Some people try to avoid public bathrooms at all costs. British architect Laura Jane Clark wanted to live in one.
A former underground public restroom turned cozy, upscale flat in south London is Clark’s brainchild. The now 34-year-old discovered the abandoned bathrooms while wandering around the Crystal Palace neighborhood back in 2005.
“I just kind of fell in love with them,” she said. “They were all boarded up, but I could peek through and see the existing space and features. It was quite interesting to me, even though it was full of rubbish and just disgusting at the time.”
The 600-square-foot space was built in the late 1920s and had last been used sometime in the 1980s. It had a space for men’s and women’s toilets, a skylight, the proper electrical and gas wiring, and, of course, plumbing.
“I love working with odd spaces and making them different—especially in neglected areas,” she said. “The idea of working out how a space can be used for years to come is fascinating to me.”
In addition to the massive amount of work ahead of her, it took months of convincing the local town council just to get the ball rolling.
“There were so many hurdles, and some council people were less enthusiastic about my ideas,” she said. “I spent a long time persuading them that this space should be saved and inhabited.”
The micro-rehab project cost Clark about $90,000, plus the $32,000 or so that the property cost.
She served as the architect, of course, but mostly she got her hands dirty as a laborer. She reminisces about times she would pop into the local café covered in concrete, and how she became known as “Laura Loos” and “Toilet Girl.”
The extensive renovations kicked off in 2011 and were completed last year. Everything from heavy bleaching to knocking down walls to reinvent the use of the space was part of transforming the eerie, vile basement into a warm, luxurious living space with an echo of the past.
Smell was definitely an issue at first -- not just because it's a bathroom, but because it was a bathroom in such disrepair. But she and her crew jet-washed it and poured concrete over the "soil stacks" -- the original sewage pipes. So smell is no longer an issue.
One thing she would change if she could go back in time: She wishes she hadn't had to work on site so much.
“Rather than being the client, I would have liked to be more of the architect,” she said. “I was making decisions and working closely with the builders, and I [wish I] would’ve been more removed from the project in that sense.”
The bathroom renovation fueled Clark’s passion for reconfiguring small spaces. She applies that passion to projects she takes on for various clients (you can reach her at Lamp Architects), and always has her eyes open for the next off-the-wall micro-regeneration project.
“I’m looking into an old pub that closed recently, and some other derelict projects,” Clark said. “I always try to imagine a new life in old warehouses, churches and other little places.”
Today, Clark and her husband enjoy hosting parties and barbecues in their light-filled basement flat.
“It’s been part of my life for so many years,” Clark said. “We get quite a lot of gawkers and have become known in the area. We still get knocks on the door and people who travel from far distances to try to get a glimpse inside.”
Despite all the attention, Clark said, they will stay there indefinitely.
“I’d be very sad if I had to sell it,” she said. “I would love to keep it in the family.”