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Owning & renovating a mews house: A guide from London’s top architects & interior designers

Read on for your comprehensive starter's guide to refurbishing a mews home

12 January 2024
6 minutes read
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From stables and servants quarters hidden out of sight to an embodiment of swinging London in the 1960s and now the definition of discreet luxury, the history of London’s mews houses has been an eventful one.

Here we talk about the pluses and minuses of owning one, and share our tips for achieving a stunning mews house renovation.

(Quick note: this article is about original mews houses, rather than 20th and 21st-century homes designed in the mews style. But the hints included here could still be helpful if you own one of those homes).

What is a mews house?

To understand what a mews house is, we must first define what “mews” are. Mews are rows or courtyards of stables and carriage houses that were built with living quarters above them.

They are typically found tucked away behind large mansions in once exclusive, high-end areas in the city. Mews houses today offer many benefits given the privacy their placement provides, and create a small-town atmosphere and community in the middle of frantic urban areas.

The history of mews houses

Mews houses were mostly built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their origin stems from a need to stable horses for carriages, which were the primary form of transportation at the time. As London expanded and the population grew, the need to house not only horses but also trainers, servants and other workers became a necessity.

This need was solved by the creation of mews. Mews are rows of small buildings with their own driveway, positioned discreetly behind the grand and luxurious homes and mansions of the wealthy population.

Their private driveways served as service roads, and were strategically placed to remain out of the public eye. This created a sense of separation, while still keeping everything conveniently at hand for the grand houses.

The traditional mews design consisted of a stable and a housing unit. The stables would house the horses, and the people who worked with the horses would live in the quarters above. The accommodation at the time was basic, to say the least, and clearly designed to segregate the wealthy from their servants.

Mews houses typically faced in the opposite direction of the mansion, and were built without windows facing in that direction to prevent servants from spying on their wealthy counterparts.

From notorious to fashionable

In the 20th century, mews houses were no longer a necessity. With the shortage of servants of the time and the development of motor vehicles, they became obsolete.

Mews houses were sold, and began being used for other purposes like vehicle and taxi garages, and print shops. Their reputation suffered as they became known as undesirable places, and were used as the backdrop for illegal activities in films and TV shows at the time.

However, this was changing by the late 1950s. Racing car drivers discovered that mews houses could be purchased for very low rates, and would give them the opportunity to house their racing cars while living directly above them. This kick-started a public realisation of the benefits mews houses could have.

Mews houses were very much in the news in the early 1960s as the homes of several of the key players in the Profumo scandal that rocked the British establishment. And in the mid-1960s, British TV’s most stylish gentleman intelligence operative, John Steed in The Avengers, lived in a mews house. If it was smart enough for Steed to park his vintage Bentley, the mews had definitely come up in the world.

Where are mews houses found?

Mews houses can be found throughout central London and scattered through other parts of town. Though they may not be immediately apparent when strolling through the city, they are hidden gems that can be found if you look past the main streets and into the more secluded areas of the capital.

Many of them can be found in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the City of Westminster. Neighbourhoods where you are likely to run across a group of mews include Mayfair, Belgravia and Marylebone.

Kensington is home to a high concentration of mews, something that has long contributed to it being a sought-after place to live. In South Kensington is Cranley Mews, one of the longest rows of mews houses in the city.

Holland Park Mews is a colourful street of mews houses, and has been used in popular culture TV shows recently, including The Crown on Netflix. Similarly, Notting Hill’s mews served as the backdrop in the movie Love Actually in 2003.

By exploring the city, you can find more and more mews houses hidden behind some of the busiest streets in town.

What differentiates mews houses from others?

The design of mews houses is unique given their history and originally intended use. They are much smaller in scale when compared to newer construction from the 20th and 21st centuries, when the focus was more on comfort than just fulfilling basic needs.

One of the most charming qualities of mews houses is the environment which they create. Since they are row houses, and closely tied together to the neighbouring properties, the streets they are on often feel more like secluded interior courtyards, creating a sense of a tight-knit community, and a place of gathering.

Benefits of living in a mews house

What some call advantages, others call disadvantages, and vice versa.

So, when analysing what the pros and cons are of living in mews houses, it’s important to factor in your personal take on things to determine whether it suits your lifestyle, and what you’re looking for out of your home.

