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Lessons in Reinvention: A Victorian Girls’ School Reborn

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Lessons in Reinvention: A Victorian Girls’ School Reborn

September 3, 2018

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.

Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn 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 (&#8\2\20;on a short break, people tend to congregate in one focal space,&#8\2\2\1; the architects point out) and tucked away bedrooms.
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.
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn 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.
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.
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn 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.
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.
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn Hans Wegner Wishbone Chairs at the dining table (which isn&#8\2\17;t in situ in all the photos).
Above: Hans Wegner Wishbone Chairs at the dining table (which isn’t in situ in all the photos).
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn Viewed from the upstairs bedroom, the kitchen is &#8\2\20;almost church like in scale and arrangement&#8\2\2\1; says McLaren, noting that the materials have been &#8\2\20;left in their natural state—&#8\2\17;as found&#8\2\17;—and, together with the pleasing rhythms of the original building, combine to make a building of conceptual simplicity and spatial purity.&#8\2\2\1;
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.”
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn Brass countertops and a Vola faucet add an element of luxury to the space. The original hearth was preserved in a new guise.
Above: Brass countertops and a Vola faucet add an element of luxury to the space. The original hearth was preserved in a new guise.
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn 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.
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.

Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn 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.
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.
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn The brass counter edging becomes a minimalist stair rail.
Above: The brass counter edging becomes a minimalist stair rail.
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn 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?
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.”

Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn The living area fits tidily beneath the bedroom without feeling hemmed in. Here&#8\2\17;s the architects&#8\2\17; fuller explanation of their found space: &#8\2\20;The original ground floor was sitting above a one meter 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 , we were able to deliver two stories without underpinning the perimeter walls or increasing the height of the roof structure.&#8\2\2\1;
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 void [roughly three feet], 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.”
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn 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&#8\2\17;s \1949 \149 Colonial Chair by Carl Hansen. For willow baskets similar to this one, see Object Lessons: Almighty Wicker Basket.
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.

Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn 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.
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.
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn The stair wall is made of dry stacked Durisol Wood Cement Walling Units.
Above: The stair wall is made of dry-stacked Durisol Wood-Cement Walling Units.
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn For a lighter effect, the Durisol is paired with drywall. The elegant handrail is fabricated entirely of brass.
Above: For a lighter effect, the Durisol is paired with drywall. The elegant handrail is fabricated entirely of brass.
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn The all plywood upstairs bedroom. To source your own modern Windsor chair, see \10 Easy Pieces: The Windsor Chair Revisited.
Above: The all-plywood upstairs bedroom. To source your own modern Windsor chair, see 10 Easy Pieces: The Windsor Chair Revisited.
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn A view from the bedroom balcony. Note the exposed wood cement lining in the roof.
Above: A view from the bedroom balcony. Note the exposed wood-cement lining in the roof.
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn The exterior of the old school was also overhauled. Though the roof was left as is—&#8\2\2\1;cement tiles from the \1980s, not worth focusing on,&#8\2\2\1; 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.
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.
Lessons in Reinvention A Victorian Girls School Reborn McLaren Excell&#8\2\17;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 composed of a bedroom and bath.
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 composed of a bedroom and bath.

Take a look at a few more artful conversions:

N.B.: This post is an update; the original story ran on December 19, 2016.

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