Converted coastal family home

Nikki and Peter Larsen-Disney have turned two flats and a maisonette into one property. The four-bedroom Grade II Listed Victorian townhouse in Brighton combines restored original features with contemporary touches, creating a spacious house with big personality

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It only took one viewing for Nikki and Peter Larsen-Disney to fall in love with the four-storey period property. ‘Even though it needed a complete renovation, the original black ironwork balcony and the arch windows with shutters were still intact, and it had a timeless elegance,’ says Nikki.

The couple had started looking for a house to renovate, without any luck. Extending their search to other areas of Brighton, they spotted the Victorian townhouse for sale and put in an offer soon after viewing it. Period townhouses are hard to come by locally as most have been converted into flats. ‘Like many others in the area, the building had previously been divided into two flats as well as a maisonette,’ explains Nikki, ‘but it was empty and being sold as one property.

Fact file

The owners: Nikki Larsen-Disney, an independent home stylist, and her husband Peter, a hospital consultant, live here with their children Sam, 17, Bronte, 14 and Rose, four

‘We felt that we couldn’t simply sit in a property and wait for its value to increase over our lifetime, so a renovation project was the only way our home would be an investment,’ she adds. ‘Plus, we thought that the house would particularly suit our family, as the teenagers could have their friends round and play music in the basement without disturbing us.’

The Larsen-Disneys moved into the house in October 2008 but didn’t have the budget to rent another property while their home was being renovated. Work started quite quickly, as although it was split into separate dwellings at the time, they had bought a mortgage for a single property, and their agreement stipulated that they incorporate the basement flat back into the house and remove its kitchenette within six months. ‘There was a degree of urgency as our son Sam, who was then 13, was sleeping in the basement, and this could only be reached through a separate front door,’ recalls Nikki.

As they didn’t have any word-of-mouth recommendations for builders, Nikki took a risk and went through the local phone book, calling each construction company and asking the same set of specific questions to see if they ‘spoke her language’. Stuart Bellwood of Sussex Building Services stood out as being an experienced, interested builder who was sympathetic to period properties.

‘He agreed to do the renovation while we lived in the house, and we used all his recommended tradesmen, which made the whole project run smoothly,’ Nikki says. ‘Stuart also recommended Roger Fagg, our architect, as the house is a Grade II-listed building and he was familiar with all the bullnose edges of every step were also replaced, as these had been sliced off to fit in the dividing wall, and the Victorian-style panelling under the stairs was reconstructed.’ The carpenter also built a staircase to the basement behind a door in this panelling, as the council insisted that there had to be a door between the basement stairs and the house.

As part of the restoration, Peter reconstructed smaller parts of the more detailed mouldings himself freehand and they had the original ceiling rosettes in the hall copied to replace the missing ones. Several of the sash windows had to be fixed and the couple found a local company that was able to repair and fill in gaps in the ironwork at the front of the house.

There was also work to be done upstairs. ‘On first inspection, the floorboards on the first floor looked good, but when we came to sand them we realised that they had become so thin they had to be replaced,’ says Nikki. ‘We matched them with oiled antique oak boards of a similar width.’

As well as restoring the building, the couple’s aim was to create a practical family home, so they made changes accordingly. Most of the house was re-plumbed and they had a large water tank installed in the attic as part of the new system. The basement kitchenette was ripped out so they could finalise their mortgage, plus the boiler was replaced and an additional one fitted in the basement. ‘We decided to do this as it would give us, or any future buyers, the flexibility of separating the basement in years to come,’ says Nikki.

Most of the property was also rewired, pulling together everything into one new power board. ‘We used to receive four electricity bills a month, one for each flat and one for the landlord’s supply,’ Nikki recalls. ‘It took many phone calls to persuade our suppliers that we were one household with regard to utilities.’

Nikki loves to cook, and the couple enjoy entertaining, so a large kitchen with dining space was designed to be the centre of their home. ‘It’s a great party house,’ smiles Nikki. ‘This Christmas we’re planning a Russian-themed family party, Dr Zhivago-style, with a buffet on the dining table and a drinks bar on the new kitchen island unit. We will probably have between 30 and 40 guests.’ While the work to create the new cooking and entertaining area took place, they kept the kitchen in the upstairs maisonette and didn’t remove it until the new one was completely finished.

On the first floor, the living room is a beautiful space with three original sash windows. It is dominated by a black marble fireplace, and the walls have been painted pale grey. ‘A fleamarket owner in Brighton had rescued the 1920s sofa from a tip in Nottingham and I saw him taking it off his truck,’ explains Nikki. ‘I bought it before it ever reached his shop and had it re-upholstered in a lime-coloured velvet.’

A second-floor box room adjacent to the master bedroom would have suited an en suite, but with four bathrooms in the house already, the couple turned it into a dressing room instead. ‘In fact, as the house is listed, we wouldn’t have been able to install any pipes down the front facade,’ says Nikki. ‘When the Victorians built the house, they put in a gulley through the loft to take drainage from the roof to the back pipes and maintain the clean lines at the front.’

The old basement flat has become two bedrooms, a shower room and a TV room. ‘We had a charcoal grey carpet fitted with a really thick underlay so the kids can lounge comfortably on the floor,’ explains Nikki.

The couple admit they only realised the full extent of the project at the end. ‘It was particularly hard with a baby who learnt to crawl in a house with no carpet and gaps in the stair banisters,’ says Nikki. ‘We could not have done it without the support of friends, who were hands-on, enthusiastic and interested throughout.’

Using the knowledge and experience she has gained from the refurbishment, Nikki has started her own design business. ‘I have always loved finding bargains in fleamarkets and transforming them into new and interesting pieces,’ she says. ‘My passion is mixing secondhand and highstreet buys with a few key designer pieces of fabric or wallpaper for individual style. Now that it’s decorated for Christmas, the house is even more vibrant than usual.’

The costs

Building work£63,000
Heating and plumbing£19,000
Bespoke furniture£14,000
Electrical work and underfloor heating£12,000
Flooring and carpet£11,000
Carpentry work£10,000
Shower room£6,000
Fixtures and fittings£3,000
Window repairs£1,600