Burd Haward Architects’ bold refurbishment of north London eaterie Osteria Emilia
Amanda Birch discovers how Burd Haward Architects transformed a dark, low-ceiled restaurant interior into a welcoming, light-filled space
Project: Osteria Emilia
Architect: Burd Haward Architects
Engulfed on three sides by a mass of drab buildings and facing onto a traffic-laden one-way system, Osteria Emilia has to work hard to get itself noticed. But now elegantly clothed in a dark render with large black-framed windows, the Italian restaurant in Fleet Road, Hampstead, just behind north London’s Royal Free Hospital, makes a subtle but distinctive impact.
Built in the 1970s using a mish-mash of brickwork and featuring bow windows and a pitched roof, it didn’t identify itself as a place to eat, and was lost in a haze of signs and mediocre architecture in a difficult location. This was the challenge facing Burd Haward Architects when the firm was appointed. On a budget of £400,000, the practice had to transform the building from a nondescript eaterie into a modern one with a strong character that would draw in diners.
In early 2007, when the lease expired and the Italian owner (who also owns the delicatessen opposite) took control of the building, there were plans either to add another storey to the existing structure or else demolish and rebuild. But as about a third of the ground floor is leased out to another café, these proposals came to an abrupt end — so the only solution was to refurbish the building. The interior was as dated as the exterior and desperately needed an inspired approach and intervention.
Burd Haward partner Catherine Burd says the overwhelming feeling on entering the building was one of darkness: dark brown brick walls, low floor-to-ceiling heights on the ground and first floors of 2.5m and 2.2m respectively, a cramped, angled layout, landlocked site, and heavy fenestration.
It is unsurprising then to discover that key drivers were to bring in more light and give the interior character — achieved by opening up the roof and inserting a roof lantern, enlarging the windows, and reconfiguring and enlarging the compressed space with some bold interventions. As there was no scope to enlarge the total floor area (110sq m), the architect had to be ingenious in creating an impression of openness and light.
Burd says this project demonstrates the ethos of the practice: “It’s not about applied finishes but about stripping back what’s there, expressing the materials and the inherent qualities of a building which give it a new lease of life”.
She adds: “A few simple, bold moves have a transformative effect.”
To make the most of the building’s one elevation and create a more uniform appearance, the architect chose to cover the external brickwork with a self-coloured render of the darkest pigment, leaving it in a natural, unpainted state.
The other major alteration made to the front elevation was to enlarge existing window openings to bring in light and strengthen the relationship between the interior and exterior.
By removing a structural pier located between the 2.4m-wide ground floor window and the 900mm-wide entrance door, as well as lowering the window sill, the combined width of door and window opening is now 3.7m.
The opening has been replaced with clear glass, and to one side a solid section of black painted timber has been fitted to accommodate the menu board. The entrance door is recessed to provide shelter and lighting, and the doorstep has been replaced with white terrazzo.
At first floor level, the window sill has been lowered to increase the window area.
The new window assembly will be of black painted timber and includes a fixed glazed area with a solid vent to the side.
The architect wanted to create a stronger connection to the outside by pulling the glazing down to the base of the first floor and ensuring that this level — and the diners — is visible and not forgotten.
To transform the dark, almost claustrophobic, interior of the restaurant required a total rethink of the layout.
On the ground floor, this involved removing the redundant spiral staircase to the rear and the existing bar to create an accessible WC and a more inviting drinks area, with a dark green terrazzo bar top and stools more in keeping with the Italian aesthetic of coffee bars. Along one wall, a long line of banquettes with timber backs are slotted in, reinforcing the angle of the space. As Catherine Burd wanted to avoid the ubiquitous white-painted plaster look, the dark brown brick walls are simply painted white, while the floor is a white terrazzo tile of a marble composite. The ceiling was stripped of all low-level lining and pushed up as high as possible to increase the height of the ground floor, then fixed with white acoustic plasterboard, Arteco Rigitone, by British Gypsum.
Upstairs and alongside the stair, a door and part of an internal wall were removed to draw in light from the newly formed rooflight and create a more uplifting and welcoming entry into the first floor dining area. The WCs were redesigned so as not intrude into the kitchen space and instead two WCs are tucked along the back wall of the dining area.
The kitchen was also reconfigured to give a more logical and spacious layout, with entry and exit points at either end, and a dumb waiter inserted.
The floor of the dining area was laid with unfinished oak floorboards, and poplar boards were fixed to the ceiling and roof lantern, with insulation behind. An intumescent paint finish, Nulifire, was applied to the boards, followed by a thin coat of emulsion to create a light, clean appearance. The reconfigured first floor space, allowed the number of covers to be increased by 10.
The decision to open up the roof has been a wise one as this bold move has transformed the interior space so that light now floods in, creating a welcoming ambience for diners while also providing natural ventilation.
The existing roof form along the main part composes two equal pitches, with the difference taken up with a triangular flat section along the ridge. The proposal involved replacing part of this flat section with an aluminium-framed rooflight, 5.5m-long and varying in width from 400mm to 1m.
Structural engineer Chris Atkins of Symmetrys, who advised on this intervention, says: “To create the new void in the flat roof, timber struts were installed prior to the removal of the roof joists. With the installation of the struts, we were then able to justify the lateral wind loads on the existing timber ridges”.
Atkins adds that in order to maintain lateral stability against wind loads on the perimeter walls, the ceiling joists were lined with screwed and glued ply, enabling the existing ceiling to act as a diaphragm.
This diaphragm, together with the existing steel beams, transfers wind loads back to the flank walls.
Architect Burd Haward Architects, Clients Renata Giacobazzi and Carlo Sorrachi, Structural engineer Symmetrys, Mechanical engineer DA Building Services, Quantity surveyor Moulton Taggart, Main contractor Maurice Williams Construction, Rooflight Glazing Vision, Carpentry to ceiling Nicholsons, Joinery (bar, bench and windows) Adrian Eves, Terrazzo bar and step Fieldmount Terrazzo
Original print headline: Solutions: Refurbishment
Photos by Fisher Hart