When Emma Spencer moved into her sixteenth century home, its unusual layout was a dead giveaway that it had originally been two separate cottages. With a complete interior remodel, Emma has respectfully updated this characterful building, adjusting its layout to bring in an abundance of light and create a new sense of space

Listed properties, protected and preserved – as they should be – by planning laws, can make updating complicated and time consuming, building consent has to be applied for and changes can be hard to make. Remarkably Emma Spencer’s sixteenth century house in Iden Green is not listed, which has meant that she’s been able to remodel the interior and make much better use of the spaces, respectfully bringing it up to date, without compromising the building’s integrity.

Keen to make a practical home for her family, Emma set to work redesigning the layout, removing walls and improving the interior flow. A daunting prospect you might think, but Emma relished the project. It helps that she has her own interiors business, Emma Spencer Design, and that she had a clear vision of what was needed.

“It was someone’s second home when I bought it and had a really quirky layout,” explains Emma. “It was two cottages at one point, but that was a long time ago. So there were still two staircases, which compromised the rooms upstairs. The kitchen was originally three rooms with just a narrow corridor out to the garden.” She started by opening up the whole of the interior, to let in much needed light and create an airier feel.

“I use a great builder, and as I do this for a living, it wasn’t hard to reimagine the spaces.” Emma positions herself between an architect and a builder – an area that would benefit from a title – perhaps a structural interior designer, because she does more than a room layout and decorating job.

“Interior design is not just about putting a colour on a wall. My job is the step before that – and it’s good to get involved at an early stage, so that decisions can be made with the end result in mind.” Frustratingly this is often not the case, as clients tend to see the two processes as separate, rather than as a part of the whole. “Architects will be focusing on a different side of the project, and might not be prioritising the aspects that become key once you are living in the space.”

Emma had firm ideas about the style of her own interior too and was quick to move on from the house’s existing country aesthetic. “I wanted to strip it from the farmhouse look,” she says. “The kitchen was old wooden units that were nice, but dated. I wanted it lighter and brighter, so the chintzy curtains all came down.”

A key factor in keeping things calm and uncluttered is the very useful utility room tucked behind the kitchen that “had to be tanked because we’re on a slope.” The slope of the land means that the kitchen is much lower than the rest of the house, but is an important area and needed careful thought. “We put in a new staircase down to the kitchen and approached the room in two sections,” Emma explains. “The base units went in first. The worktop is Corian and it’s nice in here at night too, as it’s lit under the cabinets. I like things to feel streamlined. You can add in colour with accessories – details like plug sockets are really important. You can install a more reasonably priced kitchen, but include more expensive taps and sink and accessories.”

The kitchen now has a sleek, pared-back Scandi feel, but nevertheless it has a warm atmosphere and the resin floor has underfloor heating. The slope has meant that the house is effectively on two levels, making the layout interesting and characterful and effectively creating two separate living spaces. “It’s south facing and there’s a lovely pool just outside, so it’s a nice entertaining space.”

We head up to the spacious dining area situated in the middle of the house. Painted white with exposed oak beams, the large dining table, original brick floor and a huge inglenook fireplace make this room feel warm and bright. “The floor’s very practical, I really like it,” she says, “and would definitely put it into another house.” These features have immense character and help to make this central section into the heart of the house. “We have lovely candlelit dinner parties in here,” says Emma “and we’re right next to a pub, too. The footpath next to the house leads to the communal orchard and to the woods. You can walk up to Benenden through there.”

The other rooms and the stairs to the top floor lead off from here. Through one door there’s a very useful office and downstairs cloakroom, and at the other end, another door opens into the sitting room. There are elevated views out across the orchard from in here, because it is effectively on the first floor. There’s a double aspect and the walls were originally painted white, so it was very bright. Although Emma is keen on light and airy spaces, she felt that a sitting room needed to have a more cosy atmosphere and painted it dark grey/green.

“The kitchen is sunny and light and contrasts well with the sitting room. I love this dark colour now too – it’s Squid Ink by Paint & Paper Library. We installed the fireplace and put in the shelves to make it cosy. I changed the lighting in here too – it’s all side lights because of the ceilings.” As with many vernacular houses, the ceilings are low, but this is a bonus if you’re creating a snug, tucked away feel.

