In a south-east London street lined with fine period homes, there was once a squat, Sixties box of a house which stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb, its unlovely brick façade and plastic windows looking out over a badly-concreted driveway which was being colonised energetically by weeds.
Today the house still stands out, but for all the right reasons.
Its owners, Mark Siredzuk and Derek Isaac – both high-end florists who know a thing or two about beautification – have managed to give their unpromising-looking property a dramatic facelift, proving, in the process, that a home should never be written off just because it lacks immediate kerb appeal.
In fact, buying a truly ugly house may be a smart move. Not only will a grim façade depress prices by up to 10 per cent, but competition from other buyers will melt away.
The couple bought their ugly duckling in Forest Hill, south-east London, for £275,000 in 2002 – on the basis that it was a good size, flooded with light, had a great garden and was well-located.
"It was so ugly – the ugliest house in the road," recalls Siredzuk, 45, the in-house florist at the One Aldwych hotel. "I was ashamed of it, really. It was like a squat."
Despite its miserable façade and tired interiors, it was not until last year that, after saving hard, the couple were ready to refurb, with the help of architect David Money (www.davidmoneyarchitects.com).
And they paid as much attention to the outside as they did to the interior.
Isaac, 42, who is also a florist (www.supernatureflowers.com), providing arrangements for people such as Donna Karan, Candy & Candy and the new St Pancras Renaissance London hotel, says: "The house looked really small and it needed more balance.
"It was just a bit dowdy and depressing and it had uPVC windows, which I really hate. I liked the inside and the back. It was just the front that was a bit unpromising."
The first challenge that the couple faced was planning. Giving a house a cosmetic facelift will not always need planning permission, but because this particular home is in a conservation area, it required consent from Lewisham Council. Fortunately, the council was comfortable with their ideas – presumably on the basis they couldn't make the house look worse.
And so they were allowed to paint the original cheap orangey brickwork a deep charcoal and add aluminium windows, painted black. The pièce de résistance was a statement cantilevered porch with a glass roof.
"Painting the house was very cheap, but it gave it a new lease of life," says Isaac.
To give the house more symmetry, the tiny slit of a downstairs window was enlarged and the couple installed ventilation "grids" beside all the windows, disguised with slatted timber panels, which can be opened even when the windows themselves are shut.
All this grey and black might have looked too austere, had the couple not replaced the dated glass panel beside the front door with a rectangle of rendered concrete, which is painted a vibrant lime.
The concrete drive was dug out and replaced with Indian sandstone slabs, interspersed with threads of granite cobbles.
Rather than traditional fencing, the owners are screened from their neighbours with a line of English hornbeams; trees trained to grow across a trellis to create an instant hedge effect.
The total cost of the work to the front of the house was around £15,000, including the cantilevered porch at around £6,000 – a sum that almost convinced Isaac not to go ahead with the project.
"I was shocked at the cost," he says. It was Siredzuk who convinced him that adding the essentially pointless feature was a necessary expense. "It was such a bland shape at the front and it looked so narrow, that it needed a bit of interest," he explains.
Redoing the drive and planting added another £30,000 to the bill, but Siredzuk is thrilled at the results.
"Now, I think, it is one of the best houses on the street," he says.
Isaac and Siredzuk's most important tool in the transformation of their façade was a tin of grey paint, but Ian Chalk, an associate director at ORMS Architecture Design, opted for cedar shingles when he took on a Grade-II listed gatehouse in Blackheath, south-east London.
The main property was already beautiful, but it had been afflicted with an ugly modern extension and Chalk wanted to expand the living space further when he moved in with his young family.
So he enlarged the brick extension and then covered the whole modern portion in cedar shingles.
"They are tiles, not boards, so there was a nice scale to it and it created a good junction between the old building, which is painted white," he says. The costs of enveloping the extension in shingles, including its roof, was surprisingly reasonable: less than £10,000.
And Chalk says they should last longer than slate tiles – 40 years or more. He chose to put them up "raw", rather than stained or painted and within 18 months they had mellowed to a soft, silvery tone.
Chalk favours tiles – whether timber, terracotta or slate – to clad a house, because they allow the building to breathe.
An alternative option would be render, but he says owners should proceed with caution.
