The Architect Transforming Derelict East Sussex Buildings


Award-winning interior architect Marta Nowicka invites you inside her two East Sussex homes where, if you like, you can spend a night or two, writes Rebecca Pitcairn

Have you ever pored over interior design or architectural magazines and wondered what it might be like to live in the homes that grace their pages? It’s one of those dreams award-winning interior architect and property developer Marta Nowicka believes shouldn’t be kept so far from reach.

The mother-of-one, who specialises in redeveloping commercial property, buys abandoned buildings and transforms them into beautiful homes. But, rather than sell them on when she’s finished repurposing them, she keeps them, living in them some of the time and renting them out the rest of the time. It’s a process that not only allows her to enjoy the properties she has worked on because, “sometimes I can’t quite let go,” she says, but also share her creativity with others.

Creativity is in Nowicka’s blood. Considering her father was an architect and mother a fashion designer, it was perhaps inevitable that she would follow in one or the other’s footsteps. In fact, she has carved out a career that merges aspects of both her parents’ disciplines.

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Marta Nowicka

“My mum had her own boutique on Brompton Road and my dad had his own architectural practice in Chelsea, so it was in my DNA that I was going to do something creative,” she says. “I worked at my father’s practice for a while, but felt architecture was all a little too technical and that the design side of things was probably more my bag.”

She studied for her art foundation at Kingston University before doing a BA in interior architecture – a course led by Fred Scott that focused on reusing, recycling and readapting existing buildings and ignited Nowicka’s passion for converting derelict commercial buildings.

“It was indoctrinated in me not to develop greenfield sites and instead look at spaces in between, look at brownfield sites, look at voids, think about what else you can use instead of our landscape,” she explains. “It’s all about readapting use of spaces.”

Among her work is a garage in Dalston, which she converted into a three-bedroom, three-bathroom home, and a former print factory, off Old Street in London, which is now her own family dwelling.

However, it is the homes she has created and admits she has “fallen in love with” in East Sussex, which led her to set up DOMstay&live – a unique collection of architecturally eye-catching homes available to book for a holiday or longer-term let.

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Jury’s Gap

After initially discovering Rye with her late husband 25 years ago, Nowicka revisited the area in the late noughties and began looking for a second home away from London. “I realised there was a huge draw for creative people there; a like-minded energy and spirit, which I found really enjoyable. So, I started looking for a project down there,” she says.

That project was a former coastguard’s cottage at Jury’s Gap, which had fallen into a state of complete disrepair after years sitting empty. “It’s actually the only non-commercial property I’ve ever bought,” she explains. “Although it was, I suppose, semi-commercial as the coastguards used to work on the bottom floor.”

Nowicka began transforming the five-bedroom sea-front property into a home for her and her son, Lucas, restoring its many original features, such as timber panelling, brick fireplaces and an old gun cupboard. But, before long she was looking for a new project that would place her more centrally within the Rye community.

“Coastguards Cottage is lovely and tranquil, but at times it can feel very isolated, I could go a whole week without seeing anyone and I also wasn’t quite prepared for how harsh the winters could be,” Marta admits. So, when she discovered that Rye’s old St John’s Ambulance Station was up for sale, she snapped it up as quickly as she could.

“It had been an ambulance station since the 1950s and so it was a real part of the community. They held all sorts of medical training there, but it was also a place where they’d host Friday night discos for the local kids,” she says. “Local people often tell me they remember doing their Saturday first aid course there or it was where they had their first snog!”

The project was risky as it involved applying for the change of use for a building situated slap bang in the middle of a conservation area, plus it needed a lot of work, from rewiring and plumbing to completely flattening a badly-built 1970s extension. But it was a risk that has paid off and is probably Nowicka’s most fascinating redevelopment to date.

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St John’s

While many of the building’s features were no longer fit for purpose, Nowicka has managed to incorporate them in other ways so that nothing is wasted. For example, she has recreated the huge ambulance doors, using the old ones to provide a striking backdrop on the dining room wall. It means that while the home is now very contemporary, it retains that historic charm which runs through the heart of Rye.

“Rye is a medieval town and in old medieval halls, everybody used to live around the fire. So, that’s why I built the concrete plinth in the middle of the space with a big double-sided wood burner as the focus of the room for everyone to congregate around,” she explains. “Then I’ve put in very modern windows to contrast so there’s a real mixture of languages.”

The two East Sussex properties provide Nowicka with the best of both worlds. Coastguards Cottage sits completely off the beaten track, opposite a desolate stretch of beach, while St John sits among Rye’s hilly cobbled lanes and quaint yet bustling High Street. She advertises both as holiday lets and splits her time between them and another of her converted properties in London, depending on what’s available.

“It is a logistical nightmare sometimes, because everything is often in the wrong place, but you do get used to it,” she laughs. “For me it’s about flexibility, and flexibility of space. Life changes all the time and it’s about embracing those cycles of life. If you’re home with your family, wherever that may be, then you can just get on and enjoy life.”

To view the full collection of DOMStay&Live properties visit domstayandlive.com

(Photos by Voytek Ketz @ DOMstay&live)

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