Architectural Features and the Design Process
Unless you’re having a house built to your specification, you will inherit the architectural
features of your home — its core structure. In a period property, you are likely to adopt
fireplaces, ceiling roses, doors and windows that juxtapose beautifully with even the most
contemporary design scheme. Other existing features can be less desirable. Built-in
cabinetry that has been ‘modernised’, radiators, light switches and sockets are common
offenders. In a listed property, some features will be protected by law, so you have to work
with them. Others might appear immovable but are not.
Whatever the core structure of your home, it’s important to assess:
• What should stay
• What should go
• How to work sympathetically with existing structures.
The boring essentials
Before diving into your decoration scheme, examine the invisible ‘underwear’ of the house
— the heating, plumbing and electrics. This is also the time for addressing any underlying
structural problems identified by the surveyor. While it can be frustrating to pile money into these unseen features of a house, it’s a crucial process. You want to make sure the bones of your property can support the flesh and clothing that will adorn it later.
If you’re installing a home security system or an integrated audio-visual system, do it at the
start of the project. The last thing you want is to be chasing channels in walls and burying
cables in the floor after you have wallpapered and laid your flooring.
The same goes for lighting. This element of design can’t be an afterthought. The most
beautifully decorated room will look flat and dull in poor lighting. The more circuits you
have, the greater your options for creating mood and ambience with different sources of
light. If you can afford it, hiring a lighting consultant is a great investment. The knowledge
that they impart to you will serve you for years to come, on this project and the next.
Switches and power points
Establish your basic furniture layout before deciding on the location of your switches and
sockets. This will allow you to identify where you are likely to want:
• Electrical equipment such as televisions, AV systems and lamps
• Dimmer switches — the more you have, the more control you have with lighting
• Floor sockets – very handy but once installed, there’s no going back
Heating systems, plumbing and radiators
Assess whether your heating system needs updating. Does the plumbing need re-routing?
Do you want to reposition radiators or replace them? Existing heating features may limit
your design choices further down the line. Weigh your design needs against the practical
and financial implications of making significant changes.
Doors are the most dominant joinery feature of any room. I’m a big fan of up-scaling them
at every opportunity. It breaks up wall space with a great statement. Trying to lose the
features of a door within a wall takes away the strength of the interior architecture. Tall,
imposing doors create impact in any size room. A huge floor-to-ceiling door can make low
ceilings appear taller. Consider how you want to hang the door — it could slide, concertina,
revolve or pivot.
Think about the materials that you use within the door and frame. If you have original
period doors, you will probably want to restore them to their full potential. If, however,
your home lacks original features there’s no limit to the materials that you can use in your
door. Every door is an opportunity to bring texture and layering into a room. You could clad
glass or metal in leather or add fabric, paper or marquetry inlays. Contrasting materials
really bring a door to life. They excite and surprise. A single door handle can change the
whole feel of a room and can offer a tactile element to your design.
Adding or replacing windows is a costly affair, so explore your window-dressing options first. You can often improve window proportions with a clever choice of curtains or blinds.
In period properties, the windows are key architectural features. Modern replacements will
likely detract from the historic beauty of the house. Sympathetic repair and restoration is
always a better choice. Insulate old windows by installing secondary glazing or hang thick,
interlined blinds or curtains.
Nobody likes a skinny skirting board. They’re neither functional or attractive. I always
choose the deepest board I can find, provided it’s in keeping with the age and architecture
of the property. When it comes to colour, I never paint skirting a contrasting colour to make it a feature. I always paint it the same shade as the walls. This opens the space by creating a borderless room. It brings calm instead of harsh edges. Allowing the skirting to be part of the background of the wall will enhance other aspects of design. The eye is drawn to contrasting decorative features rather than the contrasting colours of walls and skirting.
Ceiling roses, cornices and dados
An original ceiling rose and intricate cornice in a period property will look stunning with any style. It will be in keeping with other interior architectural features and will juxtapose
wonderfully with contemporary design to create balance. Don’t though add faux-style
ceiling roses and cornices to a modern home. They will always look out of place — as though you are trying to make your house something that it is not. Instead, accent your home with period pieces of furniture, antique accessories or a period pattern on fabric.
A fireplace is a natural focal point in a home. They are inviting and welcoming. There’s
nothing like gathering around a fire on a cold winter’s day. They also add another dimension to a space. Chimney breasts can create symmetry in asymmetric rooms and provide textural contrast. Exposed brick, for example, is a stunning organic material that oozes pattern, texture and colour.
If you inherit a fireplace that is mediocre or not harmonious with the architectural style of
the property, rip it out. You can find a new fireplace that will reflect the age of the house at
a reclamation yard. They are brimming with stunning period options of all shapes and sizes. You won’t be short on choice. Alternatively, you could opt for a striking contemporary
fireplace. To emphasise the horizontal plane in a room, choose a long-low rectangular
The more storage you have in your home, the better. It helps you to maintain a beautiful,
calm and uncluttered space. Everything should have its rightful place. But, before you rip
out a built-in piece that you find ugly, assess whether you can change its look. Having a
bespoke piece build from scratch is costly. Can you paint, stain or install new doors and
choose handles that make a statement instead?
Consider what the storage will house. Can you replace the internal shelving to make the unit more functional? Moveable shelves offer great flexibility. Do you want to change a
cupboard into a display case with glass panels? If so, you will probably want to install
integral lighting. Have you factored that into your electrics plan?
Everything in your home pivots around the staircase. Far from simply being a functional
feature that takes you from one level to another, the stairs can be an architectural wonder.
Replacing your existing staircase with something custom-made is a huge expense. You might want to explore other ways of improving the existing structure and nearby features that affect it.
You can transform a tired staircase to new heights just by redecorating. Replace the
bannister, string, spindles and newel posts to alter its style. Lighting can change the feel of
your stairwell too. Choose low-level spots at tread level to bathe your stairs in atmospheric
pools of light. If you have a spiral staircase, an oversized pendant that drops down every
level will bring drama and tie spaces together. What about the flooring? Swap stair carpet
for boards and a striking runner to add visual impact.
Conducting a thorough assessment of your existing internal architecture will save you time
and money in the long-term. Think of it as laying the foundations from which to build your
project. It gives you the opportunity to see the potential in what you have already. You can
then make informed decisions about what must go. It can be hugely satisfying to redress,
adapt or restore the integral features of your home. Equally, there is great catharsis in giving yourself permission to replace old with new.