Renovating a Victorian flat

After the front wall of their Victorian, two bedroom apartment almost collapsed due to subsidence, Nicola and Simon Norris decided it was time to renovate their home

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When Nicola Norris bought a ground-floor flat in a Victorian property back in February 2007, she had no idea of the dramatic events that would unfold 18 months later. ‘I moved to north London from a house in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, because of work. I liked the flat as it was in a nice area and close to shops and restaurants, with good transport links,’ she explains.

‘The proportions were great and it had some authentic period details. The large master bedroom had doors leading out to the garden, and I could see that the kitchen offered plenty of potential.’

Having had the fl at surveyed and thoroughly checked out before she bought it, Nicola wasn’t expecting problems. ‘I was very busy with work and didn’t have time to change that much at the beginning, so I simply gave the walls a fresh coat of paint,’ she adds. ‘Having met Simon the previous year, he moved in and we set a wedding date for September 2008. Being keen travellers, our honeymoon actually lasted three months, so while we were away we asked friends to stay in our flat.’

Fact File

The owners: Nicola Norris, who owns Bibee Dresses, lives here with her husband Simon, a chartered surveyor, and their daughter Marla, three

When they came back from their honeymoon one cold Sunday evening, Nicola and Simon were horrified when they spotted a large crack in the wall of the living room’s bay window.

‘Simon is a chartered surveyor, so he knew immediately that this was serious, and not something we could simply ignore, even for one night,’ explains Nicola. ‘I’m not sure why our friends didn’t spot it earlier, but as they hadn’t lived here full-time it wasn’t as noticeable to them, whereas for us it was blindingly obvious that there was a major problem.’

Simon wasted no time in tracking down the emergency number for their local council, which quickly put him through to the building regulations department, while a jet-lagged Nicola started to move things out of their living room. ‘There was a real worry that the front of the house could collapse, because the wall appeared to be coming apart,’ she recalls. ‘The council rushed over with a team of tradespeople and equipment, and used acrows [steel construction props] to hold up the wall. There were floodlights in the street and all the neighbours came out to see what the fuss was about.’

The couple discovered that subsidence is common in the part of north London where they lived, near Camden, because of its clay soil, and they also found out that the foundations of the house along the bay window were very shallow. With the wall propped up, Nicola and Simon thought their problems were temporarily over, but there was another shock to come.

‘Three weeks after the wall had been propped up, the ceiling came down,’ recalls Nicola. ‘A huge crack appeared in the living room ceiling, and without any warning the whole thing fell in, covering the furniture and floor with clouds of dust and lumps of plaster. It was a complete mess, and we lost some of the original Victorian coving as well, although we eventually had it remade and replaced.’

The remedial work included supporting the upper bay window while dismantling and rebuilding the lower bay on a new foundation. The remaining ceiling was removed. ‘It was lath and plaster and we wanted to replace like-for-like,’ explains Nicola. ‘We insisted on this, as we wanted to maintain the room’s original look. It then took six weeks to dry as it was a thick ceiling, so any further work had to stop until it had dried out.’ Although the ceiling rose had been broken when the ceiling collapsed, it was able to be restored. To reinstate the coving, the best piece of surviving coving was taken away, the paint removed and a new match made.

As part of the £100,000 programme of repair work, which was all organised by the insurance company, the stained-glass windows were removed, cleaned, repaired and reinstated. ‘The original window frames were also repaired,’ says Nicola. ‘Previously these windows didn’t open, but we were able to have them adjusted so that now two of the four can be opened, which is a real bonus.’

‘As the structural problems weren’t an existing condition, there were no issues with the insurance company paying out, but we did face a constant battle to get things replaced like-for-like,’ admits Nicola. ‘The insurance company would have been quite happy to go for modern replacements and not keep the original features, but we fought for this as they were the things that we loved most about the flat. It was certainly worth standing our ground.’

The couple lived in the flat for the first three months of the build, closing off the living room to stop the dust spreading throughout their home. ‘Eventually, however, we decided to move out as we were worried that our health would suffer because of the dust,’ admits Nicola. ‘Initially, the insurance company thought that as we had a kitchen and bathroom the flat was habitable, but we convinced them otherwise.’

Moving into a rental property in nearby Marylebone, which was owned by someone the couple knew who let them rent it on a month-by-month basis, Nicola and Simon were away from their flat for another four months while the work continued. This meant it was summer before they could return to their home.

‘In the meantime, the insurance company had replaced the wood flooring throughout the flat as the previous floor couldn’t be matched and there were no cut-offs that allowed it to be patched up,’ says Nicola. ‘The floor was very scratched and damaged after months of dust and dirt being walked through the flat – it couldn’t be polished out – so it was lovely to have new flooring when we moved back in.’

After living in the flat for a year, the couple decided to put the dated kitchen on the list to be replaced. ‘Once we’d got over all the work that had been done to the flat, we wanted to redesign a small extension at the end of the kitchen that had been done by the previous owners,’ says Nicola. ‘Separated from the kitchen and used as a sort of utility room, it completely blocked the view to the garden, which we own. By incorporating this space into the kitchen and adding French doors at the end of the room, we planned to create a better link with the garden. I really liked the idea of being able to open the doors and step out onto a patio.’

The couple hired builders who had been recommended by a friend, and the work took three weeks to complete, during which time they were only without a cooker for one day. ‘We also added an extra rooflight to bring in more light,’ adds Nicola.

With the building work finished, the couple now had a large rectangular space to work with. They opted for a high-gloss white kitchen to maximise the natural light, while a tiled floor was chosen for practical reasons as it would be easy to keep clean.

Six months later, Nicola and Simon tackled their final project, updating the compact bathroom. ‘It’s an internal bathroom so there are no windows to bring in natural light,’ says Nicola. ‘We thought carefully about the layout, and by swapping everything around we were able to fit in a walk-in shower. Keeping the décor light and contemporary was key to its success, and the work was all completed by the builders within a week.’

By this time Nicola was pregnant with daughter Marla, which slowed down work on the rest of the flat. Gradually, however, she has added the finishing touches. ‘I like contemporary looks, but with plenty of colour, such as fiery red and orange and bold blue,’ she says. ‘I’ve also got a thing about elephants, because they remind me of travelling. For that reason, I’ve included an elephant in every room.’

With the renovation work finished, Nicola was able to focus her attention on Marla, which inspired her to start up a business designing breastfeeding and maternity dresses. The company has been doing well since its launch in October 2012, and Nicola and Simon have started thinking about their next project. ‘We may take on a larger property,’ says Nicola. ‘Next time, however, we’re hoping for a more basic renovation.’

The costs

Subsidence repair work (paid for by the insurance company)£100,000
Building work£10,000