Here, we’ll dive into what we consider some of the best benefits of mews houses:

  • Small-scale living: Mews houses do not boast thousands of square feet of living space, expansive living rooms, or anything of that nature. The square footage of the home is limited, with little room for expansion. The footprint of the home is, more or less, what it will always be. We consider this a benefit as it relates to London city living. Most people looking to move to the city are in search of adventure, and like to take advantage of what the city’s got to offer. As long as the living space is safe, updated, and provides all basic necessities, residents are willing to forego space for the opportunity to live in one of the busiest cities in the world.
  • Architectural character: Mews houses have a very specific design style that can’t be found elsewhere. Through renovation efforts, mews houses have been updated to maintain their original architecture, while also incorporating more modern features. The benefit to living in mews houses is that there are typically tight controls from either planning authorities or private estates that prohibit residents from deviating from the established design and style of the homes. This means that you don’t have to worry about pesky neighbours ruining the look and feel of your neighbourhood through the years.
  • A little bit of privacy: While they are not isolated or located in the countryside, mews houses provide a little bit more privacy than other traditional neighbourhoods in the city. Since they are not located on hectic main streets, you get a separation from the hustle and bustle of the city, without being too far removed from it. This is a delicate balance that they master perfectly, and can be a major benefit for the right person.
  • Location options: The great thing about mews houses is that they’re spread out throughout the centre of town. Whether you’re looking for a home in Chelsea, Mayfair or Notting Hill, there are mews for you to choose from. This provides the added benefit of flexibility, whether you’re looking to stay close to your workplace, or your favourite areas.

The downsides of living in a mews house

All great things come with their own set of disadvantages, and mews houses are no exception.

While we’re calling these the downsides, they may not be the case for everybody. Depending on your preferences, you may find that these are things you wouldn’t mind living with.

  • Lack of private garden space: For some, having outdoor space is an absolute requirement. Given the small plot of land that each mews house is assigned, this is not always a possibility. While some mews houses have terraced gardens, the lack of outdoor space can be a deciding factor for some. On the other hand, there can be potential for a large roof terrace, depending on the location and setting.
  • Parking space: If you have a vehicle, a mews house may present parking challenges for you. Most renovated mews houses have converted what was once the horse stables into more interior space to increase the square footage of the home. SInce they are located on private driveways, there is often no space for parking.
  • Natural light inside the home: A common issue found in mews homes is the lack of natural light due to the small and strategically placed windows. Unless located on a corner lot, many mews houses only have windows on one facade, which can lead to dark rooms in the interior of the home. Lighting can have strong effects on people’s mood, so if this is something you’re worried about, mews houses may not be the best option. Alternatively, you may consider adding or changing windows to the home, but this is subject to permission from the council and - because many mews houses are still part of grand private estates - the organisation that has the freehold to the street.
  • Cost of mews houses: In this market, the demand outweighs the supply significantly. Acquiring a mews house will come at a steep price that may not be worth the splurge to some homebuyers.

Buying a mews house to let

Renting out a mews house can be a worthwhile investment for homeowners. Because demand is higher than supply, homeowners can offer higher rent prices for the mews houses they own, which can be a profitable business.

With their ever-increasing popularity, there is no shortage of people looking to rent these properties regularly. If you’re able to buy a property at a great price, renting it out may be a good option to pay off the property, and enjoy the income for years to come.

Buying a mews house to live in

The typical residents of mews houses range from small families to young professionals who would benefit from living in the city.

Mews houses are sold as freehold properties. This means that when you purchase the home, you can enjoy exclusive rights to indefinite ownership of the home. However, as we said, they are often on private estates and therefore subject to service charges and restrictions on what you can do with your property.

How much are mews houses in London right now?

Renovation efforts have created a high demand for mews houses in London over the last few decades. This has led to an increase in prices that are ever-changing.

Today, homebuyers looking to purchase a mews house should be prepared to spend anywhere between £500,000 to £1m in London. In the most sought-after locations, prices can range anywhere from £2m to £10m. With these prices in consideration, the cost per square footage can get up to £8,000 per square foot.

The average house price in London in June 2021 is just over the £500,000 mark, making mews houses some of the most expensive options to choose from in the city.

Before you start renovating a mews house - consents

There are some practical considerations you should think about before you get going on your renovation. If you are making any external changes - which could include things like adding air-conditioning units - you will probably need planning permission, and many mews houses are in conservation areas.

And if your mews house is part of a private estate such as the Grosvenor, Cadogan, Howard de Walden, Portman or Bedford, you may need a licence to alter. Check your covenant to see what you are allowed to do.

