Rise and Shine

Aster House was the fifty-second property that Dominic Gray and Susan Butler saw in their hunt for a home. The appeal of the building was instant, from the Art Deco-style stained glass windows, original Maltese tile floors and striking staircase to the cool, stillness within.
The house is situated in Sliema’s urban conservation area, the older part of town dominated by long and narrow 19th century townhouses. Aster House, however, was built during the Art Deco period, making it particularly special. ‘And it was untouched,’ says Dominic. ‘So many properties of this age have been done over painfully, but this one was as it was when it was built in the 1930s. It meant we could bring it back to life sensitively.’

‘For us, modern living equals living with light and the light is at the top of the house…’

Doing so presented a challenge, however. How to preserve and enhance the old whilst bringing the building up to the standards required for modern living? The starting point was re-thinking the home’s layout, turning the functions of the rooms on their head to create an ‘upside down house’.
‘For us, modern living equals living with light and the light is at the top of the house,’ explains Dominic. ‘So it made sense to have the sleeping areas on the lower floor and the living areas on the top floor.’
The realisation of this idea was a team effort, continues Dominic. Architect Nils Feldmann, whom Dominic had worked with on various projects around Europe, suggested the initial concept. In Malta, Alan Galea and his team at Model finalised the plans, oversaw planning permission and the build.
The end result is another storey added to the top of the existing townhouse; here, one finds the living room, kitchen and dining area and terrace with a roof terrace at the very top. The ground and first floors are given over to bedrooms.
The new floor is contemporary in design and a contrast to the lower ones. ‘It’s a clear break with the existing style,’ says Dominic. ‘We didn’t want faux Art Deco but a modern look that was sympathetic to it.’
While the stairs from the ground to first floor are original stone with an elaborate wrought iron balustrade, the stairs from the first floor to the second are made of steel with a glass balustrade. ‘The challenge was to add a staircase that respected the traditional staircase,’ says Alan Galea. ‘At the same time, we did not want to copy it as this takes away the legibility of the architecture over time. We therefore opted for a modern intervention in the form of a steel staircase which we clad with beautiful white marble for the threads. The railings were kept in clear glass to retain the lightness of the additional floor.’
As the new upper floor was all about living with light, maximising light throughout the house was essential. ‘We removed all services from the internal yard to allow maximum light to funnel through the property,’ explains Alan. ‘We also added two skylights over the staircase and back room at roof level. The organisation of space throughout the house was then dictated by the natural light.’
Another key element of the renovation was sustainability. ‘We wanted an eco-home, one that minimised the impact of the building on the environment as well as resources, in particular water and power,’ says Dominic.
‘As technology has advanced so much since the original structure was built, we needed to strip it down and build it back up incorporating modern technology into the existing fabric,’ says Alan. ‘All the walls have been clad with insulation which serves two purposes – firstly from a sustainable aspect, it helps with heat losses and gains depending on the time of year; secondly, it helps remove any sound travelling between houses which are otherwise only separated by a single limestone wall.’
As well, the floor was excavated and a damp course laid down. Underfloor heating was installed which warms the house efficiently and economically with ‘a dry, warm heat that feels comfortable,’ says Dominic.
Solar panels on the roof produce enough energy to heat the home’s water, and sometimes even the heating. ‘We also rejuvenated the well which stores rainwater from the roof and this greywater is used for irrigation and to supply the toilets, saving about 30-40 litres a day,’ says Dominic.
The house is also super-connected. ‘We have a computer at the heart of the building that monitors everything,’ says Dominic. ‘If it registers no presence, it automatically shuts down; if it’s very sunny, it brings the blinds down; if we lose the water supply, it switches to the well water. It is linked to Amazon Echo so we can talk to the house. Ultimately, it’s reducing the energy footprint of the house which cuts environmental impact and also the cost of ownership.’
When deciding on the decoration, the original features were, unsurprisingly, the starting point. ‘We worked very hard to save as many beautiful features as possible and were able to restore many of the original Maltese tiles as well as the stained-glass windows, and the colour palette was inspired by these features,’ says Susan, an interior designer by profession. ‘The new tiles that I designed with Halmann Vella for the ground floor incorporate the colour of the originals on the second floor but are a modern take on them.
‘The original tiles in the front bedroom are my favourite tiles in the house and are very special as they are “of the secret” design meaning that the pattern has been lost through the passage of time and they can no longer be replicated. I chose a similar pink and grey within them for my tiles. I then used the grey as an invisible thread through the rest of the house to create a cohesive scheme which would link the old and the new transparently.’
Furniture was kept plain so the house remains ‘the star of the show,’ says Susan. ‘I chose classic pieces to complement each space with special emphasis on natural materials – where I have used a particular colour or material, be that wood, metal, glass, or textiles once in a space, I have used to elsewhere in the design too such as on a cushion or a ceramic or in artwork, to create a flow which transits through the entire house.’
The renovation took about 18 months and today the family are happily ensconced in their beautiful home. ‘It’s a privilege to live here, an uplifting experience,’ says Dominic. ‘It’s a great feeling to have brought a house back to life and to be custodians of it for future generations.’