Making over a 1930s home

An extreme makeover transformed Fiona and Barry Foley’s dated house into a modern architectural showpiece

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When Fiona Foley and her husband Barry first set eyes on the run-down detached house, near the East Sussex coast, they knew that if they bought it, it would mean taking on a huge renovation project. ‘The ground floor had been a dentist’s surgery, complete with waiting room,’ says Barry, ‘but no-one had been upstairs for more than 20 years.

‘It was virtually derelict. There were no radiators and for electrics it had surface-mounted wiring. We were impressed by the sheer size of the building, but its condition left us cold.’

The Foleys moved in when their daughter, Grace, was three and their son, Fraser, was just one week old. ‘At the time we had fairly limited resources, so we prioritised upgrading the electrics and plumbing, decorated everywhere and patched the roof,’ says Fiona.

Fact file

The owners: Fiona Foley, a teacher, and her husband Barry, MD of an office furniture company, live here with their teenage children, Grace, 18, and 15-year-old Fraser

Described in the estate agent’s details as being ‘stone-built’, the house was actually constructed in 1934 from rock-solid reconstituted concrete blocks – a fact that guaranteed it survived the Second World War, but which presented huge problems for the builders when the couple later decided to extend and remodel. ‘I had seen a magazine article about a local designer, Martin Swatton, and loved how he had transformed his 1930s bungalow into a stunning contemporary home,’ says Barry. ‘We invited him for coffee and explained that we were thinking about enlarging our cramped hallway. At the back of our minds, though, we had far more radical improvements in mind.’

Fiona and Barry craved a more contemporary home so, when Barry sold his former company in 2007, they invested some of the profits in dramatically upgrading the house. Impressed by Martin’s ideas for the hallway, they employed him to design and oversee an ambitious programme of work that would leave no part of the property untouched.

‘At one time, we very seriously considered knocking the whole place down and rebuilding from scratch, but Martin was convinced he could give us what we wanted and that we could carry on living here at the same time,’ recalls Barry. ‘We had fantastic builders and it really hasn’t been too bad, although at one point everything was boarded up for several weeks.’

Planning permission was approved to demolish the existing garage, which had been used by the family as a games room/utility, and to replace this with a larger ‘glass box’ extension, opening onto the rear garden through glazed sliding doors. The flat roof of the single-storey addition would extend out as a dramatic canopy, inset with three large rooflights to ensure that the new open-plan kitchen-diner/living space would be lit from virtually every angle.

‘We rarely used our old dining room, which was quite dark, and Martin suggested that this could become a separate utility room by the kitchen,’ explains Fiona. ‘Upstairs, part of Grace’s bedroom was partitioned off to make two en suite shower rooms for her and Fraser. The whole design has been tied together by cladding the existing staircase and fitting specially made internal doors.’

Externally, the house was also given a completely new look. The roof’s original tiles have been replaced with contemporary composite slates in grey and the concrete walls were rendered, with the north end of the property clad in Western red cedar. All the uPVC plastic windows have been swapped for aluminium double-glazed units and the original curved bays to the front were rebuilt square, to create modern-look bays that extend the full height of the house.

‘An awful lot of new steelwork was involved and the builders had to chip away at the walls using pneumatic drills in order to fit it,’ says Barry. ‘Fiona is very competent at DIY, but we knew this was going to have to be a job for professionals. It wasn’t the kind of thing we could get involved in, and we wanted the finishes to be perfect.’

Martin organised the individual tradespeople and presented the Foleys with various choices for everything from new flooring to showers. ‘We put our trust in him and he delivered on all his promises,’ says Fiona, ‘and although we love the glass and contemporary geometric designs, this is also a family home, so we needed creature comforts – and he definitely took this on board.’

Internally, the ground floor rooms now have a minimal, uncluttered look, enhanced by carefully thought-out detailing and lighting design. A long peninsular breakfast bar in the openplan kitchen area serves as a partial room divider, defining this practical space. The glossy surfaces of the cabinets, topped with white quartzbased composite surfaces, reflect natural light around the extension. Once the rear sliding glass doors are pushed back, the indoor and outdoor spaces are combined.

Colour and pattern have been introduced throughout the rest of the house using artworks, feature walls and key pieces of furniture. These stand out against the predominantly pale walls and flooring to create the look. One of the more unusual features is a huge louvered balau wood screen on a steel frame, designed for the street side of the glass box extension. This can be slid across the glazing for privacy, with light filtering between the louvres, or pushed out into the garden to create a windbreak and a visual screen. The specialist that supplied it, Neil’s Steels, also installed a sliding front gate that works on the same principal.

The layout of the garden was also redesigned at the same time. The couple felt the compact space needed a focal point, so they chose an unusual water feature. This culminates in a flowing rill, which is crossed by paving forming a simple bridge.

The main contractors dug a ditch and created a lining with shuttered concrete. This was then lined with fibreglass to form a watertight seal. The water runs down uneven slate tiles, giving a beautiful effect, particularly when it’s lit at night. Also created was built-in seating, in an L-shape along the back wall, with tall bamboo planted behind this for added privacy.

‘We love all the quirky features and the way our home now works as a whole,’ concludes Barry. ‘No-one can believe that, underneath all this, is the original building’s 1930s concrete shell that we all found so unattractive.

‘After having undergoing so much “cosmetic surgery”, it really feels like a brand-new house.’


Labour & materials£84,000
Professional fees£30,000