Blend the old with the new

How To Blend The Old With The New


Top Battersea-based architect AnaïsBléhaut reveals how to combine the beauty of a period property with contemporary living

Words: Tina Lofthouse

South West London is blessed with a wealth of period houses, particularly Victorian. But while we love the character these homes offer, we also face the challenge of how to make such properties work for how we live now.

Architect Anaïs Bléhaut and her partner Dennis Austin founded daab design Architects, a RIBA chartered practice based in Battersea, with the idea of sourcing formerly unloved period properties for clients, then restoring them so that they both celebrate their previous architectural glory while also ensuring they are stylish and contemporary.

Working on conservation projects in Paris and Rome ignited Anaïs’ passion for heritage architecture, even though it brings many challenges. “I enjoy working within the constraints of heritage buildings – there’s a story behind them and I love finding that story within the architecture. Then we work with our clients to tell their story too.

“As for the constraints, you have to be willing to embrace them and see them as opportunities, rather than work against them. We really get to know a property – whether that is technically, or legally in terms of planning regulations, carrying out 3D modelling and surveys so we know what we’re dealing with.”

When looking to update a period property, the key is to take a holistic view, she believes. Celebrate the original architecture, but unless you’re working with a listed building, don’t be afraid to add contemporary changes so your home works for you. “In the Georgian and Victorian eras, people weren’t shy about celebrating the design of their times so we shouldn’t be either.”

For example, if you are adding an extension to a period home, there is no need to replicate the original features of the older building in the new. “I think it’s really important to show what you can do with the best of the architecture of today,” says Anaïs. “And think big – not necessarily in terms of budget but the idea. Also consider how you might alter practical things for a better overall effect such as moving the services for water, gas and electricty – in one project we moved all the services to a box outside from underneath the stairs so we could renovate the beautiful Georgian staircase.”

Above all, it has to work for daily living. This can be achieved, even in a listed building. “You might have a very fine panelled room with an ornate ceiling so you can work around that with freestanding elements – we fitted a 65-inch TV screen in a Georgian house by designing a contemporary cabinet. So you can have the latest AV equipment without damaging anything – you keep the continuity of the heritage and at the same time you can live your modern life.”

Conversely, what if you have a period property but all the character has been stripped out of it? “It’s a great shame but there’s usually always something – maybe a window, or original floorboards somewhere. We’ve stripped out old vinyl floors only to find the original stone beneath.”

Anaïs is not one for using replicas in historic properties, unless it is necessary to rebuild part of an existing feature. Instead, she makes great use of reclaimed materials, which are perfect to bring back authentic period detail. Some of Anaïs’ favourite projects include the refurbishment of a semi-detached house dating from the 1830s, which had seen a lot of changes in the 1970s and 80s and retained no original features. “It gave us the opportunity to create a very contemporary lower ground floor, where we took our favourite features of Victorian properties and designed very beautiful but contemporary versions of them. So, for example, fully concealed oak shutters, and newel posts for the stairs. In this particular building, that was the right way to go because everything was lost, so there was no point pretending that we were in a Victorian interior.”

Another project they are currently working on is an apartment at the Harrods Village development in Barnes – since the 1890s, the grand site was the furniture depository for the Knightsbridge department store but was turned into apartments in the 1990s. “The flat had been added to over the years. We discovered that you could gain a metre of ceiling height by stripping back the property and exposing the structure. We have designed the apartment so that it will celebrate London at the turn of the century, with very broad floorboards and exposing some of the impeccable brickwork, which had been covered behind a lot of plasterboard.”

Anaïs’ own home is in the Park Town Estate conservation area, Battersea, which has properties dating from 1863 to 1916. She is fascinated by the history of the place – it was the work of James Knowles who wanted to protect the area from the expansion of the railways. She started to create a guide for locals on how to look after the heritage of their homes, and it has since expanded from tips on how to care for floorboards and original tiles to a much larger project on best practice for sustainable period homes – a topic which any owner of a period property will know is a big challenge.

“The Park Town Estate is actually quite well preserved and I feel that we really have to keep that for future generations. In terms of sustainability, knowing the history brings you closer to wanting to preserve what you have.”

And, of course, blending its history into modern lives. The guide also looks at sensitive options for loft conversions. And how to avoid heat gain given our hot summers now. Adds Anaïs: “The Georgians had a solution for that in that they used awnings so maybe they are due a contemporary revival!”

She has also been looking into how our homes mirror the changes in our lives with the pandemic: “During the last year, our front gardens have become places in which to socialise so I’m working with a landscape architect on what to plant that provides shade in the summer and lets the sun and light through in the winter – plus how to disguise the big refuse bins we have today. But really, it’s about adding a chair and making it a nice place to sit and chat with the neighbours.” 


Images: top: Grant Smith, others by Grant Smith and Jim Stephenson

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