"You are basically putting it in a 'jacket' that does not allow it to breathe and you can create problems, because basically the building will start to sweat, so you have to get the spec exactly right," he says, recommending Sto (www.sto.co.uk) as a good source of help and advice if you do want to take this option.
Robert Squibb, an associate at PRP, an architectural practice with a firm emphasis on environmental improvements, points out that if you choose to reclad a house you can simultaneously add a layer of external insulation and dramatically improve its thermal efficiency.
Squibb reels off a list of cladding options: timber, zinc, copper, render, aluminium or Trespa, man-made boards that look similar to plasterboard and which come in a range of finishes. His advice is to avoid a single block of cladding and instead use a palette of different materials.
"You will want to break the elevation down – that is the whole consideration. That is architecture, really," he says.
"I know I would say this, but the first thing I would recommend – as well as talking to your planners early on – would be to use an architect."
Robin Chatwin, a director of Savills, believes investment in the façade of a house can have as significant an impact on its value as putting in a new kitchen or bathroom. And he has put his money where his mouth is with a £20,000 facelift of his own home. Rather than covering up the property, his aim was to strip it back to its original state.
"When I bought my house in Wandsworth, the first thing I did was remove the pebbledash and replace the metal windows, and people would literally stop dead in front of the house for a 'we should have bought that house' moment," he says.
"Such is the importance of the first impression that three-quarters of buyers will choose to walk away from a house with pebbledash, without ever looking inside.
"Giving the ugly duckling of a road a relatively simple facelift can completely transform its saleability.
"Something as simple as putting in new window boxes or hiding the bins can add a few thousand pounds, while a complete facelift to the front of a house can add up to 10 per cent to the value."
Mark and Derek's tips for giving your home a floral facelift
Given their profession, it was inevitable that flowers were going to be an essential element in Isaac and Siredzuk's newly redone home. While they have an in-built advantage when it comes to sourcing and displaying blooms, they say civilians can do much better than a shop-bought bouquet which wilts within a couple of days:
* Sunday morning trips to Columbia Road market are recommended if you live within striking distance. New Covent Garden also sells to the public as well as trade. Alternatively, use a local florist – not a supermarket – as the quality will tend to be better.
* Buying flowers which then proceed to flop is an irritating experience. Test roses by gently squeezing them – if they feel soft they are probably elderly. If the pollen pods on lilies look fluffy they are also old, and if a bunch of tulips is uneven, it means the plants have been kept in storage so long they have begun to grow, and should also be avoided.
* Forget tortuous sculptural flower arrangements – so Nineties – flowers should look simple and natural, and stick to a single species. Not only will an armful of cornflowers look fabulous in a line of vases, but blooms tend to live longer if they are not mixed.* Change the water daily, if you have time, or cheat by adding a small piece of a Milton Sterilising Tablet (usually used to clean baby-feeding gear) to the water to keep it bacteria free.
* Flowers rarely last more than a week, but if they do die prematurely, you can try to revive them by recutting and snipping the ends, wrapping the stems in paper to keep them straight, and then dunking them in hot water (even boiling, for woody plants) for an hour.
* When it comes to potted plants, exotics and succulents tend to cope best with warm, centrally heated rooms. Deep purple Vanda Orchids grow on trees, literally, in south-east Asia, and can be bought suspended on wires, which you can then hang as a contemporary alternative to a hanging basket – perfect for tall, void spaces. They need to be sprayed regularly with a mister filled with water.
* Most flowers sold in the UK are grown abroad, and come complete with thousands of air miles. Sourcing UK- grown flowers can be tricky. Either ask your florist, and rely on their honesty, or take a look at their packaging. English flowers tend to be supplied in cardboard boxes, those grown in Holland and beyond come in tubs of water.
* Flowers should be bought in season. In spring look out for sweet william, guelder roses, with their distinctive pom pom heads, and Solomon's seal – much in evidence at Westminster Abbey during the recent royal nuptial extravaganza. Peonies have an incredibly short season, just a few weeks in May and June. Later in the summer hydrangea, sweet pea, lavender, and dahlias start to bloom. If you buy out of season, be aware that the flowers will either have been forced, or kept in cold storage and will not live as long.