House & Garden

Things are looking up

Smart homeowners are now recognising that double-height space can be as much of a luxury as generous square footage. Helen Chislett celebrates verticality.

October 20 2009
Helen Chislett

There is something about looking upwards that lifts the spirits – whether to sky or stars, exquisite ceiling frescoes, cathedral columns or the triumphant grandeur of sweeping staircases. No wonder, then, that architects and designers are increasingly recognising double-volume height to be a new interpretation of luxury, challenging the usual notion of floor area as the benchmark of desirability. As Nico Rensch of Architeam says: “To lose square footage and go vertical is the ultimate way of expressing that you have so much space that you can afford to do this – it is exciting, dramatic and allows you to create something very special. The first big sign of the urge to breathe in an urban environment was the whole loft trend, but now even the most modest of lateral spaces is called New York loft-style. Double volume allows you to create space that you would not find anywhere else in a street of similar buildings.”

One of Rensch’s most theatrical projects is a loft he redesigned for a client in New York, executed by Victoria Blau. A 4,000sq ft penthouse duplex, it is low by New York standards, on the fifth and sixth floors. By sacrificing floor for a 22ft 6in height, Rensch has created a stunning internal space with views out to the New York skyline from every room. Rensch pays tribute to the client in allowing him to achieve his vision: “Our presentation is 100 per cent what you see – nothing changed. Often, clients like the idea on paper but are nervous about the reality. You may have to give up quite a bit of space, but you create something totally extraordinary in doing so.”

John Hunter, CEO of developer Northacre, admits there is a balance to strike for a company such as his: “When purchasers are buying off-plan, they can find double height difficult to understand. But interestingly, we find such spaces easier to sell when finished, so it is worth keeping faith.”

Northacre has introduced double-height rooms into many of its residential developments, including The Phillimores in west London: “It’s the external fenestration that finally dictates the room height. Some of the windows here were so high that we had ceiling heights of about 16ft, which allowed us to install gallery spaces. The combination of double-height space and tall windows created some unusual and dramatic vistas.” As Hunter explains, internal windows and mirrors can then be used to bounce light from room to room: “All of this gives a sense of depth – the idea not only of looking up but beyond. The removal of some floor space can, in fact, result in a more saleable product, because double height is so eye-catching.”

The idea of height equating with luxurious living is one that Martin Kemp, creative director at Candy & Candy, recognises: “Double height is a reinvention of how space used to be utilised – think of artists’ studios, for example. Now we are emphasising to clients that it is time to re-evaluate the idea of luxury in premium homes. If you have a big enough space, you can afford to lose what would otherwise be deemed valuable floor space.”

One such example is 21 Chesham Place, where Candy & Candy has designed six boutique apartments in a Norman Foster development. Each has its own “wow” factor, from super-large roof terraces to double-height swimming pools, but in the largest one it is double-volume space that provides spectacle, as Kemp explains: “This sort of height – over 61ft – is rare in central London. So many contemporary apartments, even at the top end, have compromised ceiling heights and we felt it was time to break that. This apartment totals just under 9,000sq ft, which enabled us to introduce not only the X-factor of height, but also triple length. That combination is particularly impressive.”

Tall windows flood the rooms with light, while the bespoke crystal-and-fibreoptic chandelier over the dining table also accentuates the apartment’s special dimensions. Kemp is sure it is a trend that will continue: “With land costing what it does, it is inevitable we will go vertical again – look what it offers in terms of atmosphere.”

The fact is that while a space on the scale of 21 Chesham Place might be desirable, the idea of vertical living can work just as well in a modest area. Architect Robert D Henry proved this point when he and his architect wife, Nancy Wu, moved into one of New York’s original artists’ co-operatives a few years ago and created an apartment suitable for them and their baby son, Bo: “The Hotel des Artistes was built in 1910 for artists who could not afford both a home and a studio. Our own apartment was the ugly duckling – an 800sq ft one-bedroom studio, so raw it was not even in rental condition. Our mandate was to create a home that utilised every inch of space while also being a nice living environment for the three of us.”

