Oliver Heath: History in the making

Sleek but not stark. Eco-friendly but not drab. In his Victorian house, the designer Oliver Heath mixes reclamation-yard finds with hi-tech ideas
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The Independent Online

Converting our house hasn't exactly been plain sailing. The shower valve came off in my hand the first time I used it, leaving me running around holding a wrench, trying to prise up floorboards, with water spouting out everywhere. Then, within 10 days of us moving in, the boiler died, and we had no heating or hot water for eight months.

We moved here four years ago. I knew I wanted to do an eco-conversion in this house, but the question was: is that even possible with a Victorian terrace? If so, how do you go about it? It all came down to spending time researching what options are available.

You don't have to compromise on aesthetics in order to be environmentally friendly. You may be going green, but it's still about creating a beautiful and functional space in which to live. We need to shift people's perceptions away from the idea of sustainable living as something reserved for the slightly grotty, shabby-hippie image.

Local reclamation yards let us source suitable materials that are right for our house, particularly as their products tend to be made from local materials in the first place. Simple things like this take a little research, but they save you money and make a real difference to the environment.

Originally, there were two small rooms and a corridor as you entered the front door, with a small window overlooking a patio at the back of the house. We pulled down the partition wall to open the space out and extended the sightlines of what is now the kitchen, installing a glass door leading out to the patio.

I designed a fold-down picnic table out there, made from reclaimed timber floorboards. It's a perfect place to sit and read or think, and it's where my cat hangs out in the day. The beauty of this table is that when you're not using it, it's not there flexibility is vital in a house as compact as this.

Everyone now lives with so much stuff, it can mess with their heads. There are ways of minimising the chaos, though. For instance, there is a load of technology in the living room here, but you'd never know it. We've hidden the speakers in the ceiling, and a huge projector television is neatly tucked away. All the stereo equipment is stored within plain units, so the space is far clearer.

The kitchen is as environmentally friendly as possible. The counter is made from solvent-free resin and crushed recycled glass. I found this dolphin-motif base for the dining table: a Brighton emblem that I found by chance in a London scrapyard. It's quite fun, and contrasts well with the surface of the table, which is made from recycled plastics a blend of modern and vintage can create something interesting and a bit different.

The basement consists of my studio which has become decidedly un-Zen since Katie moved her jewellery workshop in here and our daughter Lila's bedroom. The wall separating the two areas can be pulled back to create a much bigger space, with light spilling in from the front window and the courtyard at the back.

I like to surround myself with loads of bits and bobs, including interesting things that I've collected while travelling. There's a Moroccan toothpick, a Japanese acorn and a good-luck charm from Peru on my desk, a cow horn from Nepal, which I found in the Himalayas, and a one-in-a-million find: a Neolithic cutting stone that I found on the beach at Broadstairs.

The floor is made from recycled rubber, and leads into a charming outdoor area, made of recycled decking and reclaimed-timber floorboards. It's rare to have an outdoor space in which to hang the washing out to dry in Brighton.

The study overlooks a little outside oasis that we've filled with rich decorative pieces: potted plants, vintage birdcages, old lanterns and antique mirrors. There's a hanging chair and benches covered with cushions and colourful fabrics, mainly found at local markets.

Often I find that bathrooms are underrated spaces. I wanted to make ours sensual, with different materials and speakers, so that we could enjoy it as a family. We've got pebble flooring, and lighting that is on an infrared sensor so that it reacts to body heat at night.

Next door, in our bedroom, we installed fluorescent light strips, tucked away out of sight. The wooden bed back was created from a rotten fence, and the silvery texture is beautiful. There's an environmental aspect to everything in this house, from vintage damask curtains, fair-trade organic linen and sisal carpet, to natural paint and even the chandelier, which uses low-energy bulbs.

We've moved beyond that Zen phase all clean lines and open spaces. Now it's about "patchworking", mixing hi-tech and vintage pieces to create a rich contrast. It's beyond me how a designer can label a product "contemporary" if it isn't made from a sustainable source. I'm very critical of the design industry. After all, who needs another chair? It's infuriating. What we need is reusable furniture that doesn't threaten our environment.

The interior designer Oliver Heath, whose television credits include Changing Rooms and House to Home, is co-founder of Bluston Heath Design. He has launched an online shop, ecocentric.co.uk, and is writing his third book. He lives in Brighton with his wife Katie and their 18-month-old daughter, Lila.