Look through the keyhole of the Malthouse in Kingsbridge
PUBLISHED: 14:38 22 May 2017
Misha and Lucy Smith have used their combined expertise and vision to give a centuries old building a strikingly modern feel. Chrissy Harris went to see their versatile family home
The very thought of a complex, multi-level conversion of a 200-year-old building would send most of us running to the nearest ready-built, modern show home.
Not Misha Smith. This talented architect took on the Malthouse in Kingsbridge and transformed it into a jaw-droppingly clever family house.
Not only did he come up with the re-design, but Misha, 36, also took on the construction work, using his skills to assemble the roof structure, pour concrete, remove window lintels – he even made the wooden bedframes. This was a DIY job and then some.
“The main challenge was that there was no outside space here and this whole end of the building was really dark. Bringing enough light in and having enough meaningful space outside was key,” says Misha, who, along with wife Lucy, 41, embarked on this project of a lifetime back in 2013.
With a little help from Misha’s mum Abby, they bought the Malthouse with a view to turning it into a stylish home for the couple and their children Oscar, five and Scarlett, three.
But the building, which had stood empty for nearly five years, was in need of a total rethink.
A lack of windows meant there was hardly any light inside and there was no outside space.
So while most people work out how to build on their land, Misha came up with a plan to put land in his building and create a courtyard garden by removing part of the Malthouse’s roof.
He also turned this two-storey property into a three-storey by adding a mezzanine level, which forms a room that can be extended or closed off at will.
It’s incredibly clever stuff and far too complicated for me to get my tiny mind around.
All I know is that the deceptively simple façade of this 1800s building hides some pretty astonishing feats of engineering.
“I’ve wanted to build a house for a long time, so this was a great opportunity,” says Misha as he explains the restructuring.
“So this room was sort of here but we’ve adjusted the levels. We don’t have as much height at one end of the building as we do at the other. We literally had to take all of the internal walls out.”
Then came the really clever bit. Working with two structural engineer friends, Misha re-designed the roof frame to create more living space, using a system of steel brackets.
“The original roof had structural ties in it so you wouldn’t have been able to walk through it,” says Misha.
“We had to come up with a way of not having those ties so that’s what these metal bits are doing, they’re sort of big, stiff brackets.
“If we’d have designed them and asked a contractor to do it, that would have been phenomenally expensive but I had all of the plates laser cut and assembled it myself. A local fabricator in Totnes did all the welding.”
Who makes their own roof structural supports these days? Not many people, I imagine, but Misha was determined to make this house his own.
He had already quit his architect job in London and come to Devon to work full-time on the project.
“Doing this house was absolutely perfect for me,” says Misha. “I enjoy both designing and making so this was a dream: to do both on our own place.”
Misha grew up in Totnes and worked in a boatyard in Dartmouth after leaving school, as well as various building jobs in the area.
He left South Devon to study architecture in Glasgow and London before landing a job at a top firm in the capital.
Throughout his career (which has now taken Misha, Lucy and the children to Switzerland) Misha stayed in contact with ‘a whole bunch’ of tradesmen he made friends with during his formative years in Devon. It’s certainly paid off.
“I’ve got a friend Jim Woodyer in Harberton who did all the carpentry for the roof. He was on site with me here for about a year,” says Misha.
“It just so happened that there was this lovely guy, John Watson, who lived down the road from him who came down and did all the stonework. It was great working together. They are all such good craftsmen.”
As well as a team of talented pals, Misha also had the benefit of working with wife Lucy, who sourced and put together most of the interior design.
The roof brackets are amazing and everything but the colours, accessories and finishing touches here are pretty spectacular too.
“I’m glad you think so,” says Lucy, a chef who has worked in Dartmouth, as well as famous London restaurants River Café and Moro before Oscar and Scarlett came along.
“I love a bargain so I’m always looking in junk shops or on eBay. I’m a really busy person so I’ll always be looking in magazines, just finding stuff. I get things from India, bedding from Australia, everywhere.”
“She’s really good at it,” says Misha. “A lot of the furnishings are either things Lucy’s found or she says: make me something like this…”
The uniqueness of everything in this property – including its structure – must be hugely satisfying for Misha and Lucy who have spent so much time and money on their home.
Their hard work has made it hard to leave. The couple are currently letting out the Malthouse while they are away in Switzerland but are hoping to come back eventually.
The dream is to live here while running the (currently unfinished) downstairs section as a B&B.
“When I walk back in here after being away I do miss it,” says Misha. “We put a lot of ourselves into this place.
“Because I was in the unusual position of being the client, the designer and the builder, I was here on site all the time to resolve things and oversee it all.
“I don’t feel like we’ve ended up having to compromise on anything.”