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Reuse, repair, recycle: architect couple transform derelict London flat with clever DIY ideas

How this architect couple took on a rundown maisonette and created their dream London home, learning countless new skills along the way.

<p>Fixer upper: architects Nadine Wagner and Alessia Mosci breathed new life into this two-bedroom maisonette in Bowes Park</p>

Fixer upper: architects Nadine Wagner and Alessia Mosci breathed new life into this two-bedroom maisonette in Bowes Park

/ Billy Bolton
By
06 April 2021
A

s architects and first-time buyers on a tight budget, Alessia Mosci and partner Nadine Wagner were keen to find a true fixer-upper to put their stamp on.

"We wanted somewhere really run-down" explains Mosci. "After each viewing, we asked our estate agent to show us something worse. In the end he brought us here. It was the gloomiest place, with grease-stained walls and mould-covered tiles. When we said, ‘We’ll take it!’ he burst out laughing!"

What they’d fallen for was a two-bedroom maisonette over the first and loft floors of an Edwardian house in Bowes Park, north London.

"We’d been renting in Hampstead, but we had to trade off an upmarket area in favour of more space. Here we’re close to lots of parks which we love," says Mosci.

At the first viewing they noticed that there was a large, unused space at loft level. "As an architect, you develop an eye for seeing past the surface. We fell for this place’s proportions and its potential."

Epic project: Wagner and Mosci spent five years renovating their fixer-upper home bit by bit, finishing just in time for the first lockdown last year

/ Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd

Having snapped up the property for £360,000 in 2015, the couple moved in, tidied up and lived with the space as they formulated their plans.

"We were each other’s clients so we collected images on Instagram and Pinterest to pitch our ideas to each other," explains Mosci.

Her practice, MWAI is known for its sensitive and imaginative residential refurbishments, with an emphasis on sustainability and craftsmanship, which set her in good stead for this more modest project.

The pair’s priorities were to make the most of the space; to reuse and upcycle; and to do the work themselves wherever possible — even when that meant learning new skills.

Cutting edge: the couple learnt carpentry at Blackhorse Workshop and then used their skills in the joinery, including floating cabinets and integrated storage in the master suite, which was made using reclaimed or FSC-certified ply

/ Billy Bolton

A crash course in DIY

One of their first jobs was to insulate the entire flat, which meant lifting the floorboards. In a move that highlights the couple’s painstaking approach, they decided to keep and carefully restore the original boards.

"Old boards twist and warp so we had to screw them, but that can look ugly. In the end we cut a tiny slice off each board and used these offcuts to create caps to conceal every screw, then sanded them down so they were flush with the finished floor".

The whole thing took three weeks. "It was hard work but worth it. These boards have been walked across for over a century and we wanted to do the same. But now it looks like a sleek contemporary floor," says Mosci.

Even more challenging was the decision to live in the house throughout the renovation, even the major work of opening up the two main rooms and creating the loft extension. "Home is where you find the mental space to relax but we were living in a construction site and that was stressful," she recalls.

Testing, testing: experiments included the en-suite bathroom, which has a specially made marine ply box over the bath instead of a wash basin

/ Billy Bolton

Their boldly hands-on approach continued with the plywood joinery. While they delegated the kitchen cabinetry to a local firm, Virtue Joinery, they tackled the rest themselves, including floating cabinets in the living room, with one to store the couple’s vinyl collection and record player; their bed and the integrated storage in the master suite all using reclaimed or FSC-certified ply.

They spent many weekends honing their carpentry skills at Blackhorse Workshop. "It wasn’t just about saving money, we wanted the experience of crafting our own home. It taught us to appreciate the amount of effort and work that goes into any handmade item — and we learned how difficult it is to install a butt hinge if you don’t have the right tools," Mosci says with a laugh.

Opening up the space

On the first floor they opened up the living room to the bedroom behind it, making that the new kitchen, while the small former kitchen became their guest bedroom, served by the original bathroom on the same floor.

This shrewd move has given the couple a spacious double kitchen-dining-living room, with the kitchen cabinets cannily out of sight when they’re relaxing on the sofa.

The staircase once led only to a small bedroom, which is now a bright study for the pair’s crafting projects.

In the previously unused loft void they have created a generous master suite with plenty of under-eaves storage, taking the overall space from 725sq ft to well over 1,000.

Reconfigured: the stairs used to lead to a small bedroom, now a bright and spacious study

/ Billy Bolton

Experimental design choices

But the pair’s plans weren’t without controversy. "As architects we wanted to take risks that we wouldn’t suggest to a client. Here we could experiment and have fun."

So the en-suite has no basin, instead they use a specially made marine ply box that sits over the bath.

Their estate agent told them they were crazy to make the study open up on to the double-height hall beyond as it can’t be sold as a third bedroom, "but we love the way the study feels really spacious now."

Reuse, repair, recycle

The kitchen was built around the idea of recycling, its layout determined by the size of a piece of Carrara marble left over from a job, which now forms the worktop, while the appliances are all second hand.

"So many people want everything to be new when they move in, but it means perfectly good appliances going to waste," Mosci notes.

The plywood of the kitchen, hand-stained by the couple, is part of a restrained palette of raw, natural materials including lime plaster, linen and canvas, "all chosen for their soothing, calming effect".

The canvas is in fact reclaimed theatre scenery fabric from Flints theatre supply store, which they used for all the upholstery and cushions and for a heavy curtain to screen off the study when needed.

Modern classic: the kitchen cabinets close out of sight

/ Billy Bolton

Where possible, the pair reused or upcycled their existing furniture, like the painted kitchen chair and re-upholstered lounge chairs. New pieces, such as the Hay sofa and De La Espada kitchen table, were chosen for their simple and timeless good looks. The effect is something relaxed and softly minimal.

While the original coving has been lost, the couple nodded to it by bringing the ceiling colour down on to the tops of the walls. "If it’s there, keep it, if not, don’t fake it," advises Mosci simply. The same serene palette of pale neutrals continues on the top floor but, as this space is brand new, the pair felt free to go for a more modern look, with built-in skirting and polished plaster walls.

The total cost of the project was around £120,000, while the current value of their home is about £575,000, "although I’m not sure there would be much of a saving if we were to calculate the cost of our time, but it was such a satisfying and rewarding thing to do", says Mosci.

During the lockdowns, Mosci and Wagner have both been working from home. "We love to work in the study, but one of us moves to the kitchen table or guest bedroom if the other has a meeting."

In non-Covid times, the pair enjoy lots of visits from friends and family — Wagner hails from Berlin and Mosci from Milan — and they can accommodate more guests in the study with an extra bed that works as a single or double and folds away to store in the eaves, specially made by this dynamic duo.

Having done the work in phases as their day jobs allowed, the pair were lucky to be finished shortly before the first lockdown. "Even being stuck at home, the quality of light here just makes us feel happier and we have plenty of space for the two of us — we’re still getting along."