Why buy an ex-local-authority house or flat

How to derate ex-local-authority houses

Jefferson Smith

While the 19th century saw the beginnings of council-built housing in British cities, and public health concerns after World War I sped the process up, it wasn't until the aftermath of World War II, when the industrial areas of many cities had been extensively bombed, that it really took off. Beginning with semi-detached or terraced houses in the 1950s, the explosion of local authority housing continued throughout the 1960s and 70s, with Brutalist-style towers and nondescript low-rise blocks an ever-more familiar of the urban landscape.

How to derate ex-local-authority houses

Paul Massey

Although many of the poorer-quality prefab houses and the estates that quickly developed social housing have already been demolished, or are about to be, vast stocks of local-authority buildings remain in the UK, and many are now in private hands. A rare few, like the modernist houses off Hampstead Heath pictured at the top, or the Ernö-Goldfinger-designed Trellick Tower in west London (above), are now beloved landmarks, but most are just normal houses, with no great architectural merit. Nonetheless, there are good reasons to buy them: first and foremost that they tend to be affordable, and are generally located in conveniently central locations.

How to derate ex-local-authority houses

Archmongers

The appeal of the interior spaces lies in their simplicity. Archmongers, an architectural practice which has redesigned several ex-local-authority buildings or houses in similar styles, sums it up as 'value for money in straightforward, well-built houses.' The rooms are well-proportioned and tend not to be awkwardly subdivided, they may well have built-in storage, and they usually have large windows and plenty of light.

How to (re)design the space

How to derate ex-local-authority houses

Rachel Whiteing

Houses and flats built between the Thirties and the Seventies do prioritise light, and everyone agrees that you should make the most of it. Bella Huddart, who moved from a sprawling country house to a flat in Trellick Tower, says that one of the first things she did was to open up the kitchen and sitting room to one another. Margaret at Archmongers agrees that most of her projects have involved similar processes: 'The format of the spaces can be quite narrow, whereas modern living is more about connectivity and open plan spaces.' Internal windows can help the light to flow throughout the house. Some houses of this period may have integral garages which are now not particularly convenient for cars–a common option is to make these into living spaces.

When it comes to interior design, most owners and decorators take the view that modernist architecture should be matched with similar decoration. Matt Gibberd, the founder of The Modern House, sums up the most popular approach as: 'white walls, wooden floors, mid-century furniture, not too much clutter'. He recommends not over-modernising, and maintaining any attractive original features such as door furniture or wooden cabinetry, and adding 'a few well-chosen objects and artworks', pointing out the example of Ernö Goldfinger's own house on Willow Road in Hampstead (above), where clusters of found objects and ceramics add depth to the clean lines of the space. Tom Morris, a design journalist who lives in a flat at the Barbican in the City of London, advises avoiding pattern: 'There’s a cleanness to Brutalism and Modernism that conflicts with pattern.'

How to derate ex-local-authority houses

The Modern House

There are no hard-and-fast rules, however. Bella Huddart, a self-confessed 'textile fiend' imported much of her country house furniture into Trellick Tower. The pine kitchen table she grew up with now lives there, along with a Knole sofa, some iron bedsteads, and thoroughly chintzy curtains. 'If you have really good-quality stuff, it will work', she says, while emphasising a need to cut down on clutter: 'it's important that modern spaces don't become too 'bric-a-brac-y.'

Finishing the space

How to derate ex-local-authority houses

Rachel Whiteing

Ex-local-authority buildings can be quite blank, boxy spaces, and a common concern is how to add warmth and character. Texture and high-quality materials are key. The owners of a flat in the Barbican (above) felt the resin floor they had laid a few years earlier was partly to blame for a sense of coldness and blandness in the flat, and called in Maria Speake of Retrouvius to help. A parquet floor was mooted but Maria persuaded them that the floor should remain and warmth and texture could be added by different means, in this case, walls and sliding doors clad in rich parquet. She also added vintage Turkish and Moroccan rugs to soften the space.

How to derate ex-local-authority houses

Owen Gale

Margaret at Archmongers also recommends adding richness with high-quality materials, 'especially in the places you touch'. Areas of marble in kitchen and bathrooms, and a Douglas fir timber floor, can make all the difference to the feeling of the house. Putting in new windows, although a considerable expense, should also be a priority if your building has the PVC windows all too common in modern houses. 'It makes a massive difference'.

How to derate ex-local-authority houses

The Modern House

If you live in a building with an interesting history, however, there can be some virtue in embracing the starkness of this style of architecture. Matt Gibberd recalls sellng a flat in Trellick Tower to a couple who stripped everything back to basics. 'They revealed the concrete walls and ceilings throughout the flat, with all of their battle scars and patina, which made for a beautifully textured environment. You could even see where people had channelled out electric conduits. Then they combined that with a very crisp timber kitchen and parquet floor - it was a great combination.'

The colours to use

How to derate ex-local-authority houses

Paul Massey

White is, of course, the colour of choice for a modern house. It's simple, classic, and retains the feeling of light and space. If you're going to go with colour, however, the best approach, in line with modernist style, is blocks of flat colour. Says Matt Gibberd, 'you could channel Richard Rogers and go for hi-tech, bold 1980s colour, or take a more Corbusier-like approach. He was a huge fan of dusty pink.'

How to derate ex-local-authority houses

The Modern House

Tom Morris also references Le Corbusier's colour-blocking, and has painted his living room in an earthy brown–Farrow & Ball's 'Salon Drab' (above). 'The temptation is to keep them as white boxes and go with a very purist modernist attitude, but that’s not the way I like to live. When I painted, I wanted earthy colours to warm up the city surroundings.'

How to derate ex-local-authority houses

Paul Massey

Meanwhile Bella Huddart has gone for pale and simple colours: 'I’ve done a grey wash in the sitting room, and lilac in the bedroom.' This represents a happy modern compromise between the starkness of an all-white interior and the more traditional country house colour scheme.

The furniture to buy

How to derate ex-local-authority houses

Paul Massey

A heavy dose of mid-century modern furniture is the usual approach with flats built in the same period, and this of course works incredibly well. Pieces can be snapped up for relatively little money on Ebay, or more specialised sites like Vinterior and Ceraudo. Classic items like the Dieter-Rams-designed Vitsoe shelving in the 1930s house above, and a smattering of Danish teak furniture, are impossible to go wrong with. As Tom Morris says, the open spaces of these interiors can cope well with statement furniture. 'This was bold architecture, so it makes sense to be bold with your pieces.'

How to derate ex-local-authority houses

Jefferson Smith

Not all modernist houses have to be exclusively furnished with modernist furniture though, and again, some of the iconic twentieth-century houses lead the way. 2 Willow Road includes a varied collection of objects - elaborate nineteenth-century candlesticks and Victorian prints sat alongside the streamlined objects Goldfinger designed himself. Modernism placed a premium on the idea of getting back to basics, so furniture from movements, schools, and places with a similar aesthetic can work particularly well. The Arts & Crafts movement, for example, also wanted to pare back the excesses of 19th-century decoration and return to a simpler style, so these pieces are not wholly out of place in a modern interior.

Style File: Retrouvius