A family affair: at home with Cousins & Cousins
- Credit: Archant
Ben and Jelena Cousins, founders of Camden based architectural practice Cousins & Cousins transformed an uninhabitable wreck into a property to suit their young family. They tell us what it takes to make a house a home
“I don’t think any architect would buy a finished house. You would always go towards something you can put your own stamp on. It’s one of those innate things in us, I guess.”
Jelena Cousins, one half of husband and wife duo Cousins & Cousins, clearly loves a challenge.
Far from finished, the house she and her partner Ben found on Chetwynd Road was a positive wreck.
They purchased the property in 2009 for £750,000. The four bedroom Victorian terraced house had been occupied by its previous owner since 1936 and was in dire need of attention.
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“It was really bad,” admits Jelena. “It was quite derelict. You couldn’t really live in it, it was in such bad condition.”
Before founding their Camden-based architectural practice in 2012 Ben and Jelena had previously remodelled their home in Hackney.
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“We did nearly all of it ourselves as that was before we had kids,” explains Jelena, whose daughters Sophia, Isabella, and Imogen are now 12, 10 and seven respectively.
This time around they hired contractors they’d worked with on previous professional projects, and the family relocated to Ben’s parent’s home in South End Green.
The priority was to make the property structurally sound, a daunting challenge.
“It was properly, properly bad,” admits Jelena. “We met so many people in the area who, when they found out, were like “you bought that?!” They’d been to see it and it was too much to contemplate.”
It was a project that needed an architect owner, or in this case a pair of architects with two careers worth of under their collective belt and a bulging contacts book of all the right people to call.
The back wall was practically coming off, so the first task was to work with a structural engineer to repair the damage and make the house safe to live in once again.
After shoring up the walls and replacing the roof slates and windows they turned their attention to redesigning the layout to suit the needs of a modern family.
When they drew up the plans Ben and Jelena outlined exactly what they wanted from the property: light and space.
“We wanted a big open kitchen and family room and dining area, and we just wanted as much light as possible,” says Jelena, “Our priority was to get as much glass in as we could afford.”
The property had a classic layout, with two floors above the ground and a rear extension made up of several small rooms.
They knocked the walls separating the rear rooms through to create one large room and constructed a frameless glass extension to one side.
As the house sits within a conservation area their design had to be sensitive to the existing style.
Rather than tacking a glass box onto the side, the pair designed a pitched glass roof that remained in keeping with the 19th century terrace whilst giving them an unimpeded view of the sky.
“My favourite thing about the house is that glass side extension,” says Jelena. “It floods the house with light.”
To differentiate between old and new the couple created an exaggerated step down between the original house and the extension, whilst laying sturdy oak floorboards throughout to provide a sense of continuity.
The whole ordeal took just eight months, testament to Ben and Jelena’s skill both as architects and project managers.
The feat is all the more impressive because Jelena was on maternity leave for the duration, looking after Sophia and Isabella, and baby Imogen who was just nine months old when the project was completed. Understandably, the responsibility for most of the site visits fell to Ben.
The renovation cost £180,000 in total. The transformation the wrought on the property, combined with the increasing popularity of the Gospel Oak area has significantly boosted the property’s value. A recent valuation estimated its worth to be £1.9million.
The Cousin’s have no intention to sell, however. The family chose to relocate from Hackney so they could raise their children in the same area Ben had grown up in.
“I struggled a bit at first because Hackney is somewhere we lived for ten years and when you’re embedded within one community it’s hard to leave,” admits Jelena. “For Ben is was easy because he was coming home.”
Although she misses the vibrancy of Hackney, she has learnt to love the tranquil charm of Gospel Oak and the whole family loves to play on the Heath.
Of course, being architects, the project is never finished.
“I find it interesting how you can adapt your house,” muses Jelena. “I wouldn’t have known but having three girls you suddenly realise you need another bathroom. So we’re re-jigging again. We haven’t done it yet but we will be!”
The house is constantly evolving, but that was always part of the plan.
“The good thing about Victorian houses is that you can change them quite easily,” she says. “It’s not like they have a concrete frame or floor that would make making changes a huge deal.”
There is one thing in the house that has remained constant: their pale grey front door. In fact, it had a presence in their life before the family even moved in.
“The older girls were a bit upset we were leaving our old house because that was all they knew. So one thing that they wanted, which was really sweet, was the same colour door. So that’s what we have.”
With thanks to the The Homebuilding & Renovating Show