Remodelling a Victorian cottage

Rebecca Sturrock and Gregory Kewish have used clever design ideas to add light and space to their four-bedroom, mid-terrace Victorian cottage home in Cornwall, featuring a mix of styles and removing dividing walls to create an open-plan layout

At first glance, the old seaside cottage was unimpressive. Despite its graceful external proportions and symmetrical sash windows, it was gloomy inside, with two staircases, a confusing layout of tiny rooms, limited light and unappealing décor. But Rebecca Sturrock and Gregory Kewish were not afraid of a challenge. They were looking for a property to turn into a bright and liveable home suitable for their family, and this was it.

‘The cottage is in a great location in the heart of Padstow, which is handy for the restaurants and beach, but it’s just up the hill from the main town, so away from the busy tourist areas in summer,’ explains Rebecca. ‘It hadn’t been touched in years and had lots of potential. We loved the idea of bringing out the house’s hidden features.’

Fact file

The owners: Rebecca Sturrock, a lighting and interior products designer, and her fiancé Gregory Kewish, an architect, live here with their twins Billie and Ava, three

Rebecca and Gregory financed the renovation by taking out a small mortgage, and worked on it together as much as possible – despite their twin daughters, Billie and Ava, being born shortly before work started. ‘It was hectic,’ Rebecca recalls. ‘We were living 45 minutes from Padstow in a cottage on Bodmin Moor. Gregory was working in Jersey during the week, and the girls needed full-time care, so it was hard to find time to work on the house. We were very grateful to the grandparents who helped out with babysitting.

‘We did what we could ourselves and used several builders,’ she adds, ‘plus other tradespeople for the electrics, plumbing and decorating. We had hoped that the work on the house would be completed by summer 2011, but it took until that Christmas – a total of 18 months.’

One of the main jobs was to create a more family-friendly layout, so Rebecca and Gregory removed all the internal divisions and the staircases, in the process opening up a supporting beam and two fireplaces – one downstairs and one on the first floor, which is now a feature on the landing. They also moved the kitchen from one side of the house to the other, installed central heating and new electrics, fitted two large new rooflights to the front of the building, and created shower rooms and WCs on the upper floors. Gregory designed a new staircase, with balustrading at the top made from safety glass, to run up the centre of the property and unify the spaces while taking up minimal floor space.

As a result of reconfi guring the entire layout, the entrance leads into one large ground-floor space: a light, open-plan kitchen/dining/living area with an open fire, rear hallway and coat storage area, and a short hall leading to a WC. An open staircase leads to the first floor, where there are two bedrooms and a shower room, and then to the second floor, which has two bedrooms, another shower room and, beneath the front sloping roof, an area for use as a cosy living space or a bedroom.

There is an airy living area at the back of the top floor, with white-painted decking and a built-in seat. This is framed on three sides and above by a new glazed dormer, which has removeable side panels so that it can be opened to the outdoors. ‘When we first viewed the house, there were no obviously lovely features, until we reached the top floor,’ says Rebecca. ‘Then we stood on a chair and peered through the small rooflight, and we immediately knew that by removing part of the roof and creating an open area, we could enjoy the amazing views over Padstow on to the Camel estuary and the nearby town of Rock. Initially, Gregory designed a small inverted dormer that would create a roof terrace, but planning permission was refused as the cottage is in a Conservation Area. The new, openable dormer was the answer. With the side panels removed, it’s like sitting outside.’

During the build, not only did every room in the house have to be redesigned, but all the surfaces – ceilings, walls and floors – had to be refinished. ‘They were either clad in flimsy wood or badly plastered, and the ground-floor sub-floor was made of such uneven concrete that three builders had no idea how to lay floorboards on top of it,’ says Rebecca. Such problems were solved in due course by taking on a new builder, Rob Erskine.

‘We had to fire the first builder after a few months on the job,’ explains Gregory. ‘Progress seemed slow, and the workmanship was less than desirable. If we could have been on site every day, or had someone to manage the work, it might have avoided the problem. ‘Luckily for us, Rob was amazing and made everything right, including rebuilding the staircase, re-plastering, and refi tting the skirting and architraves,’ adds Gregory. ‘Needing to have the work redone put us way behind schedule and added to the cost.’

Rob also offered a solution for the floor, explaining that he could lay the solid oak directly onto the concrete by using a special adhesive. ‘It wasn’t cheap, as it cost £80 per tub and we needed eight tubs so we could lay it thickly to prevent the planks lifting,’ says Rebecca. ‘It took around a week to do but it worked out well.’

With the flooring problem solved, beautiful new finishes were introduced on the walls. Rebecca and Gregory stuck to a simple palette of colours and textures: lime plaster, to allow the walls to breathe properly; timber floors, with natural oak used on the ground floor and white-painted floorboards upstairs; coir matting; lots of glazing, and the occasional area of exposed brick or rough timber beam.

‘We wanted a warm, simple, and clean space filled with light,’ says Rebecca. ‘Our choices were based on our instincts, though we also used the photo-sharing website Pinterest for ideas, and found a great deal of inspiration as we gradually uncovered the old cottage, from the old beams to the hidden fireplaces and the light that flooded the space when the roof came off.’

When it was time to fit out and furnish the cottage, the couple installed a plain white kitchen complemented by a natural oak worktop and a simple white bathroom suite. Lighting throughout the house is an understated combination of ceiling spots and the occasional wall light, with a row of statement pendants over the breakfast bar. The couple have also gone for minimal furniture, including a dining table made by Gregory using scaffolding planks left on site, plus stools created by sawing the backs off a couple of old chairs, a pair of navy blue sofas, and painted garden furniture in the interior terrace upstairs.

Stylish, casual pieces, such as old trunks and upturned wooden crates, mix with the colourful artwork and vintage enamel signs that Rebecca and Gregory have found over the years. Vintage accessories and designer classics, including an Eames RAR rocking chair and a drum-shaped side table by Kartell, add personality. ‘We wanted to keep the cottage’s character, but mix it with contemporary twists,’ explains Rebecca.

As with most building projects, however, there were difficulties. As well as having to overcome the initial planning issues with the dormer, and deciding to change their builder, Rebecca and Gregory needed to extend their mortgage when they ran out of money three-quarters of the way through. They also had to be careful about deliveries, as there are double yellow lines on both sides of their road, and neighbouring houses, so they couldn’t start work too early in the morning or make too much noise.

Despite this, the couple say it was all worthwhile, and they are considering an even more ambitious project. ‘We’d like to build a family home from scratch, which could mean we sell the cottage,’ says Rebecca. ‘For now, though, we all love being here. The top floor is full of light and offers incredible views, while the ground floor is calming, with warm woods and a log fire.

‘The staircase reveals the space in amazing ways,’ she adds. ‘In fact, everything about the cottage has exceeded our expectations.’

The costs

Building work/labour£53,500