The trend for daring extensions to period London properties

Savvy homeowners are choosing to stay put and add space and value rather than trade up, says Ruth Bloomfield

Studio Octopi used huge windows to solve the problem of darkness at this Georgian townhouse in Primrose Hill
Studio Octopi used huge windows to solve the problem of darkness at this Georgian townhouse in Primrose Hill | Image: Studio Octopi/Jack Hobhouse

One of the many after-effects of the recession has been the evolution of a new equation for home economics. Changes to stamp duty in 2014 and 2016 have greatly increased the cost of buying properties worth £1.5m or more. This coupled with a general shortage of property on the market means that, for many, property mobility is waning. In the 1980s, a property sold on average once a decade; now, according to a Hometrack report from 2015, the average British property changes hands just once every 21 years.

An inevitable outcome of this “overstayers” trend is for homeowners to remodel and extend the house they are currently living in, investing in the best-quality materials and craftsmanship. Design standards are higher and more personal than ever before, and the impact on domestic architecture has been prodigious.

Jamie Fobert Architects created a sculptural stone staircase to join two apartments in this central London property
Jamie Fobert Architects created a sculptural stone staircase to join two apartments in this central London property | Image: Dennis Gilbert/VIEW

One of the most extraordinary-looking extensions to have been built in recent years is to the aptly named Folds, designed by Bureau de Change architects. Co-founder Billy Mavropoulos was contacted by the owners in 2014 on a friend’s recommendation after they had rejected what he describes, with a slight shudder, as a plan for a “basic box with bifold windows” conceived by another practice.

“I think people have generally become more savvy about design and architecture, and they are more courageous,” he says. “We still come across clients who say they don’t want to do anything too eccentric because they might want to move and don’t want to limit the demographic of buyers, but because people tend to stay in their homes for longer, they want to do something that is more personal – and more interesting.”

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Folds is, from the outside at least, a perfectly typical three-storey Victorian house in Crouch End in north London. The owners, Mavropoulos says, felt that the house was generally shabby and the modern extension housing the kitchen needed particular attention. Mavropoulos designed a new L-shaped rear and side extension featuring a “pleated” roof, which he describes as looking like a “flat surface forced to crinkle as it is pushed up against the exterior wall”. The folds of the ceiling create unexpected shadows and angles in the space, and skylights studded into it give the owners long views of woodland beyond the house. “My husband particularly wanted to be able to have a view of the tall poplar trees at the back, even when we’re in the living room,” the owner says.

The bespoke 54sq m extension cost about £135,000 (roughly £2,500 per sq m), with refurbishment elsewhere in the property bringing the project to about £200,000 – making it considerably more economical than upsizing in the area. The materials Mavropoulos used are a mixture of simple and lavish: the roof is made of plasterboard, but slabs of immaculately laid and seamless terrazzo flooring, formed from recycled marble chips bonded together with resin, make the space almost glow. From the garden the folds are designed to be hidden from view, creating the impression of a flat roof so as not to alter the period character of the property. “We were wowed by it,” says the satisfied owner.

Archplan Architects chose multipanelled Crittall windows for the extension of this Georgian house in Knightsbridge
Archplan Architects chose multipanelled Crittall windows for the extension of this Georgian house in Knightsbridge

The standard “glass box” look was also rejected by Andy Down, co-owner of Archplan Architects, when he was working on the £1.5m extension and renovation of a Georgian house in Knightsbridge. Down opted for Crittall windows for the extension, feeling the increasingly in demand heritage brand was more suitable for a Grade-II listed period house than “slightly brutalist” acres of glass. “The individual panes of the Crittall frame smaller, more manageable views of the garden beyond,” says Down. “I’ve done a lot of glass boxes myself and can completely understand why people want them, because they really allow you to make the most of the view.” But he has learnt from the experience of living in the heavily glazed country home he designed for his own family. “During the day it was wonderful, but at night we had to light up all the trees. If you are just looking out at blackness it is not very pleasant.”

Uwe Schmidt-Hess, founder of Patalab, was commissioned to modernise and extend a detached Arts and Crafts home in Hampstead, north London, owned by a family of art lovers. He merged the kitchen with the existing larder, breakfast room and loggia overlooking the garden to create a large, light space that for the first time gives direct garden access from the kitchen. It also makes the most of the line of beautiful, original arched openings in the loggia space, now part of the kitchen and used as a dining area.

Coffey Architects linked the newly open-plan spaces of this mews house in Lancaster Gate with a dramatic staircase made from white American oak
Coffey Architects linked the newly open-plan spaces of this mews house in Lancaster Gate with a dramatic staircase made from white American oak | Image: Timothy Soar

To add space, a slim new rear extension was built at a right angle to the main house. This gallery-like “wing”, with its sunken seating area, is intended for displaying art and for entertaining, and is clad in handmade Danish bricks, with walls of textured concrete and floors of honed limestone slabs. “We wanted to retain as much depth in the garden as possible,” Schmidt-Hess explains of the decision to build the wing along the side of the garden rather than adding a more conventional rear extension; it also gives long views of the outdoor space from both the kitchen and the new wing. The project, which included refurbishments throughout the property, had a budget of £1.6m and increased the size of the house by about 85sq m, to 420sq m.

