Dan and Natalie Petrone have transformed a large townhouse with a warren of cramped rooms into a light and spacious property that’s full of stylish modern touches
Faced with a rambling collection of musty old bedsit rooms, Nathalie and Dan Petrone had to really use their imagination to recognise their new property’s potential. Fortunately, they both have a creative eye, plus the good sense to know that hiring the right project team would help them realise that potential. “Before we bought this house in 2009, we were working and living in Amsterdam and also owned a flat in north London,” says Dan. “Buying the house was all about trying to establish a family home and put down roots in the UK. Tunbridge Wells seemed like a nice place to live, and this was the right property, the right size and in the right part of a large town.”
Dan spotted the property online, so the couple arranged to view it during one of their regular trips back to the UK. “The fact that it was carved up into bedsits and had barely been touched since 1979 appealed to us,” says Dan. “We wanted to take on a big project and get it exactly as we wanted it, knowing that it would be our ‘forever home’. We weren’t interested in making a profit because we plan to stay here for some time. As long as we didn’t over-invest and lose money on the renovation work, we were okay with it!”
To help them with their project, the Petrones hired architect Steve Margate of Atelier – SM Architects. “We walked round the house with him and showed him our scrapbook of design ideas,” says Dan. “It’s definitely a good tip to put together an ideas book before you start an extensive project like this. We went through loads of homes magazines, cut out pictures that appealed to us and stuck them in the book. It was incredibly useful for communicating ideas to Steve. After several discussions, we distilled our wishlist down to three main objectives: open-plan spaces, lots of light and a contemporary style.”
The ground floor of the house was a warren of little rooms on different levels, while on the first floor there were around eight rooms of various sizes. In the loft, a two-bedroom bedsit included a kitchen, bathroom and hallway. “The entire house felt very small and closed in,” says Natalie. “By opening it up, we would lose a few rooms but gain more space and light. Although we wanted our home to have a modern feel, it was also important to retain some of the property’s Edwardian character.”
As the house hadn’t had much work done in more than 30 years, there was no central heating and only single glazing. All the kitchen floorboards were warped and showing signs of cupping – a problem created by dampness, where the underside of each floorboard has absorbed too much moisture, expanding and raising the boards at their edges. This was due to a wet cellar
below the kitchen that regularly filled up with water after heavy rain.
Having obtained planning permission without any problems, the first job on the list was to tackle the structural work head-on. “The builders tanked the cellar, knocked out all the unwanted walls, put in temporary props to hold up the ceilings, took off the roof and removed all the windows,” says Dan. “Then they took out all the floorboards, too. We were left with only the joists and brickwork – it was a hollow shell, basically.”
“We had a bit of a nightmare early on, because the first building company left the house open to the elements,” says Nathalie. “We were still living in Amsterdam at the time, so we weren’t on site to keep an eye on things. We decided to hire a new builder, Oliver John, and employed a project manager, Sarah Greenwood, to oversee everything in our absence.”
With Sarah at the helm, the project moved on apace. “She was amazing,” says Nathalie. “Construction is such a male-dominated industry but she was brilliant at managing the builders.”
On their return to the UK, the couple took the decision to move into a rented property nearby for six months so the house could be finished before they moved in.
All the ground-level floors were replaced with new oak parquet – inspired by the flooring in the Petrones’ Amsterdam apartment. The windows were replaced with hardwood frames and high-spec double-glazing. “We took a while to deliberate over it, because they were very expensive,” says Nathalie, “but as Dan said, windows are the eyes of a house, so we agreed to go ahead and buy them.”
The other structural work included remodeling the awkward front of the property to give it a more balanced appearance. “It was two storeys on the right side of the house, but only one storey on the left,” explains Dan. “It used to look as though it had one eye open and one eye closed.”
On the right of the property, the ground-floor garage became a new study, while on the left, a sloping roof was removed and the wall built up to create a first-floor playroom. “Afterwards, the front of the house looked a total mess, especially where the bricks had been punched through to add downpipes,” says Nathalie. “We contacted a company called Make-up for Masonry to clean the brickwork and hand-tint the bricks so they would match the old ones. It’s all chemical-free and the match is perfect.”
One of the main rooms that needed restructuring was the new kitchen-diner – originally three rooms but now knocked through to create one large open-plan space. “We didn’t want units above the worktops as we felt that would give a cramped effect,” says Dan. “Nathalie and I debated the layout for ages until we came across Martin Bepey of Made in Wood. We liked his hands-on approach and the fact we could show him a unit from any kitchen and he’d make it bespoke.”
The couple kitted out their new kitchen with sleek appliances, including an electric fan oven, two induction hobs, an extractor fan and dishwasher drawers. “The drawers are a godsend, as you can fill one drawer and set it to wash independently from the other,” says Dan. “It means you can use the unit for storage, too.”
Perhaps the most extensive structural work involved remodelling the roof space to create a new open-plan master bedroom suite. Instead of the original poky loft rooms and dormer windows, the couple wanted a large gable window with a Juliet balcony, an open-plan bedroom and two huge new skylights above a freestanding bath. A walk-in dressing room at one end and a double shower and WC at the other were also factored into the new design.
Inspired by the freestanding baths in boutique hotels they’d stayed in, the couple looked to Louise Home of Ripples for ideas. “Designing an open-plan suite like this was quite a challenge,” says Nathalie. “When you’re confined by walls it’s obvious where to place furniture; when you haven’t any walls, you have to work out where to put things as you go along. For example, keeping a half-height wall was our project manager Sarah’s idea, as it gave us somewhere to position the bed! Similarly, Louise thought it would be best for the bedroom parquet flooring to meet the bath area tiles in a diagonal line rather than straight across, as this would help to fuse the areas, rather than visually cut the room in two.”
• The feature originally appeared in Real Homes magazine. Photography by Colin Poole