Laura Jane Clark is currently on BBC2’s innovative homes show Your Home Made Perfect in which the latest virtual reality technology enables homeowners to ‘see’ potential renovations before they commit to building. Here, she shares some of her other projects, and her thoughts on reclaiming, re-use and upcycling.
Words: Emma Howarth; Images © James Balston
Laura Clark has got a problem: ‘I fall in love with everything,’ she says. ‘I’m basically the worst property developer ever because I can never bear to sell the end result.’ The Glasgow School of Art-trained architect is talking about two of her best-known projects – the conversion of a derelict underground public loo in Crystal Palace (as seen, alongside her transformative architectural work, on Channel 4’s Ugly House to Lovely House with George Clarke) into a one-bedroom flat and her more recent renovation of a repossessed Glasgow tenement – both labours of love that no amount of brick dust or tricky planning meetings has been able to fade. ‘I enjoy the challenge of very small-scale development,’ she explains from her practice, Lamp Architects’ loft studio at Cooper’s Yard, close to the site of those transformed toilets. ‘And because they were both personal projects, I was also able to focus on making them really positive examples of regeneration. After all, that’s what ‘developing’ is meant to mean; it’s meant to be about improving things.’
This has certainly been the case in Crystal Palace, where smart limestone render on the formerly graffiti-covered public convenience has smartened up the street view, inspiring the café across the road to make some improvements of its own. ‘I loved seeing that,’ says Laura. ‘I think less focus on the bottom line, more focus on community is really important to regeneration. You’ve got to strike a balance, obviously, but developers need to make sure they do the right thing.’
‘… that’s what ‘developing’ is meant to mean; it’s meant to be about improving things.’
This sense of responsibility doesn’t just pervade the regeneration side of Laura’s work, either. She is as committed to preserving the history and character of the buildings she works with as she is to ensuring their community impact is a positive one. So a weather-worn, decades-old (the original WCs were completed in 1929) mirror from the ladies’ loos was painstakingly preserved for use as part of a drinks cabinet in the subterranean Crystal Palace flat. And when wallpaper was stripped back in the tenement regeneration to reveal the original plaster stained walls beneath, Laura knew she just had to keep them in situ: ‘They were this beautiful dark red colour with amazing filigree stencil patterns on them; the texture is just beautiful. I love the contrast with the new grey-painted walls and contemporary glossy red kitchen.’
For Laura, reclamation is not simply a case of carefully preserving historical features and adding a few vintage fittings to the end result. She loves to repurpose reclaimed materials so that their look and function becomes completely different to their original form. ‘I’m not a massive fan of the kind of upcycling that really reveals its origins,’ she says. ‘To me that’s kind of lazy. I like getting right back to what a material actually is, what it does, what its best features are, really stripping it back to basics and then completely repurposing it.’
It is indeed hard to imagine the industrial-style light in the tenement’s kitchen was once the building’s copper water tank, or that the bathroom’s slatted teak floor started life many miles away from Scotland in a Bristol gym. ‘We had this beautiful reclaimed teak floor but I didn’t want to just put it back down like decking. My idea was to strip it back, take all the old nails out and use it end-on to really express the grain,’ she says. The finished result – no joins, no seams, just beautifully finished teak set against dark-stained ply walls – is stunning. ‘Of course,’ she adds, ‘doing it this way is a lot more work.’
Fortunately, work is something Laura isn’t afraid of. That reclaimed teak was the result of a couple of days’ hard labour helping a builder friend strip out the gym floor. And when the going got tough in Crystal Palace and she couldn’t find builders willing to stay for more than a few days at a time, she put years of summer jobs labouring on building sites to good use and rolled up her sleeves herself. ‘For any architect, or property developer for that matter, understanding building sites is so important,’ Laura explains. ‘I learnt so much from those summers spent on site, skills that mean I can get stuck in myself when I need to but, more importantly, total respect for the building trade. It’s seriously hard work.’
‘For any architect, or property developer for that matter, understanding building sites is so important.’
This site experience and ability to build excellent relationships with builders enables Laura to achieve impressive, bespoke results for herself and her clients even when budgets don’t stretch to high-end materials. Anyone who witnessed her find beauty in the Ugly House to Lovely House Watford property, exposing the brick behind the fireplace and turning a pile of plywood into a beautifully stained parquet-style floor couldn’t fail to be impressed with her resourcefulness and vision. And now, on Your Home Made Perfect, Laura finds the essence of a home and its owners’ real lives to create a practical, liveable space with the ‘wow’ factor. Indeed, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing with new clients keen to put her imagination, ethos and budget-stretching ideas into practice.
» For more information visit lamparchitects.co.uk
» Your Home Made Perfect, BBC2, Tuesdays at 8pm