property search. “We had lived in our house for almost 20 years. And, we previously lived elsewhere on the Heaver Estate for about eight years,” commented Julia. “We really liked the area and although it has changed a lot over the years; it is well-placed for public transport (train, tube and bus routes). So, we didn’t want to leave. Although we had considered moving out of London several times over the years; we always decided against the commute and decided to stay local.”
When asked about choosing the property, Julia said: “I had been haunting agents’ websites (such as Zoopla etc.) and saw it advertised on a Friday. I arranged a viewing on the very next day – the last of four on our list that day. However, the agent had made a mistake, and the booking hadn’t made it to the viewing list – we arrived to find the agent leaving after a previous viewing. He was due back in the office but said he would show us around if we were quick. Long story short, we put an offer in to buy it on the Monday and completed on the purchase a little over two months later.”
Purchasing the property
A late-Victorian terraced house, the property is slightly wider than usual and built across two floors with no cellar. It had been divided into two flats around 40 years ago, yet still featured the original scullery extension to the rear. And – somewhat unusual for a typical London Victorian terrace – featured a central staircase where the stairs run up one side of the house. There was also more light within the centre of the house than is usual for a Victorian terrace thanks to an ample-sized skylight above the staircase and a galleried landing, offering a sense of light and space.
Talking of the renovation, Julia said: “The house had lost its original features when it was converted into flats – which meant we weren’t constrained by having to work with those. So we had, effectively, a blank canvas. Having lived in London Victorian houses all our working lives, we wanted to have a more open-plan, clean-lined type of environment with less clutter – and we were determined to have as much light in the house as we could achieve.
“We knew that the house needed a lot of work, but that was also its potential for us. So as long as it wasn’t structurally a liability, we were prepared for a ‘project’. However; possibly not quite the project it actually turned out to be. One important part of the brief was to create a proper working cellar, which meant creating a basement level – this was hugely expensive.
“That said, the most challenging aspect was the construction of the staircase – which is too painful to think about! Ultimately, we arranged a deal with the sub-contractor, and the main contractor took on the finish of the stairs.”
Hiring the professionals
After obtaining some suggestions regarding possible architects from friends and other professionals Julia had dealt with at work, she took up some references and interviewed possible candidates. After observing other properties within their portfolio, Flower Michelin (a practice based in Parsons Green) was selected to undertake the project.
“The architect was in control of the build,” said Julia. “However, we were heavily involved – attending site meetings every week (taking flasks of ‘real’ coffee with us for all the team). We also employed an Interior Designer (Henrietta Thorn, a friend from Devon) who took the lead on the development of the project. Her input was invaluable.”
The Simpsons had to make planning applications in three stages. “We got there eventually,” explained Julia. “We had a pre-application process with Wandsworth, which helped. Final permissions were all in place by early 2016, and the build completed at the very end of August 2017.
“It was fantastic to see the house grow from a huge hole in the ground open to the sky; to a four-bed house with lots of downstairs space. It’s a bit like a Tardis – neat from the street, but a very good size with plenty of internal light.”
Barbara Genda Bespoke Furniture created copious amounts of built-in storage and joinery for a walk-in dressing room. LED-lit bookshelves were fitted in the living room, and an extensive range of storage options were provided in all the bedrooms, basement and landing areas. Elsewhere, a study was designed in the extended roof space, and all utilities were rehoused in the basement within bespoke-made units to provide a clutter-free environment. Extra height doors and built-in pocket doors maximise space throughout.
“The house is very comfortable and warm – which for me is very important,” says Julia. “We designed a special space for the dogs’ bed – so they can be tucked away yet remain a part of the main family living space. The sliding ‘dog door’ also prevents them from wandering between the kitchen and hallway. And, an outside hose allows us to wash them down after muddy walks.
“Overall, the joinery is excellent; including the extra height doors and pocket doors downstairs – to maximise space. The doors that lead into the garden stack to one side and open up the back of the house – it’s glorious on warm days. The light and space, and the way that one moves from house to garden is what I love most.”
When asked if she would do it all over again, Julia replied: “It was very stressful for us running this project with two full-time jobs and caring for elderly parents. My husband says never again; however, I’m not so opposed to the idea!.” That said, if the pair were given the opportunity again, they would certainly do one thing differently. “I probably would not buy a house and start a project before even putting my current home on the market,” humours Julia. “That was slightly unnerving.
“Also, we didn’t budget enough – but that was always going to be the case. The biggest extravagance was probably the cellar, the AGA and the extensive amount of lighting we have put into the house. Traumatised by living in a rental with very poor lighting throughout, we probably overcompensated, but at least we can see!”
Talking of their accommodation throughout the build process, Julia explained: “Towards the end of the build, we had to move out of the rental property as the landlord required its return. The furniture we had been using in the rental went back into storage, and we moved in with our former next-door neighbour. The dogs got a long summer holiday in kennels. It was slightly surreal living next door to the house we had sold two years previously – I was never quite sure which path to walk up!”
Offering their guidance to others about to embark on a self-build journey, the Simpsons advised: “Don’t underestimate how much time and effort you will have to put into the project. Even with a team of professionals to help, it was very time-consuming, quite draining – and stressful!.”