Marrying old & new

Interior architect Mark Pace has embarked on the conversion of a 200-year-old townhouse into a comfortable living space, with the required modern touches. He tells Fiona Galea Debono how he plans to undertake the delicate operation and bring out the best

It all started when Mark Pace bought the rundown property touching his Birkirkara house – something many try to do if they have the rare fortune of having sought-after open space next door to their property, which they could use to grow their own garden.

It’s all about the feel and textures, achieved by using ‘real’ materials

He kept its garden and decided to convert the 200-year-old townhouse in the core of the town, complete with a chapel round the corner and “the whole village vibe, including the grocer, the baker and the community”.

There’s something about village life...

The house had been uninhabited for the last five years before he bought it, which also takes its toll on the state of a building.

Converting old houses is a mission many embark on in Malta and it comes with its fair share of problems, but Pace has his own take on the project. It’s not just about restoring the old, but its harmonious cohabitation with the new. Put simply, and beyond the technical headaches that invariably arise, it’s all about the feel and textures, achieved by using “real” materials.

“It’s also a matter of nostalgia...”

Of course, conversions go beyond aesthetics and romantic notions. Pace is more than aware that any restoration of an old building has to bear in mind that it must suit new comforts.

Upstairs, the original tiles of the old building, with its balcony on the old façade, have been retained. But a new, spacious and modern bedroom, with its en suite bathroom and terrace onto the courtyard, are also being built for that clean, modern and comfortable feel.

Deciding which walls should be plastered for that cleaner look – Pace prefers the feel of using a rough material – and which should be left on stone, is no mean feat, and hardly a random choice. That’s where the expert eye of the architect comes in, with his own way of interpreting the old and the new.

“Ideally, what can be left of the old stone remains untouched and is surrounded by clean plastering. Old features, even if just small patches, can be highlighted with the appropriate lighting,” Pace points out.

After all, the beauty of the marriage between old and new is primarily the contrast between straight lines against uneven, rough walls, in his view.

“Old houses are full of surprises. The downside is that changes in plans are almost inevitable and the architect often has to rethink...”

However, despite this, and humidity problems that can be part and parcel of an old building, Pace finds that many people who moved to Sliema are now willing to sell their apartments and return to an old house.

In general, however, he believes buyers want converted properties because, let’s face it, a great deal of imagination is needed for a truly lasting marriage between old and new.

Pace’s approach

Tricks of the trade
By opening up an arch in the thick wall, almost one metre of space was gained in the narrow room that will now serve as a living area.

Keeping the old
The idea of the remissa is being kept – its original use was the entrance before the door, with space for a cart.

“In a way, I am wasting the space, which previously served as a normal room. I plan to put a smaller door further in and fill the remissa with plants, creating, out of the small space, a welcoming entrance hall.”

And after...And after...

The original staircase is remaining, but rather than just “being there” – an area you pass by – one of the two islands in the kitchen is been designed to integrate with it. A once overlooked staircase thus becomes a feature. It is suddenly sinuous and flows; not simply plonked there.

Common mistakes
One of the biggest mistakes is not respecting the old building and the purpose it was built for. For example, installing an arch instead of a wide opening is preferable because that was how homes were built in the past. Square openings work better with a new wall.

If a room has three small doors, ideally, you keep those proportions, awkward as they may seem.

When it comes to flooring, if you are not keeping the original tiles, stick to natural materials, such as travertine, hard stone, or at least, a Gres that looks natural.

Let there be light
Use as much natural light as possible. Study the windows and how they should open. “In the end, that’s what we are paying for – open space and natural light.”

Inside out
To make more space outdoors, the room used as a kitchen in the courtyard was removed. A roof about 14 courses high has been built into the courtyard and a new kitchen has been designed to feel like it is “in and out”. In fact, the bench outside continues from the kitchen counter within.

Facts & figures
Address: 82, Triq il-Kbira, Ħas-Sajjied, Birkirkara, one of the oldest parts of the town.
Character: a 200-year-old typical townhouse.
Dimensions: about 160 square metres, spread over two floors.

Mark Pace is an interior architect at Pace* Lautier Design Workshop.


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