We head upstairs past a quirky chandelier, which on closer inspection turns out to be made entirely from magnifying glasses, and into the main bedroom. Emma explains how the layout has changed up here, from an awkward arrangement of rooms, accessed via the two original staircases, to an open and airy combination of useful spaces. “You had to walk through the main bedroom to get to a second bedroom. When we took out the staircase we changed the layout of the upstairs so that the children had separate entrances to their bedrooms and the main bedroom now has a spacious en suite – and a walk in dressing room.” The en suite is a good size with plenty of space for a free-standing slipper bath, which, together with the dressing room, adds a touch of opulence.

“I embrace the old, but like to make it more contemporary too – to keep a building’s heart and character, embrace the features that were here, but freshen it up.” The overall design in here is simple and stylish, the pared-back colour scheme accessorised with hints of peachy pink fuzz (apparently the Pantone colour of 2024) in the luxurious linen and finishing details.

Maximising useful space is a key part of any redesign, as is streamlining any added storage. Emma had planned to make an en suite for son Joe’s room, but – and we can guess what most boys might prefer – instead it’s a den and gaming room.

“While we were doing it I had cupboards built into the wall,” Emma explains. “You need to have wardrobes, but they can be bulky – it’s much better when they can be fitted.”

Incorporating storage, reorganising the flow of the rooms to suit family life needs to be thought about at the beginning of the process, as retrofitting can end up being either impossible, or expensive. Emma is an expert at visualising the structural changes that can transform a home. She emphasises that, wherever possible, she likes to be involved at the start of a project, so that costly mistakes can be avoided.

“I knew at the very beginning what I wanted to do here and then I knew what I could add to it – a piecemeal approach is not the way, you can end up undoing things, or living with compromise or errors. I like to be involved at the start, collaborating with the architects on the masterplan. If you start by having a clear idea of the whole thing then, whether it gets built in stages or not, everything is thought about. A scheme ideally needs to start from the right point so that it’s cohesive and it’s all one,” she pauses. “Flow. Everything should look fully planned, not separate. It’s about the materials, the things you can see, the details – don’t skimp on the details.”

Emma explains that the detailing of windows, doors, external and internal structural features should be integral to the project, not separate to the masterplan. “The architect may not be involved with much of the detail or know where to look for the best taps, what mood the colours make, how to use and maximise the space. That’s my job.

“It’s also important to set up good communications with everyone involved in the build. Meetings with trades have to happen. You need to know where to put things, need to think about where the bins are going to go, the washing, the paraphernalia of living has to be managed. You need storage for garden furniture, for the barbecue. It’s about lifestyle design – and then storage to keep the house tidy. I use all the space I can – the study, utility, dressing room and all the smaller areas.”

Back downstairs, past the magnificent magnifying chandelier, we head outside to the studio, an architect designed building, which turned out to be a useful place for the family to live in.

“I like things to feel streamlined. You can add in colour with accessories – details like plug sockets are really important. You can install a more reasonably priced kitchen, but include more expensive taps and sink and accessories.”

“We did the studio first so that we had somewhere to live while we were doing some of the structural work in the house,” she says. This building has proved to be a useful investment too, rented out for a while on Airbnb. It has now become Emma’s light-filled office and studio. Inside the decor is mainly white, but colourful mood boards and samples of paint and fabric are spread on walls and the table; evidence of Emma’s busy design practice.

There is even a comfortable sunny deck outside at the back, overlooking the garden and the adjacent communal orchard – “It’s a lovely place to sit and the sun sets over there,” she gestures towards the trees to her right. The atmosphere out here is relaxed, almost Mediterranean when you look across to the pool, but the neighbouring oast house, apple orchard and the fresh green of the landscape beyond makes it charmingly and unmistakably English.

It takes a clear vision, determination and a sense of place to transform a heritage property. Emma has managed to protect the character of this house, and respected its integrity, while making the spaces fit our modern way of life. She has skilfully applied her knowledge of design – and design for living and brought a harmonious combination of style and functionality into this beautifully updated home. As this project comes to a close I, for one, will be looking forward to seeing what Emma seeks out for her next challenge.

  • words:
  • pictures: David Merewether

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