If a project can be said to have baggage, this one had it. Another architect had been involved, and things hadn’t gone well. The plans were still on the drawing board, but the design had headed off in the wrong direction and the costs had come back way over budget. Before it went any further, the quantity surveyor on the job – someone we liked very much and who we’d worked with on other projects – got us on board.
An unclean slate like this is never a great starting point. But as we walked up to the house for the first time, we spotted the clients – and breathed a sigh of relief. We’d met Nan and Stuart before at an RIBA charity event. We’d had a good feeling about them then, and that gave us a good feeling now.
We could tell, at very first glance, that the house was lovely too – an Edwardian manor house with handsome proportions and beautiful features. There was a lot to like here, and a lot to fight for. But there was no time to waste or to dream. The builders were gearing up to start on site within three weeks, and we had to get straight to work.
We pored over the drawings and specifications to get to grips with every previous design decision and get the project back on track. We had long, intense conversations with our clients to get inside their heads and work out what they really wanted. It’s crucial at this stage to ask the right questions and be alert to the slightest nuance in an answer.
With both Nan and Stuart fully invested in our fresh vision for the house, we soon settled into a rhythm: we would feed new drawings to the builders as they were working away, and before starting on anything they would check in with us. Of course it wasn’t ideal, but it worked – and we have a very patient site manager to thank for that.
The Edwardian grandeur of the house was our inspiration. We would be respecting the original character of the building and bringing this back to life, installing new stone windows and restoring the cornicing and panelling where we could. For the parts of the house where the original detail had completely disappeared, we would get cornicing and panelling made up to replicate it as beautifully and faithfully as we could.
It was all about balance. Alongside respecting the old, we had to find space for the new. Nan and Stuart loved the house’s origins but aspired to a modern interior which would show their eclectic art collection at its best. We were coordinating the arrival and installation of a steady stream of new elements: a ‘smart home’ lighting system; a stunning new kitchen from Roundhouse; a spiral wine cellar; a new staircase that was being built off site. And soon an interior designer and a garden designer would be on site, adding to the complexity. But that’s all part of the satisfaction of a project like this. We enjoy choreographing everyone’s expertise, and we enjoy bringing people together.
A common sense of purpose with our clients is crucial too, and we know that just as we found an ally in Nan and Stuart, they found an ally in us. Beautiful old houses like this always throw up the odd hiccup and challenge, and Nan and Stuart had as much energy and drive, as much willingness to take everything in their stride, as the rest of us.
Of course you never know what’s around the corner. We were five months in and on a roll when the pandemic hit. Thankfully, the project already had a momentum even this couldn’t quite shake. In the face of lockdown restrictions and difficulties getting hold of supplies, the builders kept the project moving forwards. And with barely an intake of breath, we shifted our long-running, ever-productive conversation with Nan and Stuart onto Zoom.
It’s now spring 2021, and as we come out of yet another lockdown the house is already starting to repay the considerable love, attention and hard graft that we’ve all poured into it. It’s been quite a journey for all of us, but we’ve never wavered in our focus and we’ve learnt that you can overcome almost anything if everyone’s pulling in the same direction. And now Nan and Stuart, clearly eager for more, have asked us to design a garden gym for them both. The story of Kidbrooke Grove, it turns out, isn’t over yet.