And along with permission to make changes to the outside of the building, you’ll need to take into account the disruption your works might cause. By definition, mews are narrow, and so the presence of a skip could be extremely inconvenient for your neighbours in a way that wouldn’t happen elsewhere. Any plans to make major structural changes might also need a Party Wall agreement.

Let there be light

One of the big challenges of many mews houses is having either limited rear windows or no rear windows at all. If this is the case, you need to first think about whether there are any other ways to add natural daylight and then, how best to arrange your rooms to make the most of this precious resource.

One opportunity can be the ground floor - many mews houses still reflect their history by having garage doors on the ground floor. If that’s the case for your house, and you don’t need the garage, then you might be able to add ground-floor windows.

Ideally, you would also get some of that light coming up through the house or down into the basement, although with limited floorspace, that could be tricky. One way this can be done is using some glass flooring, although some people can find this unnerving...

Digging deep

If there isn’t a basement at the moment, you might be able to add one, potentially increasing the space in your home by up to 33%. However, building a basement in central London is not easy, both from the point of view of getting consent to do it and in practical terms, especially with houses that are tightly packed together.

We would advise being ultra-cautious when considering excavating a basement. Get the help of the best structural engineers you can find, plus use builders with a long history of successful basement projects, and even then double and triple-check that they have all the insurance cover necessary. It goes without saying you need to make sure you have every possible permission from the council and estate before you get started.

We can’t stress this enough: never, ever attempt to cut costs or get a bargain when it comes to constructing a basement. If you can’t afford to have it done to the highest standards, it’s better not to do it at all.

Interior design tips: Renovating a mews house to add space, comfort and value

Mews houses have come a long way since their humble beginnings. What has increased their value through recent years is the efforts of architects and interior designers to bring them up to modern standards, and elevate the experience of living in one of these historic homes.

Urbanist Architecture took one of the many mews houses located in Belgravia, and increased the property’s value by over 68%.

We accomplished this by taking advantage of its ample square footage (in comparison to other mews houses) and developed an intelligent spatial plan strategy coupled with luxurious architectural design and interior design strategies to make the best use of every square foot. The client wanted to maintain the original front door and the facades of the mews home, but we redesigned absolutely everything else to elevate the quality of life of residents.

Of the many successful changes we made with our interior design and architectural services, the most impactful one was the integration of modern features and controls.

We brought in LED lighting, underfloor heating, privacy blinds, and soundproofing. The result was a luxurious space that exudes elegance, efficiency, and most importantly, still highlights the historic aspects of a mews house.

To learn more about this renovation and our architectural design and interior design services for mews houses, visit the case study page of our mews house luxury renovation at 29 Eaton Mews South and see the photos of the results.

How much does it cost to renovate a mews house?

We recommend allowing between £2,000 and £3,000 per square metre for extensive mews house renovations including substantial changes to layouts, significant structural works, re-plumbing, re-wiring and full redecoration. And for basements, factor in £5,000 per sqm.

For areas of less internal renovation not requiring significant layout changes or substantial structural works, but requiring full redecoration, re-plumbing and rewiring, we recommend allowing between £1,500 and £2,500 as an estimated cost per square metre.

If areas only need minor renovation such as re-plastering, and painting, installing new floor finishes and minor electrical and plumbing modifications, we recommend that you allow £1,000 and £2,000 per square metre to refurbish your mews house.

Because the likely construction methods, corresponding structural approaches and desired levels of fixtures, fittings and material finishes will all have an impact on the build cost, always ensure you discuss your budget considerations with architects and interior designers specialising in mews houses at the earlier stages of your refurbishment project.

How Urbanist Architecture can help you

Urbanist Architecture is a London-based RIBA chartered architecture and planning practice with offices in Greenwich and Belgravia. With a dedicated focus in proven design and planning strategies, and expertise in residential extensions, conversions and new build homes, we help homeowners to create somewhere they enjoy living in and landowners and developers achieve ROI-focused results.

If you would like us to help you make the most of your gorgeous London mews house, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Ufuk Bahar, Founder and Managing Director of Urbanist Architecture
AUTHOR

Ufuk Bahar

Urbanist Architecture’s founder and managing director, Ufuk Bahar takes personal charge of some of our larger projects, focusing particularly on Green Belt developments, new-build flats and housing and high-end full refurbishments.

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