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Lessons in Reinvention: A Victorian Girls’ School Reborn

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Lessons in Reinvention: A Victorian Girls’ School Reborn

Margot Guralnick December 19, 2016

Is it possible that London architects Luke McLaren and Robert Excell of McLaren.Excell were Zen monks in a past life? We think so. The two specialize in using (in their words) “pure and restrained” materials—hay-bale-like wood wool, for instance—to create spaces of surpassing quiet and beauty. “Calm authority,” they say is the goal. Which is no doubt what won them the job of refurbishing Merrydown, a Victorian-era girls’ school in Dorset with an “almost monastic layout: one large room with a single corridor off it and cell-like bedrooms and bathrooms to one side,” as the architects say.

Since the 1970s, the school had been lived in by the mother of the current owner, who approached McLaren.Excell with the project. The single-story building was an obsolete hand-me-down in need of reinventing, and “the brief,” says Excell, was to “strip the structure bare and produce a larger, more interesting set of spaces,” a second story included. The wrinkle? The building’s existing envelope couldn’t be changed. Read on for a lesson in found space and the power of speaking in a whisper.

Photography courtesy of McLaren.Excell.

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Above: Polished concrete floors and new windows set in deep white walls define the new interiors. The house—shown in its just-finished state—is designed for weekend and vacation use, with a central gathering place (“on a short break, people tend to congregate in one focal space,” the architects point out) and tucked-away bedrooms.

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Above: The ground floor features a dramatic double-height kitchen. It opens to the living room and clubhouse-like new second-story bedroom area that the architects carved out of gained and unused space—read on for trade secrets.

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Above: A Caravaggio P3 Pendant Light hangs over the central island, which like the steps, floor, and other cabinets are made of birch plywood finished with a clear matte oil.

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Above: Hans Wegner Wishbone Chairs at the dining table (which isn’t in situ in all the photos).

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Above: Viewed from the upstairs bedroom, the kitchen is “almost church-like in scale and arrangement” says McLaren, noting that the materials have been “left in their natural state—’as found’—and, together with the pleasing rhythms of the original building, combine to make a building of conceptual simplicity and spatial purity.”

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Above: Brass countertops and a Vola faucet add an element of luxury to the space. For more examples, see 11 Kitchen Islands Gone Glamorous. The original hearth was preserved in a new guise.

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Above: The counters (two layers of 18mm birch ply bonded with two millimeters of brass: total thickness 38 millimeters) are unlacquered and intended to gather fingerprints and patina over time. All millwork was designed by McLaren.Excell and fabricated locally.

Admiring the cutout drawer pulls? Explore the hardware-free approach in 10 Favorites: Cutout Kitchen Cabinet Pulls.

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Above: Large new windows flood the space with light. In addition to being lit from the rafters, the room is lined with sconces, including the AJ Wall Sconce by Arne Jacobsen.

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Above: The brass counter edging becomes a minimalist stair rail.

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Above: The second-story bedroom—with shutters and railing that open it to the light and life downstairs—appears to float overhead. How were the architects able to pull off this legerdemain?

“It was important that the bedroom above was completely suspended from the roof structure to prevent any supporting walls or columns from compromising the living room. This was achieved by concealing the bedroom structure wherever possible and, where this was not possible, it was disguised by using painted steel sections that were indistinguishable from the existing timber roof structure. The result is a deceptively simple ‘floating’ room that seems to defy logic.”

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Above: The living area fits tidily beneath the bedroom without feeling hemmed in. Here’s the architects’ fuller explanation of their found space: “The original ground floor was sitting above a one meter [three foot] void, and the original ceiling had been suspended from the roof joists by a considerable distance. By claiming back these untapped voids, and with a generous existing ceiling height of three meters [almost 10 feet], we were able to deliver two stories without underpinning the perimeter walls or increasing the height of the roof structure.”

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Above: Textural wood wool blocks form the living room back wall and lend an intimacy to the space. (Also known as excelsior, these compressed strands of wood bonded with cement are traditionally used among other things as insulation.) The armchair is Ole Wanscher’s 1949 149 Colonial Chair by Carl Hansen. For willow baskets similar to this one, see Object Lessons: Almighty Wicker Basket.

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Above: Another version of recycled wood-cement appears as the dramatic structural spine of the stairs. Also shown, a glimpse of the skylit downstairs bath, where polished concrete and plywood meet white tiles and glass.

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Above: The stair wall is made of dry-stacked Durisol Wood-Cement Walling Units.

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Above: For a lighter effect, the Durisol is paired with drywall. The elegant handrail is fabricated entirely of brass.

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Above: The all-plywood upstairs bedroom. To source your own modern Windsor chair, see 10 Easy Pieces: The Windsor Chair Revisited.

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Above:  A view from the bedroom balcony. Note the exposed wood-cement lining in the roof.

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Above: The exterior of the old school was also overhauled. Though the roof was left as is—”cement tiles from the 1980s, not worth focusing on,” says McLaren—all-new windows were introduced and the walls were lime rendered and painted, a traditional UK approach that allows the building to breathe. A slate terrace with plantings now leads to the front door.

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Above: McLaren.Excell’s schematic details the new arrangement: On the ground floor, a kitchen-dining area (with office/TV room off it) leads to the living room plus two bedrooms, a bath, and powder room. The newly created upstairs is comprised of a bedroom and bath.

Take a look at a few more artful conversions:

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