Let the light in: no ordinary Victorian terrace

Radical refurbishment of a former squat in east London has created an award-winning family home

Adramatic, interlocking plywood staircase, engraved with email exchanges between architect and client; worn external window frames repurposed inside; and a glass floor in the hallway. This is no ordinary Victorian terrace; instead, it’s a radical refurbishment of a former squat in east London, expanded for a young family.

“The old staircase was designed to be impressive,” says Japanese architect, Taro Tsuruta. “But it was big, disproportionate to the rest of the house, and hogged space.” Consequently, the rooms that radiated out – which included seven bedrooms (there are now four) – were cramped.

Rising two storeys above the ground floor, the new staircase and landings are considerably slimmer. The treads and banisters are made from about 2,000 plywood pieces, assembled on site by carpenters. Slits between the pieces allow for dramatic views as it soars up the house. Look closely and you can read emails carved into the side, sent during the course of the build: “Can you remind me on what basis you will calculate your fee?”, reads one; “high quality fish oil, probiotics and vitamins” reads a snippet of another. “We thought, why not incorporate some of these conversations into the design,” says Tsuruta. “When a building is finished, these conversations tend to be forgotten or deleted. We wanted to keep these memories as part of the house’s history and highlight the process behind redesigning it.”

Built in 1895, the house is now home to British documentary film-maker Ramon Bloomberg, his French-born wife Marie Cesbron, who works in the beauty industry, and their daughters Lucie and Ines. It has four storeys, and a 2m-deep extension at the rear. On the ground floor are a living room, kitchen and utility room, leading out to a steel balcony and a set of steps down to the wood-decked garden. The balcony provides a sheltered area underneath, at garden level, for outdoor meals. “We wanted the house to feel connected to the garden, and sociable,” Cesbron explains.

On the first floor, a small toilet was enlarged to create a bigger bathroom; another spacious new bathroom occupies the same area one floor up. Bedrooms are on the first and top floors. In the basement, at garden level, is a self-contained flat, where friends and relatives stay.

Plywood has been used throughout: it fronts cupboards, the kitchen table, and the living room shutters. “It’s cost-effective,” says Tsuruta. White melamine (“scratchproof and wipeable”) is used in the kitchen. The house, which recently won a RIBA London regional award, weaves old elements with new: original, ornate cornices have been retained in the hallway; there is original exposed brick in the living room, master bedroom and bathrooms; original pine floors have been sanded. Exposed plaster finishes on many walls “are quite Japanese”, says Tsuruta. “We like hand-applied plaster. It’s richer and more tonally varied than all-white walls.” Window frames from the back of the house have been recycled to create internal “walls”, with new glass, in the bathrooms; stripped of paint, the wood has a warm, worn patina. They draw more light into the house. Fixed to the back of these, inside the bathrooms, are lengths of plywood that double as shelving.

Storage is plentiful. In the kitchen are double-height cupboards (Tsuruta designed a bespoke ladder); there are built-in wardrobes and cupboards in the hallway, utility room and basement; storage units line one wall of Bloomberg’s first-floor study; and suitcases are stored under the eaves on the top floor.

Most impressively, Cesbron has a walk-in wardrobe off the master bedroom in the attic. “Taro didn’t think there was much need for storage, but it was a big part of our brief,” Cesbron says. “I love clothes and shoes, but also like storing my children’s dolls houses, toys and books. And whenever I go to France, I bring back large stocks of food you can’t find easily here – chocolate bars, salt from the island of Noirmoutier.” Her husband might be a minimalist who prefers nothing on the walls, but Cesbron is a not-so-secret hoarder, stocking memories to be passed on to the next generation. “When I become a grandmother,” she explains, “objects like these will be no more – everything will be digitised. It’s like having my own personal museum.”