How to renovate a 1960s home: advice from architecture firm Archmongers

·5-min read
Photo credit: Archmongers
Photo credit: Archmongers

Founders of architecture practice Archmongers Margaret Bursa and Johan Hybschmann have a knack for seeing potential where others might be put off by appearances. From ex-council properties to 1960s blocks of flats, they’ve transformed bijoux, boxy homes into spaces filled with light, colour and imagination. Here, they talk us through their approach to light, colour and materials, with tips to help anyone planning to renovate a mid-century house.

What kind of projects do you usually work on?

‘We are obsessed with every little detail,’ says Bursa, ‘so we tend to take on projects where we can bring a complete vision for inside and outside, even bridging interior design and landscape. They’re mostly domestic projects. We like to make homes that are cosy, but also to think about how these spaces are going to look in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years’ time.’

How would you describe your design approach?

‘We treat our projects like a nice piece of furniture – it’s the idea that something is made to last for a long time, and stays relevant in terms of both quality and design,’ explains Hybschmann. ‘We’re cautious about doing things that only look good in photos,’ adds Bursa, ‘like using a material that doesn’t have a depth. If a material is solid, beautiful and long-lasting, that creates a comfortable environment.’

Photo credit: Archmongers
Photo credit: Archmongers

What led you to specialise in renovating homes from the 1960s and 70s?

‘We’re drawn to the possibilities within those buildings and how they’re designed in terms of light and space. They’re so much easier to work with than Victorian properties,’ explains Bursa. ‘Some of the less remarkable ones, such as Clock House, can almost feel like a new build. You’ve got a good skeleton, but there’s licence to update them and make them contemporary.’

What opportunities does renovating 1960s houses offer?

‘You can take on a much more dramatic reconfiguration,’ says Bursa. ‘The staircase is often well designed, but taking up the wrong part of the house. If you can move it, you can unlock huge potential.’

Photo credit: Archmongers
Photo credit: Archmongers

What’s the key to designing a good staircase?

‘Being able to water-cut metal or cut plywood using CNC [computer numerical control] means you can now design staircases as models. The ones we created for Clock House and Matchbox House are a puzzle of parts, where treads, risers and stretchers are all different elements,’ explains Bursa.

‘We’ve got very little desire to design furniture,’ adds Hybschmann, ‘because there’s so much good stuff already out there. But our staircases give you a hint into our obsession with furniture. We try to make something beautiful. Staircases connect light and life through the house, so they can be really powerful objects.’

How do you apply colour to homes?

‘We see the interior of a house as a landscape, with a foreground, middle ground and background’ says Hybschmann. ‘We only give colour to a few elements, like follies in the landscape. Our strategy is to make sure the space is calm enough to take the life of the client and the furniture that’s going into it.’

Tell us about the inspiration behind some of your colour palettes?

‘It’s guided by the context,’ states Hybschmann. ‘For Golden Lane, we were inspired by the colours on the exterior of the estate.’ Bursa points to a flat they are renovating in Trellick Tower, designed by Ernö Goldfinger. ‘Inside each hallway in the building is a different tile colour, and every front door is a slightly different shade, either complementing or contrasting,’ she says. ‘It’s a clash in some ways, but it’s amazing.’

What ambitions do you have for future projects?

‘We’d love to do more new-build, single-family homes outside the capital,’ says Hybschmann. ‘It would be nice to be able to control things a bit more and London is tricky for that. We’d also like the opportunity to create a community that extends beyond one family, like we found at The Ryde.’

Photo credit: Archmongers
Photo credit: Archmongers

Are there lessons you’ve learned from renovating mid-century houses that can be applied to new homes?

‘One of the major lessons from 1960s, 70s and 80s houses is the manipulation of light and volume – of having the light enter in many different ways, and of having both low spaces and high spaces,’ says Bursa. ‘Also the integration with the landscape, of bringing the same materials inside and outside, and the opportunity to create more flexible spaces.’

Photo credit: Archmongers
Photo credit: Archmongers

Do you think it’s become more important to have flexibility in the home since the pandemic?

‘We always try to allow for flexibility within the floorplan, because you never know what is going to happen. Kids grow up and things change,’ states Hybschmann. ‘A family home needs to be able to evolve,’ adds Bursa. ‘You can’t just have a guest room any more; spaces need to be able to work much harder.’

‘In our Stego project, there was a small nook added to the side of the house, which created this small-but-functional desk facing a courtyard. The same thing repeated in a lower part of the house, so the two desks were visually connected across a garden, but separated in terms of noise,’ says Hybschmann. ‘We’re also working on a house in Stoke Newington with two small children’s bedrooms, but the dividing wall has been designed to just come down when it’s no longer relevant,’ adds Bursa. ‘It means the house is prepared for the future.’

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