A Modern Renovation
A couple of years ago, we undertook the task of renovating our home in London. I turned to super-talented architect Al Martin (he also happens to be my brother-in-law) who turned our dream for the space into a beautifully-livable reality. He recently renovated his own home on a tight budget. Below, he takes us through the renovation process, from the bones of the building to the gorgeous contemporary home it has become.
In February 2010, Al Martin, founder of the architectural practice AMA, and his wife Vicky found a three-floor fixer upper. They put a bid in, won it, and were soon the proud owners of this home, which Al would then tear apart and put back together again.
This is what it looks like today. Notice the top floor: The black timber-clad box is Al’s original extension to the building.
And this is what it looked liked in 2010, when reconstruction was under way.
In June 2010 Al started by demolishing each floor himself, with Gareth, a local from the neighborhood.
And in September, with a small team of builders, the project began. It was about a year before the family of three moved in. Floors and walls were removed and reconstructed from scratch re-using as much of the original brick as possible.
What was once the kitchen became their baby Millie’s room.
This crammed living room became a spacious and airy living/guest room.
In what became the kitchen and dining room, they kept the fireplace area, but got rid of the dividing wall. The idea behind creating an open plan for the kitchen and the dining room is to take advantage of as much light as possible. On each floor, the open spaces let the light shine through from one end to the other.
Room by Room: The Kitchen/Dining Room
Making this project affordable meant spending a considerable amount of time making decisions about where to splurge and where to save, ensuring that the whole came together in an aesthetically pleasing way that also makes sense for the needs of this small family.
The Dining Room
- Flamed granite surfaces. Al suggests researching the material thoroughly before you invest. Make sure you find a showroom that has large slabs of stone that you can see before making a decision. In London, a good place to check out is MGLW, the Marble Granite Limestone Warehouse.
- The cabinets come straight off the shelf from Ikea. The room is covered in cabinets that offer plenty of storage to allow for a minimal, clean aesthetic.
- The floor is white plank Siberian larch. Al couldn’t find what he wanted at a reasonable price, so he took a big risk and cut out the middleman, going straight to the supplier instead. This is one of his, “don’t try this at home” tricks.
- He got the Flos lamp off eBay for £150, significantly less than retail.
- The dining room table is another Ikea find for £70.
- The windows have super simple roller blinds installed at about £30 each.
- The chairs are reproduction Arne Jacobsen lookalikes—£50 each at Metro Furniture. While Al prefers going for the real thing when it comes to furniture, these came in the perfect grey to match the rest of the room, so he compromised.
- The dining room and kitchen are connected in an open plan with large windows that let light in on both ends.
- The main splurge here were the Gaggenau oven and stove which they saved on by purchasing the ex-display models on eBay.
- The stools are original Alvar Aalto’s which were found years ago for £100 for the pair (!) at Broadway Market.
- Again, plenty of storage keeps the room tidy and highlights the light in the space.
- The trick here are the custom pivoting doors, designed especially to open up the space. Because they’re tall and wide, when opened, they blend right into the walls and don’t take up any room. For the most part, they’re kept open, but they’re great closed in the winter to keep in heat.
A few small touches really warm up this space, making it livable and homey.
- They converted an old-fashioned stove (£300) into a fireplace by inserting a made-to-measure metal box inside (£200). This fun allusion to old London continues through the house and up the stairs to the living room, which holds the second stove fireplace.
- The birch plywood custom shelf is the perfect spot for a few personal touches—favorite photographs, cookbooks, and ceramics are on display.
- The round hole in one of the Ikea cabinets is for a future sound system. For now, it makes for an easy-access toy cabinet. As Al puts it, “it knocks the seriousness out of the place.”
- A very subtle and thin “shadow gap” carries through the entire house from room to room and up the stairs. This, and the single shade of warm grey on the walls, unify the whole space.
The Living/Guest Room
A few themes from downstairs climb up one flight:
- The shadow gap.
- The Ikea storage cabinets.
- The gas stove fireplace.
- Modernist furniture from Viaduct, an excellent London showroom for modern pieces. A Prouvé “Antony” wooden chair, an Eero Saarinen “Organic Chair” for Vitra and two cork Jasper Morrison stools.
- It took two tries but Al made the poured concrete shelf surface himself, constructing the molds from offcuts from the custom-made pivot doors.
- The side table on the right hand corner is an Eileen Grey reproduction. Again, Al’s a stickler for the real thing. When budget allows, go for the original!
- Vitsoe shelving is a classic. While the shelving is a higher priced item, it’s made by a company you’ll always be able to count on, so you can easily buy more parts as your book collection expands over time.
A standout feature in the house is the staircase—a unifying element throughout, which you can see from several vantage points on each floor.
- A major saving, the staircase was made-to-order and delivered in a few separate pieces. Al paid £1,500 for the whole package and made it his own by integrating the shadow gaps and a unique custom-designed handrail made out of MDF (medium-density fibre). Subtle touches made with simple materials are what make this staircase special.
Also notice the built-in niche—a subtle architectural element that adds a bit of character to the room.
Al had an entire room constructed on top of the building. This top floor extension is now the master bedroom. Clad in larch timber, with doors from one end of the room to the other, it has an incredible view of London. When the doors are open, it’s almost like you’re outside.
- Notice another niche built as a bookshelf; a modern interpretation of the bedside table.
- The grey in this room is a slightly darker shade than the rest of the house. The color ties the color of the larch timber with the inside of the room.
- The bedside lamps are from Jielde and are a subtle industrial nod.
We love the modern interpretation of a vanity, with shelves and a mirror cut to size and built into the walls. The chair is a Houdini by Stefan Diez for e15.
A few of AMA’s favorite shopping resources for modern furniture both in London and abroad:
A great London resource for modern antiques.
Unique pieces by up-and-coming designers. Everything is hand-made and can be made custom.
This London shop has a great selection of modern pieces from the 19th century and onwards.
A well-stocked and curated London showroom with the best and newest in furniture design.
Incredibly well stocked in both classic and new contemporary designs, this is a great resource for American shoppers looking for European design.
A great store and online resource for serious design pieces. With locations in Chicago and Miami, their Miami showroom particularly is spectacular with a themed design exhibition that changes regularly.
This New York shop curates some of the best up-and-coming and established contemporary designers. Beyond furniture, they’re also great for quirky tabletop pieces.
A German store with a great online shop, this is one of Al’s favorites for accessories, hardware, lighting, and more.
Based in London and founded by architect Alexander Martin, this small practice’s emphasis is on designing bespoke spaces tailored to the client’s needs. They are presently working with British Land in London on their luxury residential portfolio, designing a coastal home in the southwest of England for a celebrity couple, and are involved with the development of residential projects in Bali, Spain, and Australia.