We can’t resist tinkering with our houses. In the 1980s we knocked through rooms and reached into the rafters to add loft extensions. In the 1990s side passages were glassed over and dusty coal cellars became utility rooms. Next came behemoth basement excavations. Now it’s all about the rear. Terraced houses that appear traditional at the front burst into cavernous open-plan extensions at the back. The glass box, gleaming with marble surfaces and bi-folding doors is every architect’s attempt to bring sunlit Californian modernity to cloudy British climes.
Alan Martin Day and Russell Vandyk, retirees with avant-garde tastes, wanted something different for the back of their north London semi. “We’ve never aspired to the ‘house beautiful’ look,” says Day, “but it was starting to look tatty.” Built in the 1890s for a “Mr Pooter-ish” clerk, the house sits in an end-of-terrace plot embraced by a river that once fed fresh water to London. The Victorian layout had hardly changed. The loftier front rooms spoke of genteel entertaining. Behind, steps descended to the piecemeal former servants’ quarters, still marked with the ghostly traces of the maid’s bell.
For 40 years, the pair says they “made do” with a DIY kitchen and bathroom. The rest of the house functioned as a bohemian guest house for friends and family. “There wasn’t a Damascene moment when we decided to change things. But as you get older you appreciate havinga more aesthetic dimension to your life,” says Day. “Luxury isn’t about cruises or expensive sofas; it’s about beauty – not impressing other people.”
The couple, who used to run a props-making business, handed their architects a “generous” brief. “It was an opportunity to be experimental,” says Ben Allen, whoseeponymous practice is gaining a reputation for spirited, allusive architecture.
“We’re moving away from huge open-plan spaces. The acoustics are awful. And eating, living and watching TV together can feel overwhelming. Covid has made us realise we all need spaces to retreat to,” says Allen, who attributes his colourful, post-minimalist approach to working on projects such as the Serpentine Pavilion for Berlin-based Olafur Eliasson. “Keep it simple was not his office mantra,” says Allen. “If you walk in a forest, the light and atmosphere is constantly changing. Our natural environment is infinitely complex; so having a bit of complexity in our interiors should be a given.”
To bring “intrigue” to the new, two-storey extension, Allen and colleague Omar Ghazal turned to Sir John Soane. Not his grandly neoclassical Bank of England, but the Georgian architect’s eccentric, imaginative home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. “Soane extended his house with an amazing sequence of pavilions, lit in different ways. They forged a link between old and new,” says Allen. “Glass boxes work well in warm southern climates, but English skies can be oppressive. You need a sense of warmth and enclosure.” Instead of gazing up at rain-streaked glazing, a ribbed vault sits below the skylight diffusing the light – like that arboreal canopy – into the double-height kitchen. Arched openings draw your gaze from the kitchen to the dining room where Allen designed the D-ended table and chairs. An Alice in Wonderland-scaled door above the sink opens, like a vintage serving hatch, on to the sitting room. “These connections have made the house feel so much more sociable,” says Vandyk, pointing up to the mezzanine floor, hugged by the blue balustrade. A room was sacrificed to add the new space.
Concrete, not a timber frame, was used to build the extension. “We were inspired by the colour and honesty of Victorian architecture,” says Allen. “The brickwork is decorated, but it’s also load-bearing. What you see is what you get.” At the back, a structural column inscribed with a scallop pattern contrasts with the flat panels of the bathroom. The rich greens, reds and salmon pinks were achieved using earth pigments. Everything – stairs, kitchen counters, benches – was built off-site. “We spent a lot of time exploring options, but the main frame only took three days to build,” says Allen who has named the project the “House Recast”.
The bathroom was another experiment. The shell-shaped shadows of a decorative screen flit across smooth green walls under the domed skylight. The exotic hammam-like feel is a nod to Ghazal’s Jordanian roots mixed with a reference to the Orientalist London home of Victorian painter Sir Frederic Leighton. Designed as a wet room, it has a specially made brass shower head and the sculpted basin looks like a classical pedestal.
Vandyk and Day recently learned that their home has been plucked from 200 other submissions to win the annual Don’t Move, Improve! award. Not that they have ever doubted the uniqueness of their recalibrated interior. It has given them a fresh perspective on the home they have known since their 20s. “From every angle, you always have something different to look at – there’s an ongoing sense of novelty,” says Vandyk.