Practice partners Gill Lambert and Geoff Shearcroft on adapting and expanding their Victorian semi to meet the needs of their family of five
Who is the project for, and what was the brief?
Forest House is our family home; both of us are architects and directors at AOC. After four years living in the house, we wanted to adapt it to meet the needs of our family of five. The existing house was a Victorian semi on a tree-lined street in Highams Park, north-east London. It’s a classic railway suburb, with a range of semis and terraces built around the British Xylonite Company’s 1897 factory, which once employed 1,000 workers.
The neighbourhood has a similar density to where we previously lived in Hackney but, sitting on the edge of London, it allows us to easily enjoy the wild expanses of the forest, reservoirs and industrial estates of the periphery. We loved the comfortable intimacy of the well-proportioned rooms but wanted to introduce the spatial generosity and experiential joy that we experience in the nearby Epping Forest.
How does the work respond to the context?
The house is 7m wide and sits on an 11m-wide plot – an anomaly on the street. We removed the existing single-storey garage and built a set of new connected spaces wrapping around the side and rear of the house. A triple-height space sits at the heart of the home, pushing out into a garden room, overlooked by a mezzanine studio, with an attic room perched above.
Our proposals exceeded the opportunities of permitted development and were visible from the highway, on a street that has changed little over the past century but is not a conservation area. The primary focus of the planning officer was the subservience of the extension to the main house, to ensure we maintained the primacy of the semi-detached pairing. At the rear we had a relatively free hand, introducing a new figure to the ad-hoc, lumpy landscape of gardens, conservatories, dormers and sheds.
How did you treat the exterior?
The front of the building responds to the existing house’s brick facade with an inverted palette of white bricks and red precast concrete lintels. The front wall is set back from the main house but the eaves extend out to meet it, a peaked hat from under which to watch the street.
The rear of the house, with long views over neighbouring gardens to the forest, is clad in woven hazel, its provisional nature seeming to invite the wild in. A concrete plinth, cast against the cladding to extend its texture, provides a robust base and bench.
How were the interiors designed?
The stacked floors of the wraparound extension support family life by providing different spatial characters for different uses within one shared space. The new living spaces have an external quality, enclosed by bomb-damaged brick walls and exposed blockwork. Natural light from all angles bathes the interior in unexpected ways. Generous openings frame the garden, forest and sky, enhancing the connection with the outdoors. A large sliding window above a Douglas fir bench runs the width of the extension, allowing the interior to open up to the fragrant wild garden, where tall verbena and wildflowers brush against the windows and rainwater runs into a collecting fountain.
Raw, economical materials heighten the haptic delights of refined bespoke elements. Timbers are used as surface linings inside and out, with woven hazel, Douglas fir, spruce ply and cork bark chosen for their colour, associations and sensory delight. An array of greens, painted and mineral, respond to both the vibrancy and calm of the forest.
What was the biggest challenge you faced?
We were keen for the texture of the woven hazel to be ‘sampled’ in the concrete base, introducing a soft variety into a hard, homogenous material. In our initial attempts to cast concrete against woven hazel, the shuttering deflected significantly and became enmeshed, making it difficult to remove. By fixing the woven hazel to ply and significantly increasing the number of nail fixings in the hazel, we established the necessary stiffness for the in-situ pour. We then carefully applied mortar to the gaps in the shuttering, filling air holes while maintaining the found texture of the hazel. The poured plinth has the relaxed variety of the woven hazel but provides a weighty foil to its loose layers.
What is your favourite aspect of the project?
The interlocking volumes of the wraparound are tethered by a stacked totem made from a brushed stainless-steel fridge, a pink, painted wine rack and a cork bark balustrade. Once this was installed, we asked our builder if he could give the straight top edge of the balustrade a slight curve. Ten minutes later, with the help of a jigsaw, a water pipe and a very steady hand, our smiling balustrade was born. It makes the space, creating a distinct, benign figure at the centre of the house, around which family life evolves. Further curves appear in the adjacent kitchen to soften the impact of the geometries and complement the character of the totem.
Which aspects would you do again, and which wouldn’t you?
Living on site during a major house redevelopment – through the first pandemic lockdown with the associated remote working and home learning – was both wonderful and challenging in equal measures. Being on site meant that we could be closer to the evolution of the project, and allowed the family to enjoy watching things take shape. However, we probably wouldn’t want to repeat the extreme limitations of living conditions again!
The house gave us the opportunity to explore a very positive collaboration with a brilliant contractor. The trust between us, which had developed over previous projects, ensured a genuinely creative relationship for the redevelopment of an existing building, rooted in a shared understanding of budget and time. Architect and builder both proposed and tested improvements on site, allowing the design to evolve in response to a changing appreciation of the spaces and their materials.
Contract cost Confidential
Gross internal floor area before 154.7m2
Gross internal floor area after 195.9m2
Time on site 13 months
Clients Gill Lambert and Geoff Shearcroft
Structural engineer Hockaday
Main contractor BWP
Bespoke kitchen Harbour Joinery Workshop