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A Home with a History: putting the green in Green Shop House, a Victorian restoration in south London

The eco-minded Natalie and Luke Morrison discuss creating a home free from toxic chemicals, the beauty of reclaimed materials and why, sometimes, doing it yourself is the only option

Words
Rosily Roberts
Photography
Ellen Hancock
A Home with a History: putting the green in Green Shop House, a Victorian restoration in south London

To call the work that Natalie and Luke Morrison have done to their south London home a ‘renovation’ is almost inaccurate. Given the level of care with which the couple approached their former watch-repair shop in Dulwich, ‘restoration’ is more appropriate. They were determined to uncover the original Victorian features and to work using materials that were as authentic to the structure as possible – despite the occasional consternation they met from their builders.

Initially, the restoration, which they documented on Instagram, involved stripping back the 1970s additions: bright floral wallpaper, polystyrene ceiling tiles and canary-yellow woodwork. Then, Natalie, a nutrition consultant, and Luke, a post-production colourist, found some builders who would work with the traditional lime plaster they had uncovered. At other points in the process, when they couldn’t find someone to work with the materials they wanted, the couple simply did it themselves. That was the case with the Moroccan tadelakt plaster in the bathroom. “We went on a course to learn how to do it,” Luke explains. “It was fairly easy to work and it’s a forgiving process, but very labour intensive. You have to rub the whole area with a little stone, which closes the air holes and makes it water resistant. We are sometimes still a bit nervous that it might start to leak, but so far it seems to have worked!”

The beating heart of the building is the old shop front, which now houses the kitchen. The room is framed by two large bay windows that, having been boarded up for years, the couple painstakingly restored. Thin muslin curtains allow for bright light to flood in throughout the day, bringing warmth that permeates the rest of the home. Pieces of old furniture, such as the glass-fronted display cabinet storing cups and glasses, serve as reminders of the room’s previous use, while other features remind the couple of their years spent in Chicago: an abandoned mirror they found in an alley in there; the pressed-tin ceiling tiles they’ve installed in the kitchen.

And while Green Shop House, as it’s called, might not be a shop anymore, the community feeling of the place remains; throughout lockdown, Natalie and Luke’s little front garden served as the perfect meeting point for their friends to gather with takeaway beers from the local pub. The building’s past and its present mingle in this street-facing patch, as they do throughout the house. This is deliberate, a consequence of both the couple’s sensitivity to the house’s history and fabric, and their commitment to creating an ecologically sound ­– and therefore sustainably – living environment. Here, they talk us through the process.

Natalie: “The woman who lived here before us was the daughter of the man who ran the watch shop. The building had been in her family for 95 years. She was born in the back bedroom and planted the apple tree in the garden, which, until its recent trim, stood as tall as the upstairs window. When it came to renovating, we wanted to bear in mind this history as much as possible.

“The main structural change we made was moving the kitchen from the back of the house to the shop front. It’s quite common to have the kitchen at the back, but what’s nice about this is that the busy energy of the kitchen matches that of the street. When we want to relax, we tuck ourselves away near the garden.”

Luke: “We spend most of our time in the kitchen, so it made sense for that to be the room that the front door opens into. All the builders and architects wanted us to have our door around the side, or to build a hallway, but we bought this house because we loved the front. We wanted to showcase those windows and to make the most of this space.

“We used Bauwerk limewash paint throughout most of the house, which gives a chalky texture. When we started taking down the wallpaper, we really liked the look of the original lime plaster, so we tried to leave it as much as we could. We love the texture the exposed patches add to our bedroom, for instance. Elsewhere, we covered it with limewash, so the finish feels authentic. We didn’t want anything to be too pristine. The best thing about Bauwerk is that it isn’t supposed to be applied neatly – that’s how it has that textural finish. You just slap it on. Even Marigold, our daughter, could get involved! It’s also great that it’s completely free from VOCs, biocides or formaldehydes, and doesn’t off-gas.”

Natalie: “We didn’t want to use any toxic paint, glue or plaster here. I trained as a nutritionist and have seen what damage chemicals can do to our bodies, so I didn’t want to fill our home with noxious substances. It definitely made things a bit trickier at times, especially because a lot of builders were reluctant to use materials they weren’t used to. We had to just be imaginative with our solutions; it actually ended up driving a lot of our design decisions.”

Luke: “Natalie and I have always had a dream of having a cabin in the woods – so we made our back room into one. I started collecting old timber and floorboards from Gumtree and eBay, which I used to cover the walls and ceiling. There’s no noise from the road back here and we designed the window so that, when you sit on the sofa, you can’t see the neighbours’, just the garden. It’s our little retreat from the world.”

Natalie: “We’ve travelled around Japan a couple of times and really love the onsen, hot fresh-water baths. We wanted to create a bathroom reminiscent of them. We designed a shower area where you can sit on a low stool and wash by filing up a small wooden tub from the tap, before taking a deep dip in the ofuro, a Japanese tub for soaking and relaxing. We adore the bath and how it holds you in it, allowing you to fully relax and be immersed in the water. It’s also where, just before Christmas last year, I gave birth to Otto, our son. It doesn’t get more special than that.”

Further reading

Green Shop House on Instagram

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