28th November 2016
A Townhouse with a Cottage Feel
Actress, writer and STYLE editor Jo Caruana bought this Balzan townhouse back in 2014. But while she is the first to admit not quite seeing its potential from the start, two years on, with the help of TBA Periti architect Gaston Camilleri and the talented team at Nine Yards Turnkey & Design, led by Paul Hyzler and Luisa Diacono, the property has gone from neglected old townhouse to a stylish and inviting home, with more than a little nod to Jo’s love for the typical English country cottage. Sarah Micallef pays a visit.
“It started out as a two-storey property, and it is now a four-storey property, with one additional floor and a mezzanine squeezed in,” Jo explains. The ground floor comprises the living and dining area, in which Jo enjoys entertaining and hosting dinners with her partner, Bruce. Beyond that is the kitchen, which directly overlooks a pretty garden – the area which sealed the deal when Jo was property hunting. “I had just sold my apartment and was asking everyone if they knew of a house with a garden which was for sale. That day, I was in a shop, met someone I kind of knew and inevitably asked if he had a house with a garden. He said yes, and that very moment I came to see it,” she laughs.
The stairs from the ground floor take you up to a small landing which Jo uses as a reading nook, and lead on to the new mezzanine level. Meanwhile, the second floor features two bedrooms and the main bathroom, with the new level upstairs housing a flatlet for when friends stay over, as well as a laundry room and terrace.
Looking back at photos of the house in its pre-converted state, Jo admits, “to be honest, at first I didn’t see the potential, because it was in a terrible state. It was a typical townhouse that hadn’t been lived in for many years, and I had never planned on a renovation project.” She explains that since she had already sold her apartment, she wanted to buy a house that was ready to move into. “Still, somehow it stayed in my mind and I decided to come back with my dad and my architect friend Gaston a few days later,” she continues. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I always wanted a pretty, British-style home,” Jo admits, “so Gaston’s job was to create a cottage out of a Maltese townhouse! I think he managed to give it a feel of that. His vision was incredible from the very first time he came to see the property.”
The renovation project took roughly two years from applying for permits to moving in, and consisted of a complete demolition of the previous structure (excluding the façade and back garden), extensive plumbing and electricity works, which were expertly carried out by JM Installations and rebuilding a new internal structure from scratch. Yet while it was structurally a big ask, Jo quips that “the most painful part of the process” was getting the necessary permits.
“I feel very strongly that when you are trying to renovate an old property, you should be supported, whether it’s tax credits, support or simply making the process easier for people who are doing up an old property rather than building a new one. There are currently about 40,000 vacant properties in Malta – enough to house the entire population again,” she asserts, affirming that the MEPA process took almost eight months, while works on the house only took a year to complete.
“When you think that it adds more than a third of the time it takes to build your property, it’s not very helpful, especially if you have a mortgage to pay. I was lucky that my parents gave me a roof over my head for the time it took to do the project, but not everyone has that luxury, and paying a loan at the same time as you’ve got other expenses of living somewhere else is difficult,” she adds. “Having said that, I still wouldn’t put anybody off,” Jo continues, softening, and likens the process to oft-told tales of childbirth – “the process is tough, but once you move in, you love it so much and forget all about the struggle!”
The result is a beautiful, warm and airy home which Jo describes as shabby chic and eclectic. A number of statement pieces and talking-point items are offset by natural textures and pastel colours, which give the townhouse that distinct cottagey feel she was after. Attributing her main sources of inspiration to travelling and boutique hotels, as well as stylish restaurants and magazines, her aesthetic was pulled off beautifully by Nine Yards, with a fair bit of input from Jo herself. “I knew exactly what I wanted and the vision was clear. I was very involved as I didn’t want a house that was ‘in’ and trendy. I just wanted it to look soft and timeless,” she says.
And while the renovation process is finished and Jo moved in six months ago, she adds, “I think that the fun thing with a house is that it’s never finished, and I’m enjoying that,” pointing out little things she’d like to do here and there. Now that she’s settled in, Jo says that her favourite space in the house is the landing. “I just love landings – there’s something very British about having these higgledy piggledy kinds of houses, with stairs that are not just stairs, but have a purpose. The landing is filled with my nanna’s bureau and some other knick knacks that I’ve picked up along the way. I love sitting in the chair and looking out into the garden,” she says.
The kitchen is also close to her heart, and helps give the warm and welcoming feel she was after thanks to its wood countertops and dainty features. And through the large windows is the pièce de résistance – the garden – an absolute must for Jo and her two dogs.
“When I was looking for a house, the garden element was so important, mostly for the dogs – Pip spends his entire day chasing lizards! I wanted an English country garden with rose bushes, and that’s what I got. The pomegranate tree was already there, and I’m so happy it survived the conversion. Designer Bratislav and gardener Mario from Piscopo Gardens did a phenomenal job. They put it all together in two days, and installed an irrigation system which is really convenient as it needs no maintenance. It really was a dream which they made come true,” she gushes.