When Christian Brailey and Faye Johnson inspected a shabby one-bedroom apartment with tobacco-colored walls, old carpets, and rotting windows, it didn’t look like their dream home. But as an architect and landscaper, the two saw the potential of the property.
The couple used all their insider knowledge of design to transform their run-down studio into a spacious, airy and stylish one bedroom apartment, adding more than a third more living space by adding a stylish timber-built extension, erected off-site and delivered by truck.
Almost four years later they now enjoy an unrecognizable home with sober interiors and rooms overlooking a stunning walled garden. That’s how they did it.
How to recognize potential
In 2018, the couple lived in a rented one-bedroom flat in Camden Town. “It was Christmas Eve and we were going to visit my parents in Hertfordshire for Christmas,” says Brailey, 32. “Traffic was bad and the GPS took us through Muswell Hill, an area we didn’t know at all.”
As they drove through the leafy streets of Edwardian mansions, the couple was instantly smitten. “We both thought, ‘Wow, that’s gorgeous,'” says Johnson, 30.
They were so impressed that they spent the holidays looking for property online, and on New Year’s Eve they looked at a one-bedroom apartment carved into the back of a magnificent period home, mainly on the grounds that it was almost the only property was in the area that stayed within their budget.
Despite the stale nicotine decor, broken windows, damp and mold, 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 – apart from the location – the apartment had a 1,000 square foot garden. Though thoroughly populated by wild brush and weeds, it screamed potential.
And since Brailey is the director of Christian Brailey Architects and Johnson is the founder of Faye Johnson Landscape Design, they were in a perfect position to unlock it.
The sale lasted several months. When they finally moved in, it was summer.
They started tidying up the apartment as best they could, painting the walls, ripping up old carpets, sanding floorboards and cleaning the garden.
Adding space to a studio
Brailey had already drawn up expansion plans and by November 2019 he and Johnson had received planning permission for a long, narrow extension that was built to one side of the garden to create an L-shaped house.
The open floor plan features a living room leading down a short flight of stairs to a kitchen and dining room, with a bedroom at the end of the garden.
The extension increased the apartment from 43 m² to 700 m². And to make it feel as spacious as possible, the extension was dug about a meter deep into the ground to create extra high ceilings.
Getting stuck with DIY
Work should have started in spring 2020 but was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Instead of doing nothing, Brailey and Johnson decided to start work themselves.
They spent weeks digging the foundations of the extension, removing bucket by bucket of dirt and debris from behind their apartment, and leveling the sloping garden.
Keep the neighbors sweet with off-site construction
In the meantime, they hired a firm to build their half-timbered addition off-site – some 180 miles away at a workshop in Devon.
They chose Canadian Douglas fir plywood, partly because it’s pleasingly knot-free, and partly because it would be strong enough to accommodate the 11-foot tall doors and large windows they wanted.
When construction workers finally arrived on site in the summer of 2020, the couple moved to Brailey’s childhood home, where – with social distancing at the forefront – they moved into a trailer.
Back in London, her team began ripping out the flat’s innards, removing the back wall and pouring concrete foundations so that the extension could be built.
Despite Covid-related delays, their extension arrived from the West Country in December and was erected by crane in just four days.
“It’s certainly not a cheaper way to build,” says Brailey. “The main reason for this was the quality that you can achieve in workshop conditions; The details are far greater than anything you can achieve locally.”
The couple also made sure to minimize any hassle for their new neighbors, who were mostly working from home at the time. Off-site construction cut the schedule by several weeks.
Don’t waste, don’t want
They were able to continue with the basics in the shell: installing underfloor heating, insulating walls and ceilings and installing a mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system that ensures that the highly insulated apartment never gets stuffy.
They chose easy-care surfaces: polished concrete floors and cream-colored lime plaster for the walls.
With no waste, the couple had the excess concrete packed into wooden molds to make slabs used in the garden and to form the chunky kitchen countertop and splashback.
The kitchen was made from an Ikea body, the cabinet fronts from leftover plywood. The simple matt white mixer tap is from Vola, the inexpensive steel handles from Häfele.
Johnson and Brailey went to Fisher & Paykel, a New Zealand company, for minimalist appliances, including a dishwasher hidden in a drawer.
Garden views from the living room’s floor-to-ceiling end window take center stage, while a sandblasted glass skylight provides additional light.
Brailey made the wooden towel rail in the bathroom from more scrap plywood and the trestle dining table from wood flooring that was salvaged from a shipping container.
Meanwhile, in the garden, Johnson rescued as many plants as possible from the overgrown space and planted them in new beds, complemented by a lush mix of ornamental grasses, olive trees, lavender, rosemary, white allium and delicate clumps of Erigeron karvinskianus.
Ruby red astrantia add pops of color and three old metal water tanks that the couple unearthed when digging the foundations have been repurposed as seating and planters for the garden.
Space-saving furniture and storage are key
To save space, most of the furniture – including the wardrobes and window sill in the bedroom – is built-in.
And the couple have squeezed every inch of storage space out of the property by converting a void space above the bathroom into a closet, adding storage space behind the bathroom mirror and using the underfloor cupboard as a utility/technical room, containing everything from the boiler and washing machine to the closet Wall hung bikes.
After seven months of caravan life and spending £125,000 (excluding VAT), the couple finally returned to their larger, lighter and far more comfortable home.
“We bought probably the only apartment in the whole area that we could afford,” says Johnson.
“It is now a lovely place to live, feels like a really spacious home and perfect for a couple. It was very hard work at times, but now it feels very rewarding.”
Five ways to maximize space in a small home
- Dig up and drop floors to create greater ceiling heights.
- The larger the windows you install, the brighter and brighter the room will appear.
- A limited palette of colors and materials makes a small room look calm.
- Underfloor heating makes radiators superfluous and frees up valuable square meters.
- Built-in furniture takes up less space and appears more linear.