One of the problems faced by architects and owners alike is how to repurpose period homes for modern family living – the most common complaint being of small, dark, rabbit-warren rooms. Confronted by just such a property – a tall, skinny, five‑storey Georgian townhouse in Primrose Hill, north London – architect James Lowe, one of the directors of Studio Octopi, demolished a “rather horrid” 1970s conservatory, removed a slice of the rear façade and began again. A new three-storey extension spans the basement, ground and first-floor levels, solving the problem of darkness with huge windows.

Patalab created a large, light space with direct access to the garden from the kitchen for this Arts and Crafts home in Hampstead
Patalab created a large, light space with direct access to the garden from the kitchen for this Arts and Crafts home in Hampstead | Image: Julian Abrams

The prime consideration was to link the basement kitchen and dining room to the ground-floor living room. Lowe achieved this by removing a section of the ground floor to create a mezzanine overlooking a now double-height kitchen on the lower-ground level – losing 16sq m of floorspace, but giving the room a dramatic new volume. By using glass balustrades on a floating staircase that rises from the lower ground to the ground floor, the sense of space is greatly magnified. “You now have a wonderful connection between the two living spaces,” says Lowe. “It feels really generous – you don’t feel penned in, which is a luxury in this kind of building.” The loss of space on the ground floor was more than offset by adding extensions to the first and second floors.

Jamie Fobert, director of Jamie Fobert Architects, also opted for a double-height solution when redesigning a Victorian house in Primrose Hill. The property had serious structural issues that needed shoring up, and although the upper-ground floor had elegant room dimensions, it had no connection to the back garden, while the lower-ground floor, which did lead directly to the garden, had low-ceilinged, mean, little rooms that the owners found oppressive. What the client wanted was large, modern, light living spaces and good views of the garden – and they were willing to sacrifice floorspace to get what Fobert describes as “a really amazing lower ground”. Fobert made lemonade out of lemons by merging the upper- and lower-ground floors and inserting a large concrete slab through the property. This not only stabilised the house, but makes a punchy visual statement that dominates the main communal rooms.

The kitchen extension Bureau de Change designed for this Crouch End home features folds and skylights in the ceiling, creating an intriguing play of light and shadow
The kitchen extension Bureau de Change designed for this Crouch End home features folds and skylights in the ceiling, creating an intriguing play of light and shadow | Image: Bureau de Change

While the house has been carved up and reimagined, the project is still a subtle one. “One of the things I really like is that when you walk down the street there is no distinction between it and its neighbours – there is nothing that gives away the magic within,” says Fobert.

The issue of outside space is one that’s challenging for Londoners – particularly apartment-dwellers for whom creating a new garden or terrace can be troublesome, especially within a listed building. When the owners of a three-floor apartment on the upper levels of a Grade-II listed building in Marylebone decided they wanted an extra floor incorporating a roof garden, but didn’t want to move house to get one, they went to Robert Dye of Robert Dye Architects. Dye persuaded Westminster Council to allow him to add an extra storey, arguing that the other houses on the street already had a fourth floor. He then employed some deft visual trickery to overcome planning and conservation issues by hiding the new terrace behind a dummy mansard roof at the street-facing front of the building. Behind it, he created an open terrace and a glazed “sky room” featuring a sheltered seating area and handy kitchenette. The total cost was about £150,000.

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But extensions are not the only upgrades being deployed to add value to homes; owners are also turning to fine craftsmanship and interesting and rare materials.Nine blocks of travertine were used by Fobert to create a bespoke staircase linking two apartments on the third and fourth floors of a building in central London – two discrete properties, both purchased by his client with a view to creating one apartment. This curved sculpture of a staircase was very much a labour of love for the owners, who joined Fobert on a recce trip around Italy in search of just the right shade of silver-grey stone, eventually tracking it down in a quarry between Siena and Florence.

The project was extremely complex and caused considerable structural upheaval – a steel plate had to be inserted into the building to bear the weight of the stone – but Fobert believes that as a central feature it was more than worth the effort. “It’s not just a staircase linking the flats; it’s a statement, and looks like the hallway to a gracious house,” he explains. “It imparts a grandeur of volume that did not exist before.” And, he adds, “part of the pleasure of this project for the clients was going in search of the right stone for their stairs.”

Choice of material was also central to the redesign of a tiny, dark mews house in Lancaster Gate in central London. Phil Coffey, director of Coffey Architects, selected white American oak – one of a handful of what he calls “noble” materials, which, he notes, “only improve with age and develop a patina” – and used it to create a “big piece of joinery sitting between two party walls”. After gutting the inside of the house, he linked the newly open-plan spaces with a staircase made from geometrically immaculate horizontal oak timbers inserted into the walls. These have a lengthening effect, and the open treads of the staircase together with a series of new glass landings allow daylight to filter right through to the back of this single-aspect house. A concrete fireplace at the foot of the stairs adds drama.

Coffey stuck to a very limited palette of materials – almost exclusively oak, glass and Corian – to make the 90sq m property feel bigger. “It’s very simply detailed,” he concedes, “but it is all bespoke design – and that is the most luxurious thing of all.

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