Converting two Victorian flats into one home

This Victorian property had been split into two homes. Caroline and Felix Milns have converted the two flats back into one large family home, building outwards and upwards, adding a new kitchen and knocking down the wall between the living room and the dining room to create a larger living space

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When Caroline and Felix Milns redecorated their first flat 11 years ago, in Streatham, south London, they discovered that they had a flair for property refurbishment. Two renovation projects followed, in the Clapham and Camberwell areas of London, before the couple decided to put down roots in the west of the city to be closer to Caroline’s parents and start a family.

‘We enjoyed redesigning our homes each time we moved,’ says Caroline. ‘I’ve always loved interior design, and Felix is great at logistics, building and finance. We started renovating houses as a hobby and a sideline, but it rapidly turned into a business.’ Felix, who used to be a travel writer, now runs his own design and build company, while Caroline, formerly a textile designer, recently switched her focus to become an interior designer.

The couple had spent months viewing west London properties every Saturday, but it paid off when Caroline saw the place they now call home. ‘We’d looked at around 50 houses, but this time Felix was away on a press trip. He wasn’t due back for a week, so I had to put in an offer before he’d seen it – fortunately he trusted me,’ she says.

Fact file

The owners: Caroline Milns, an interior designer, and her husband Felix, who runs a design and build company, live here with their daughters Maisie, three, and Imogen, one

However, Caroline wasn’t the only one to see its potential and, due to demand, the property went to sealed bids. Time was tight, so on the evening of his return, Felix headed straight from the airport to view the house. ‘It was very last-minute,’ admits Caroline, ‘but Felix loved it too and agreed we should go to our maximum budget.’

The property looked as though it hadn’t had any work done to it since the 1970s, and with its hotch-potch of swirly carpets, orange pine kitchen units and a blue bathroom suite, it was clear that the old-fashioned interior needed an update.

‘An old man lived here, and when his family had left, he converted the house into two flats. He lived in one and let the other,’ explains Caroline. ‘We decided to do the same in the short-term.’ The couple moved into the top flat, which was set over three floors and incorporated the loft space. They realised that they could increase the area of the lower flat by digging into the basement, creating enough space to add a utility and a guest room. This flat was to be let to their friends during the project, and the couple then planned to use the nominal extra income towards turning the property into a family home. Once planning permission was arranged, they hired a structural engineer, then Felix’s team built the two basement rooms. On the second floor, the wall between the bedroom Felix was using as a home office and another bedroom was removed to create a larger home office.

Two years after they had moved in to the upstairs flat, the couple hadn’t updated much more than the décor. But with baby Maisie on the way and a growing business, Caroline and Felix needed more space. ‘We couldn’t afford to start the next phase yet,’ says Caroline. ‘Then one day, Felix was looking out of his loft office and realised that there was more than 2.2 metres in height from the apex of the property to the flat roof above the second floor. This meant we could add a room on top of the flat roof, under permitted development.’ Pleased with his discovery, Felix set his team to work on building the bedroom in this space, which is now being used as the third-floor guest room.

When, 18 months later, Caroline was pregnant with their second daughter Imogen, the couple decided it was time to turn the two flats into one home. They discussed different options before choosing the current configuration of the layout.

‘I’m glad we lived here for a while first, as it gave us a feel for how the space would work,’ says Caroline. ‘Also, our priorities changed. We always knew we’d extend into the side return but we were originally going to position the dining area in this space, under the skylights. Then we realised that if we put the kitchen there instead, we’d be able to look through to the living room next to it so we could keep an eye on the children if they were playing. It’s worked out well as we now spend more time in the kitchen than at the dining table.’

They had already decided that the first-floor living room would become the master bedroom, so it made perfect sense to turn the adjacent kitchen into a large en suite as the room was already plumbed in. ‘We wanted to expand the rooms we actually live in rather than have a spare room that we never use,’ explains Caroline.

The remaining space was to be altered so that the couple’s bedroom would become Maisie’s room. The second-floor bedroom was to be Imogen’s room, and the family bathroom would stay where it was.

With the layout agreed, the couple appointed architect Jo Eade to draw the plans for an extension and, knowing their neighbours also wanted to extend, put in a joint planning application. ‘It enabled us all to go for the maximum height and light allowed,’ says Caroline. ‘Our neighbours were happy to use the same architect, although it’s not necessary for planning reasons. We all used the same reclaimed London stock bricks too, so although our extensions are different designs they look more cohesive from the outside.’

Giving notice to their friends renting downstairs, the couple began the final part of their renovation project. The wall between the ground-floor reception rooms was removed, the steelwork was fitted and an extension built to house the kitchen-diner. An energy-efficient Megaflo boiler and underfloor heating were also installed.

The ground-floor renovation was fairly stress-free as the Milns were living upstairs in the self-contained flat, but when it came to opening the hallway back up and reconfiguring the top flat, the couple camped out in the second-floor home office and top-floor bedroom with a kettle and microwave. ‘It was pretty horrendous so we escaped to my mum’s home as often as possible,’ says Caroline. ‘We developed the house in three stages because it suited us, but it meant we spent around 20 per cent more than planned. I’d advise moving out and having all the work done at once.’

While Felix oversaw the construction, Caroline planned the décor. In the kitchen she wanted a timeless feel. ‘I chose Shakerstyle cabinets but modernised them with slightly curved “pillow-edge” drawers,’ she says. She also selected soft French grey paintwork for the units, teaming them with extra-deep walnut worktops and elegant marble mosaics for the splashbacks. ‘Solid marble is expensive but marble mosaics add a luxury feel for a fraction of the cost,’ she says. The couple continued the theme with a walnut dining table and chairs they designed while on holiday in Goa.

In the living room, Caroline’s aim was to create an elegant look with a lived-in feel. She opted for traditional-style parquet flooring, with black-and-gold wallpaper on the chimneybreasts and designer pendants echoing the wall shades. A low-slung grey linen sofa brings a softness to the space.

In contrast, the master bedroom has a vintage theme, with French-style furniture and pale pink walls. Its en suite bathroom features subtle layers of white shades.

The Milns have considered how they want to live practically and aesthetically. Caroline has mixed designer pieces with fleamarket finds and items brought back from their travels. ‘I wanted a fusion of east and west, and old and new,’ she says. ‘We were young when we moved in, and had we renovated straight away we’d probably have designed our home as a party house. I’m glad we took our time, so we could create a space to suit our family’s needs.’

The costs

Building work – basement£70,000
Building work – side return/ground floor£70,000
Building work – general strip out£45,000
Building work – loft£38,000
Central heating/ boiler/underfloor heating/radiators£17,500
Kitchen and utility£17,000
Sliding doors/ windows/skylights£16,300
Bathrooms£15,000
Decorating£15,000
Flooring£12,000
Appliances£4,500
Fires/fireplaces£4,000
TOTAL£324,300