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Inspiration of the Week: from clapped-out to clutter-free in Clapton

Giving birth to her third child on the day she and her husband broke ground didn’t stop Chloe Shann from transforming a tumbledown Victorian dwelling in Hackney into a much-loved home, full of historical reference. In fact, it didn’t even delay them. For this special edition of IotW, Chloe reflects on the house’s own rebirth ahead of the family’s move

Inspiration of the Week: from clapped-out to clutter-free in Clapton

Chloe Shann had admired this house on Elderfield Road from afar since she moved to Hackney in 2013. It was, she says, in “absolutely dire condition”. But it was also “bang in the middle of the prettiest part of Clapton”, where where rows of Victorian houses with no through traffic lead down to Hackney Marshes. A career in construction – Chloe is one half of Thornhill Shann – meant she could also immediately see the potential where others may have needed help: situated on the corner, the house had a small lean-to, which she thought could be used to give the house unusually large width. When it came on the market, she and her husband, Guy, leapt at the chance.

Untouched for many years, the building was a time warp. There were period features everywhere – “wonderful coving on the ceilings, fireplaces in almost every room and all the Victorian doors and skirting were still there, as well as many layers of wallpaper on every wall” – though serious neglect meant that, due to rotting joists, nothing could be saved. Having fallen for the original fabric, the solution was obvious: reinstate it.

The project was complex, Chloe says, not least given they broke ground on 31st January, the day she gave birth to her third child – “the timing was not ideal!” (An understatement, perhaps.) But on they marched. Because the overall structure was unsound, including those rotten joists, everything had to come out. They dug a basement that stretched to the full footprint of the house, and the roof came off so that two floors could be added on top – resulting in a total of five. At one point, Chloe recalls, “all that was standing were the three exterior walls.” Having demolished an “unsightly” extension, the couple decided to replace it with a three-storey structure in keeping with the rest of the house. On the ground floor in here, the kitchen benefitted from a new pitched ceiling with exposed rafters – something the couple were very keen on. It was not, Chloe remarks, “an easy shape to build – not least as the roof was supporting two floors above it. In all, it took 11 months, with the family succeeding where so many before them failed: they were in by Christmas. “Not bad!”

Perhaps it’s unsurprising – Chloe’s used to spending all day on site, having founded her company with her brother Tommy in 2016. “I love my work,” she says. “It’s hugely satisfying to build beautiful houses for other people.” But building for herself? While she admits it was stressful at points, it was also “great fun to implement my own ideas, having learned a lot from the interior designers and architects I’ve worked with over the years.”

When she and Guy took on the project, they were living in an open-plan flat, and the idea of moving into a house with lots of small rooms didn’t appeal. It’s why the house now feels as airy as it does; to open up the space, they built two sets of large glazed timber doors that allow you to see right through from one end of the house to the other. By designing more hard-working rooms into the basement level (utility room, playroom and wine storage – spaces those that inevitably come with all sorts of stuff), they’ve cleverly cleared the ground floor of clutter.

Chloe’s fondness of historic architecture (“I love all things Georgian,” she admits) has meant that the original fabric she so admired when she first looked round Elderfield Road has been respected where possible – and replaced where not; the wooden sash windows are new, while the coving and ceiling roses she and Guy chose, for instance, are based on designs from Calke Abbey, the Baroque stately in Lincolnshire, remade by plaster specialists Stevensons of Norwich. The couple opted for tongue-and-groove panelling over tiles, Edward Bulmer’s natural paint throughout, and aged plank floorboards, using three different widths. The internal doors are simple, the kind old houses are used to: heavy, with four panels and rim-lock door handles. Hefty stone hearths now front reclaimed fire surrounds for the hall, with all five of those original fireplaces remaining in place.

Crucially and cleverly, the light the rest of the house is soft and sensitive – lamps, picture lights wall lights and a single pendant in the hall mean there’s no need for contemporary spotlighting, except in the basement. As a consequence, the rooms here seem radiant – something Chloe says she’ll miss. “When the fire in the sitting room is lit and the lamps with their Bloomsbury shades are dimmed, the whole ground floor just glows.”

Elderfield Road, London E5

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