East London To Exeter

Simon Stone

Simon Stone

During the summer of 2021, Pier Chinellato and Katherine Leat, the husband and wife duo behind Fabrica Architecture, upped sticks after decades in East London and headed west to Exeter.
Their dream was to pursue a long-term property goal of creating an environmentally friendly family home.

The building prior to the works commencing.

We’re not talking about a timber-framed square box with a burnt oak-clad exterior in the middle of a field. No, just to make things really challenging, Pier and Katherine bought a semi-derelict-but-beautiful, slightly gothic-style Victorian building of 3000 sq ft. Its previous life began as a Sunday school and ended as a meeting hall for local residents.

So, where do you start with that? How can you turn a big, leaky old building into a modern, energy-efficient home?

Work started in Summer 2022, and I was lucky enough to visit and see first-hand the scale of the task. And before I go all Kevin McCloud, let’s just say this: the place is enormous!

“It’s going to be so much more than a family home,” Katherine points out. “The plan is to give back to the local community – we didn’t want anyone thinking we’re some city developers with no desire to engage with our neighbours. First, we’re adding herb gardens where people can grow and help themselves to whatever’s in season. Then we’ll have an office for Fabrica incorporated within the building that will also provide meeting spaces for us and local residents.”

“But it’s also our home: Pier grew up in Venice and formed a deep appreciation for old buildings. Combining that with his architectural flair means we’ll have style and practicality in equal measure.”

The project will also demonstrate Pier and Katherine’s expertise in sustainable architecture. As Pier quickly points out: “It’s not an eco house; it’s a carbon-neutral usage home.”

One of Piers computer images of what the finished project will look like.

So, what does that mean in reality?

“We monitor all the carbon elements, calculate the energy used, and then implement practical ways to balance them out. We wanted to be carbon-neutral by choice, not just for financial reasons. With all that we’re adding, we’ll be virtually at Passive House standards”.

Let’s rewind a bit. Work started in July 2022 after a long drawn out planning process. “The roof came off in preparation for the timber works. We plan to expose the beautiful vaulted ceilings while adding solar tiles that look as original as possible while bolstering the eco credentials. We’re sourcing as many materials as we can that are sympathetic to the building’s age.” Pier explains. “But three days of rain once the roof gave us our own temporary private pool in the recess where the kitchen was due to go. So things stopped while we waited for everything to dry out!”

In the background, they researched efficient ways of keeping the house cool in summer and warm in winter. “The energy from the solar roof tiles will go straight into the grid, and we’ll draw from that. We’re also installing an air source heat pump and have our eyes on two at the moment: one from Daikin, the other from Grant. The window frames have all been refurbished, and we found a great company called Fineo Glass with a super-efficient, double-glazed vacuum unit. It’s only 9mm thick, but performs as effectively as triple glazing.”

The discreet solar tiles from GB.SOL heading to the roof.

With December the end goal as far as the major works are concerned, attention has turned to interiors. “We’ve reclaimed and will be reusing as much of the original fixtures and features as we can”, Katherine explains, “A lot of the original parquet was salvaged and will be relaid, while additional sanded oak parquet came from The Solid Wood Flooring Company. We’ve recommended them to clients because they source great-quality timber. The kitchen is bespoke, designed by Pier (of course), with all the porcelain and tiles arriving from manufacturers in Spain and Italy. Concreation made the work surface.”

“Where possible, we’ve used local contractors. All of our building materials have come from Bradfords West Country Supplies, an amazing family-run business that distributes through the West Country with a team made up entirely of local people.”

Works continue at a pace through the late summer

As we end our chat, the conversation drifts to whether the move has been a good one. Is their new life in Devon everything they’d hoped it would be?

After a brief pause, Katherine starts. “It is, absolutely. The pace is slower for sure, but that’s why we moved. It’s funny, being a London-based architects practice but working here, we’re now busier than we’ve ever been. Maybe it’s just having the time to think and be creative for a few hours each way on the train into town. It just works. But for me, the local community spirit is the thing I still find inspiring. I can’t wait for December’s party!”.

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