A Victorian terrace renovation

Turning the lower ground floor of this Victorian home into a basement kitchen-diner has created a bright and sociable open-plan space that's perfect for family living

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Esther and Paul McKay had been house-hunting for six months when they found a beautiful four-storey terraced home in one of Brighton’s prettiest Victorian streets. ‘I could immediately see its potential, but Paul wasn’t convinced,’ recalls Esther. ‘Although it had been well cared for by the previous owner, its décor was dated and the lower-ground floor was a separate one-bedroom flat. In the end, the proximity of the house to both the sea and the train station – ideal for Paul’s daily commute to London – won him over. The couple bought the property in Easter 2010 and have spent the past two years renovating it room by room.

Before work began, the McKays lived in the house for a year, getting to know the space. ‘What’s now our basement kitchen was a separate one-bedroom flat with its own entrance on to the street, which we rented out for the first 12 months,’ says Esther. The couple’s original plan was to keep it for five years and eventually use the rental income to fund its conversion back into the main body of the house. ‘After a year of putting up with a small kitchen on the ground floor, however, I told Paul we had to do the work,’ admits Esther.

She sourced quotes for the work from five building companies, shortlisted three and interviewed them all before selecting one for the project. ‘I knew that they had worked on a house further along the street,’ Esther recalls. ‘The owners invited us in to actually see the work that had been done for them. The quality was brilliant, so I booked the same builder the next morning.’

Fact file

  • The owners: Esther McKay, who runs online children’s clothes boutique smallfolkrun.com, lives here with her husband Paul, who is a property finance lawyer, and their children Billy, five, and Jude, four.
  • The property: A three-bedroom Victorian terraced house, built in 1851
  • The location: Brighton, East Sussex
  • What they spent: The couple bought the property for £720,000 in 2010 and have spent around £50,000 on the renovation work. The property has been recently valued at £950,000

Phase 1: The basement

Work on the space began in May 2011 and was finished five months later, paid for with savings and the profits from the sale of the couple’s previous house. They used a structural engineer to draw up the plans, which included installing stairs to connect the lower-ground floor with the house above, and steelwork to strengthen the ceiling. ‘It was a huge job but, fortunately, it was self-contained. I spent only one week without a working kitchen in all that time,’ Esther says.

The old one-bedroom flat with a living room and bathroom is now a stunning kitchen/dining room with folding doors leading out to a small suntrap patio. 

An existing extension that was part of the self-contained flat now houses an adjoining utility room and wet room. ‘Paul couldn’t see why we would need a separate space for the washing machine and tumble dryer; he wanted a bigger bathroom instead,’ says Esther. ‘But he totally gets it now – it keeps the living space quiet and uncluttered.’ The clean, white space is airy and bright, with stylish details such as stair risers painted in blue, a blackboard wall for the kids to draw on, and bold artworks that add character. ‘The kitchen is a really social space,’ says Esther. ‘I love to sit at the table with my friends and we’ve had a lot of parties here!’

Outside the kitchen, Esther has created a Moroccan-style patio with encaustic tiles from Alhambra Home. The floor tiles continue out from the kitchen. Try John Lewis for a similar outdoor table and chairs

Phase 2: Garden and exterior of the house

The next major job was to update the garden and rear of the house, which the couple completed between April and May 2012. The house sits on a hill, so the terraced garden is reached via steps leading up from a patio outside the playroom.

‘There was no fence, only a four-feet drop, and the ground was covered in uneven paving slabs. It was a nightmare for the kids as they couldn’t play safely,’ says Esther. The couple employed a landscape gardener to plan and revamp the plot. The paving was removed and sold for £250 on eBay, then the ground was levelled so that a lawn could be laid. Finally, a wall and gate to the garden was installed. ‘Paul began building the wall himself. He’d never done it before, but it seemed like a worthwhile, hands-on project,’ says Esther. ‘He got up to three layers of bricks before he had to admit he needed help. There’s a reason that people call in the experts!’

The house is in a terrace, with no rear access, so every bag of soil and paving slab had to be carried through the property. When it came to repairing the back of the property it was even worse, as all the scaffolding had to be brought through the house. ‘All the old plaster was chipped off and the brickwork was newly rendered. It was a dusty, noisy, dreadful job,’ says Esther. It was about to get worse, too. Although the plaster on the front of the house could be patched up and painted, the wrought-iron balcony on the first floor was completely rotten. ‘It took the builders only three minutes to knock it down. All I could think was that I’d stood out there with the boys and it could have collapsed,’ says Esther. It cost the couple an unexpected £3,000 to have it rebuilt.


Esther runs her online children’s boutique from the top-floor guest bedroom. A local carpenter made the desk, box shelves and racks for paper. The chair and cowhide rug are from John Lewis

Phase 3: Decorating schemes

Esther enjoyed the final stages of the renovation – decorating the house room by room. ‘I’d lived in our grotty beige living room, with its horrible brass fireplace, for two years,’ she says. ‘I told myself not to buy anything for it until we were ready to do the whole job properly. It was difficult, but it meant that I didn’t make mistakes!’ The double-aspect room, which can be divided by folding doors, features a stunning rose-print feature wall and sofas in Esther’s favourite shade of purple. ‘I love this room,’ she says. ‘By 7pm, all the kids’ toys are packed away and it’s a really elegant space. Paul loves the wood-burning stove; he was determined to have one.’

The theme of white walls punctuated with bursts of colour continues throughout the house – Esther loves the way it brings a contemporary feel to the rooms while retaining their original features. ‘My ideas evolved,’ she explains. ‘Mine and Paul’s bedroom looked too pale, with its white and grey walls, so I added shots of hot pink for impact. I’ve also used pendant lights to bring colour and fun to the rooms.’ Her one regret is the black-painted floorboards in the hallway. ‘They’re noisy and hard to maintain; at some point, I’d love to replace them with classic black-and-white floor tiles.’

Patience and knowing what to keep and what to redo is one of Esther’s strengths. She has saved money by keeping the built-in cupboards in all the bedrooms and revamping them with new paint and smart handles. She decided to replace the old family bathroom, however, rather than giving it a budget makeover. ‘I knew I could spend a few hundred pounds replacing cracked tiles and painting it, but I wouldn’t have been happy with the result, so I chose to invest in a new shower and bathroom suite that we’d all enjoy using,’ she explains.

This is the first spring since moving in that the family can enjoy their new home, without worrying about a renovation to-do list. ‘Paul can’t wait to fire up the pizza oven in the garden,’ says Esther. ‘It took four men to carry it through the house and on to the kitchen patio. We took one look and said, “It doesn’t work here,” so they had to haul it back upstairs and out into the garden.’ Like all the decisions and hard work that have gone into the house, it was worth the effort.

The costs

Kitchen fitting and appliances£20,000
Plumbing, including radiators and underfloor heating in the kitchen£5,000
External render£5,000
Sliding doors to the patio£1,500
Carpentry (window seat, shelving and cupboards in the living room)£1,500
Staircase to kitchen with understairs cupboards£1,400