Being a studio, the apartment boasted both additional height and huge windows. Henry and Wu built a gallery that would also be a “command centre”, with an ergonomic seat cut out of the wall specifically to Wu’s height: “From this vantage point, she could keep an eye on Bo,” explains Henry, “but the 20ft two-storey volume is also a celebration of light and air and luminosity. When people visit, they feel as though they are in Paris, not the intense, urban centre of New York. In cities, light and air are coveted, so in the new work we undertake we consciously orchestrate double-height space to create that instant sense of something magical.”

While drama is undoubtedly one of the advantages of such an approach, many designers also like the cohesion it brings to buildings. As Alex Michelin, a director of developer Finchatton, explains, vertical schemes are often the result of thinking how best to use the generic architecture of London: “We are often constrained by history and the fact that the Victorians and Edwardians favoured architecture where you go up and down, rather than across. The problem is that in a house with many floors, there is often no relation between each one. By cutting away floors, positioning internal windows in walls and using mirrors to spread light around, you can create both scale and depth.”

Finchatton has embraced this bold approach in Chester Row where the company has taken a modest house with an original square footage of 1,900sq ft, added a floor below and extended a floor above, and created quite a grand house on a small land envelope: “It is about 3,000sq ft now, but feels like 4,000sq ft because wherever you stand, you have views to other areas. If you are in the master bedroom, for example, you can lie in bed and look out to the garden; or through an internal window to the open void of the stairwell which floods the property with light, and beyond that to a window on the street side. The highest vertical space spans over 30ft and the whole place feels massive.”

Gail Taylor of interior design firm Taylor Howes agrees that you can create great impact by opening up a house vertically: “You need an architectural eye to see the possibilities. It is not just about space, but about having a shaft of light dropping down from the top of the house to the bottom, for example. By creating a totally different square footage, you often add life to otherwise dead spaces.”

Taylor Howes demonstrated its eye for the vertical in a project it undertook for a client with a duplex that was in need of a radical rethink: “Her living space was upstairs and bedroom space downstairs, with a dark and unappealing staircase between the two. We took the staircase out and completely redesigned it using mirror and glass, complemented by low-level lighting.” A huge bespoke crystal chandelier by Spina hangs down the full 22ft height of the stairwell (a trick used in another Taylor Howes project), emphasising the verticality and creating a warm glow at the centre of the apartment, while the back wall is completely covered in mirror so you walk into a light, bright and dynamic space. The bedroom and living room have also been switched around: “Before it did not feel like a co-ordinated space, but now it flows really well from downstairs to upstairs.”

A particularly jaw-dropping example of “going vertical” is the gigantic sash window installed by Paul+O Architects for a client in west London – in fact, a sliding door system from Vitrocsa turned on its side. As Paul Acland and Paulo Marto explain, they were looking for a solution that would be both lightweight and that would emphasise the verticality of the 21ft double-volume space they had installed within: “The panes had to be equal in size and mechanically controlled to meet in the middle. It is all automated so you can walk underneath, but even if it were not, it would not be difficult to lift because it is all beautifully counterbalanced.”

Within the house, Paul+O created vertical vistas to unify it for a family with young children: “In traditional London houses, every floor is cut off from the other floors – it is almost like living in separate flats,” says Acland. “By bringing in double-height volume, the kitchen was no longer isolated from the living room above – you could be in your own space while being aware of people on other levels. Halfway up the stairs between the ground floor and the first, there is an internal window, so the children can peep and watch their parents entertaining friends for dinner. It is almost as if we have gone back to the idea of the banqueting hall with the minstrel gallery.”

This is one of the projects that have made Paul+O a finalist in this year’s Building Design One-off House Architect of the Year award, and it is a thoughtful but bold reworking of ubiquitous London architecture: “We would think it inappropriate in a period house to simply knock out all the rooms behind a façade and have one huge horizontal space; buildings should reflect the inside from the outside. The challenge was to take a big house – 4,800sq ft – and find a way of keeping it interlinked at every level.”

The message from every designer interviewed is that clients need to equate volume, as much as floor area, with luxury, and to have the guts to embrace vertical solutions. As Rensch explains, “Historically, some of the most wonderful architecture is that where you had grand central staircases going up three or four storeys high with galleries at every level. If you want something with grandeur today, you need to create height to give it that sense of importance.” Or, as Henry puts it, “Consider churches of the Gothic period and that celebration of verticality, the idea that architecture could connect you to the heavens. Designs like this are a celebration of space.”

See also

Architects