Ingenious ways Londoners are transforming awkward spaces into modern city homes


he capital’s historical housing stock has long dominated its residential realm, making living in a pre- or early 20th-century structure one of the most common and iconic domestic experiences in London. Yet step inside these seemingly repetitive building shells and the true richness and variety of the capital’s residential offering unfolds.

The interiors offer fertile ground for extraordinary variation and inventiveness. They can translate into a rich array of styles, materials and atmospheres, from the most maximalist creations to minimalist havens, and from heritage-inspired abodes to the most avant-garde spaces, blending past, present and future with remarkable ease.

Our book, House London, explores 50 of London’s finest residential designs, from single-family cottages to flats in converted houses, and from boutique mansion apartments to redesigned industrial spaces. We’ve picked five projects that we think have tackled magnificently that perennial London problem of the awkward layout, be it through their small size, lack of light or tricky change of use.

Refreshing the interior: Sharon Toong enlarged windows and created lightwells to illuminate the centre of her late Victorian semi-detached home

/ Anna Stathaki


A nature-inspired interior in N8

House of Sylphina

Architect and interior designer Sharon Toong’s three-bedroom apartment is set on the ground floor of a late Victorian semi-detached in north London. It had enough space for a small family but suffered from a long and deep floorplan that led to a dark centre. Toong and her studio, House of Sylphina, which she set up in 2015, set out to reconfigure the home’s interior to turn that on its head when she moved in with her husband, architect Maciej Woronieck, daughter and dog in 2016.

“Bringing light into the centre of the property was the biggest challenge,” says Toong. To navigate that, she played with blue and green colours, planting and tactical lighting, resulting in an interior that feels both comfortable and entirely refreshed — a far cry from the awkward spaces of which it was once made up. Enlarging windows, adding lightwells and introducing glazed walls also played a key role in the transformation.

Toong’s apartment was large enough that she didn’t need to extend. However, the original arrangement included small, dark rooms, especially at the heart of the floorplan. She cleverly turned it around with strategic lighting, both artificial and by creating the lightwells that brought the sun into places it didn’t reach before. Her colour palette and internal planting just lifted everything further from there.

Transformed: Rupert Scott and Leo Wood matched Crittall windows and polished concrete with the brick walls of a former gin distillery in E1

/ Anna Stathaki

Gin Distillery

The transformation of a derelict commercial building in E1

Open Practice Architecture, Kinder Design

An east London gin distillery lay abandoned and derelict when Rupert Scott of Open Practice Architecture and his wife, Kinder Design founder Leo Wood, first encountered it. The tired industrial building hardly screamed “dream home”.

Fast forward and it has been completely and inventively reimagined into a two-bedroom house. A hidden courtyard, entered via a large, wooden door that reveals nothing of what lies behind it, leads through to the main entrance. The distillery’s original brick walls have been matched with Crittall windows, steelwork, timber and polished concrete to mix contemporary design sensibilities with the site’s industrial character.


Not only was this not meant to be a home, the structure originally being a distillery, but the plot was especially challenging as it was landlocked on two sides and facing a tall building on the third. It had virtually no garden and few opportunities for windows. The couple’s approach, essentially to build a structure within a structure making the most of the industrial building’s cavernous spaces but breaking them down through partitions and adding skylights, meant they could mould it into their perfect home.

Work in progress: Stephanie Macdonald and Tom Emerson say their home in a series of old backyard workshops is “a test bed of ideas”

/ Anna Stathaki


An experimental family home in WC1

6A Architects

Architects Stephanie Macdonald and Tom Emerson first moved into one half of what now forms their home 23 years ago and have been adapting it ever since. The site occupies two old top-lit workshop buildings, joined together with a new roof-lit central hall, creating an unusually lateral home, interspersed with gardens formed out of the old residual backyards and alley spaces around it.

“The house as a project has always been a test bed of ideas,” says Macdonald. The final building is a collage of old and new, with fabric that has been, in places, near continuously tinkered with for almost 300 years.

Our top five renovation tips

  • Embrace awkward spaces and unusual buildings, as with a creative approach they can become cosy homes
  • A few key bespoke elements can be enough to transform the feel of a whole room
  • Don’t be afraid to use colour
  • Take your time when renovating and make sure your home feels right for you

There is hardly anything around like this home. Working with what was essentially a series of backyard workshop buildings, Macdonald and Emerson have created a home that is imaginative, interesting, original and full of character that celebrates the site’s history — and importantly, fits them perfectly. Being architects, they can always tweak and improve it, so it’s a constant work in progress.

The latest piece of the puzzle, a garden begun in 2015 and grown and added to over the intervening years, has been planted to designs by Dan Pearson. It includes a winter flowering cherry tree, a huge-leafed Tetrapanax and seasonal flowering ground plants and climbing roses, jasmine and honeysuckle, that combine to bring a touch of wild nature to this intriguing and richly varied urban home.

Richly textured: Takeshi Hayatsu used sliding glazed screens to create the impression of a fluid, single space at this apartment near Hampstead Heath

/ Anna Stathaki

Heath flat

A celebration of craft in N6

Hayatsu Architects

The design of this four-bedroom Edwardian flat draws on the original building’s heritage character, as well as the owners’ and architect’s affinity with Japanese culture, to compose an interior that is richly textured but also fit for the 21st century. The period building, located in north London, backs on to the green spaces of Hampstead Heath towards the south.

While largely retaining the apartment’s original layout, practice head Takeshi Hayatsu removed some partitions and replaced masonry walls with slim, steel portal frames featuring timber-framed, glazed screens. These openings can be shut, allowing the rooms to be clearly defined, or slid open to give the impression of a fluid, single space. This resulted in rooms larger than the originals and instilled a sense of openness that defines the interior.

This is a relatively small apartment that had dark rooms and little flexibility. Takeshi’s smart approach involved a flowing open plan to create a space that is flexible and feels expansive — but can also be divided into smaller areas if needed. Its minimalist yet craft-rich approach, which draws on Japanese heritage, adds layers and depth.

Suite touch: “Why not have a bathtub in the living room?” says Alex Holloway. The architect’s work with hotels influenced the approach he took with his flat in Plimsoll Road, Finsbury Park

/ Anna Stathaki

Plimsoll Street

Modern hospitality in N4

Holloway Li

Small spaces needn’t be boring and Alex Holloway’s flat in a Victorian conversion is the perfect example.

“The interior design of my apartment is an eclectic mix of different elements that I have explored in the work of my design studio, Holloway Li, over the last years,” says Holloway. The first thing Holloway did when he bought the tired, neglected property, was to open up the interior, tearing down the walls of various small, dark rooms to create a generous one-bedroom home with a large, flowing, open-plan living area.

“We work a lot in the hospitality setting — where the differentiation between traditional room functions is broken down from the residential setting — which influenced how I programmed the spaces. Why not have a bathtub in the living room?”

This could easily be a hotel suite and why shouldn’t we approach our homes with a bit of pampering in mind?

Colour, key bespoke furniture pieces and small daily luxuries, such as having a bathtub in the living room, add flair and a sense of the unexpected to everyday life.

House London by Ellie Stathaki and Anna Stathaki

/ House London

House London, by Ellie Stathaki and Anna Stathaki, £35 (Frances Lincoln) is published on September 6

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