How we created our dream family home from a Fifties office block

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From the outside, many of ’s redundant office buildings look as if they’d make great flats. But architectural designer Nate Kolbe says it isn’t always possible, and huge floorplans can make conversion tricky.

However, last year a temporary law, introduced in 2013, giving permitted development rights to convert any commercial property to residential use, became permanent, so more may get converted in the future. 

The law was good news for married couple Stephen and Mihaela Christou, both 37, and baby Maxwell, now four, when they were hunting for a new home in September 2015.

Although they liked their modern flat in , they wanted to put Maxwell into the same school as his father; Mill Hill.

Jewellery designer Mihaela had moved to London from Croatia in her twenties, but marketing director Stephen is Barnet-raised. 

They scoured for a big new build. Outside space wasn’t important. Stephen says: “If you buy an old three-bed semi, you’re looking at years of work, but with a new-build you just move in. And I don’t do plants: I won’t be getting the lawnmower out on a Sunday.”

What it cost: 1,470 sq ft flat in 2016: £795,000

Value now: £875,000

Online, they spotted a medium-sized office building which was being converted to flats and was close to shops and transport links.

The original Fifties three-storey building was an almost perfect cube, made of steel with brick piers and render between, in a small cluster of light industry. In 2013, a fledgling developer had bought it under the new planning law.

It had a warren of tired low-ceilinged little offices, but the shape was good, and not too big. Nate had been hired to design 32 flats, including a new penthouse floor. On the plans, a dual-aspect three-bed, three-bath flat of almost 1,500 square feet caught Mihaela and Stephen’s eye.

The agent took them to look at the building site, which was scaffolded and was a hard-hat area. There was a gaping hole in one wall which was being used as the site door.

Mihaela Christou works as a jewellery designer so needed a work station (Charles Hosea)

Nate, exasperated at people wandering around the building site, shouted at the couple. Fortunately, they got over that tricky start and became friends. 

On the outside, the look of the building is now even more industrial: it is totally clad in brick, with larger metal windows and some flats have Juliet balconies. The lift shaft was moved bang in the centre of the building, giving all the flats optimum depth and light. 

Nate enjoys doing interior details — “the most fun is trying to imagine what it will be like living there, what will give people pleasure and a bit of an adventure. Good flow is the key thing.” 

Even professionals find it hard to imagine what a shell will really look like when finished, so Nate did lots of mood boards. The Christous’ flat has one exposed brick wall, continuing the loft theme. The high-ceilinged spaces are white, with wood floors.

Nate’s boards showed all the appliances, the kitchen, the bathroom, the finishes. In Mihaela and Stephen’s flat, the huge open-plan living space has a big white kitchen island, grey units and hi-tech appliances. The bathrooms are grey ceramic tiling with walnut detail, while the sunny bedrooms have lots of storage. 

On the plans, a dual-aspect three-bed, three bath flat of almost 1,500 square feet caught Mihaela and Stephen’s eye in the Fifties building (Charles Hosea)

“The kitchen layout was exactly what I wanted. The minute we walked in, we said, ‘This is the one.’” says Mihaela.

The couple were able to make some changes to the design, and asked for walnut floors throughout, instead of the original plan for carpeted bedrooms; and Dulux wipeable paint everywhere — it’s helpful with a boisterous toddler who uses the kitchen island for circuit laps.

They could have changed the kitchen unit colour, too. The flat has generous storage and recessed cove lighting, which provides a dimmable wash.

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They put down a deposit in November 2015, dependant on Max getting his school place. “It was a leap of faith, but even though the flat was still just framed out, I could imagine it,” Stephen says. “And we had change left over from the sale of our old flat to put Max into school.” 

Stephen and Mihaela feel they got a good price per square foot — which they should in return for the risk of buying a shell ahead of completion.

Michaela sourced and bought clean-lined industrial-look furniture ahead of move-in day in September 2016. The sofa arrived the next day “and we were good to go!” Stephen says.

The spacious sunny flat is big, light, bright, and fresh. “Architecture is about thinking about real people using and enjoying a space,” Nate says. “Not about what’s going to sell; but about what’s interesting, what will make a home, not just a house.”

HOW TO GET THE LOOK
Architectural designer Nate Kolbe at Superfusionlab Architects at
Walnut engineered floors by Jordan’s Wood Flooring at
Brick-slip clad internal wall by
Aluminium windows by L2i Ltd at
Blinds throughout by
Dulux easy clean paint at
Painting in dining area by
Huge Hektar metal pendant lamps from
​Orrico hammered aluminium coffee table from
Dining table by
​Tolix bar stools by
All ceramic tiles in bathrooms by Tower Ceramics at
White goods by Duravit at
​Elsie white bedside lamps in master bedroom from
​Radviken armchair in bedroom from ikea as before
​Mihaela wears handmade jewellery by Mihaela Christou at

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