Me and my home: All work and no play...

Architect Graeme Fisher tells James Palmer how he and a friend transformed an old kindergarten
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The Independent Online

Graeme Fisher, 33, and Tim Wort, 29, are qualified architects who have known each other since school. In 2001, they bought and renovated a derelict kindergarten in the servants' quarters of a Victorian house in Holland Park, west London. They have just put it on the market.

Tim and I had talked about converting a total wreck into a London home for a few years. In fact, we had talked about lots of ideas, including developing a beach resort in Honduras, before we stumbled upon this place. Retrospectively, the Honduras idea might have been a bit easier, and we could have got a tan at the same time.

My future mother-in-law spotted the property in the corner of an estate agent's window - a derelict kindergarten that had stood vacant and decaying for five years. It came complete with miniature toilets, upturned plastic chairs and rows of hooks for little coats. The walls had large numbers painted on them, and murals from the children's book Where The Wild Things Are. The concrete floors were covered with broken toys, live wires were coming out of the walls, and everything was covered in cobwebs - it was an eerie sight, like something out of Blade Runner.

The space was divided into two classrooms; no bathrooms, bedrooms or kitchen - completely useless as a home. Most people would have walked away, but this was exactly what we were looking for: a warren of dark, deserted rooms within a Victorian home in west London. Plus, its corner location meant we could have dual access. That enhanced the potential enormously.

That evening, we came up with a sketch design that would transform the place, and made an offer the next day that was accepted in September 2001. Looking back, we must been driven by a mixture of heady enthusiasm and utter naivety - not necessarily a bad combination - but we badly wanted to use our architectural training to build a home of our own.

We wanted to do most of the work and managing of the subcontractors ourselves. We thought we could turn the kindgergarten into a two-bedroom pad within 12 months and certainly make it fit to live in by the summer of 2002. How wrong could we be? Our plan meant opening up the space by removing all but one of the load-bearing walls - a process that required an array of temporary props to support the four-storey house above, and a huge amount of patience and trust from our upstairs neighbours (which, amazingly, we received 100 per cent).

Whenever cracks appeared in the upstairs rooms, which inevitably they do when shifting the load of an entire house, we had our neighbours' rooms redecorated. It was a stressful, expensive process but we got through it. The main idea was to turn the place back to front by putting in a front door on the side of the property, which would bring you in via an extension. We put in a light well (where the servants' front door and stairs had been) which my wife, Sasha, now uses as an artist's studio. It is a perfect north-lit space for her to work in. The other idea was to reclaim the coal vaults, which were included, but were bricked off from the rest of the kindergarten.

When we knocked through to them, they were in an awful state, with poor headroom and still swathed in soot. By carefully waterproofing and tanking the vaults, and digging down to create more height, we turned them into two characterful en-suite bathrooms and a utility room.

We hit an enormous problem early on: all incoming services for the rest of the building came into our flat. We had to re-route gas, electricity and water into the communal areas upstairs, which added months to our start-up programme and thousands to the budget. Co-ordinating with every utility company under the sun set us back several months, and demolition of the existing walls did not start until Christmas 2001. Not surprisingly, the demolitions took months longer than anticipated - the age and nature of the existing building fabric was only showing up as we uncovered the various layers. At the same time, this was one of the most exciting stages of the whole project. It started slowly to resemble the sketches we had made in September.

By the spring, the demolitions were complete and we started to build the rear extension. The contractors finally left towards the end of summer 2002 and we were back on our own, working evenings and weekends. This proved to be a nightmare phase. Both of us worked extremely hard in our day jobs as architects, and had not quite realised the physical and mental commitment needed to push it through. By the autumn, the place was in no fit state for us even to consider habitation. We were exhausted. Time dragged on and work almost came to a standstill. The flat lay uncompleted while we wasted money on rent.

But then a new impetus arrived: in the spring of the following year, Sasha and I were to be married in Spain. Tim was to be an usher. We decided to push the pace forward to make it habitable for the three of us before the wedding. By April 2003 we had a cold water supply and plywood flooring, as well as plaster-boarded walls and ceilings. We all moved in at the start of May with no hot water and no kitchen. Sasha's biggest complaint, however, was that there were no doors; everything was open-plan.

Works still took another long, hard year to complete. But we spared no expense on materials and finishes. We refused to compromise on anything: the main floors are solid French oak and the bathroom and kitchen floors and countertops are thick slabs of limestone. We included contemporary detailing throughout, with shadow gaps between the walls and ceilings, and recessed spotlighting everywhere. All the materials are natural and very high-spec. It cost us hundreds of thousands of pounds - we had to remortgage three times in three years to get the project finished.

We had a flat-warming party in July, and I think everyone was impressed. It really does look and feel exactly like we had envisaged. It has been a labour of love in every sense, but we are proud that we have got here, albeit a little late. It has been a great summer, living in the space and the decked garden that we have created, but now Sasha and I are married, and Tim is moving into a new flat with his girlfriend, Lorna, it really is time for us to sell up and move on.

The flat is for sale for £525,000. Call Tim Wort on 020-7373 3854 for a viewing.

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