London house extension exemplifies next generation's way of working

Words:
Tszwai So

Web savvy and client focused, Architecture for London is not bound by the old rules in how it wins commissions, or executes them, as at this Victorian villa in Dartmouth Park

Exposed beams will weather differently indoors and outdoors.
Exposed beams will weather differently indoors and outdoors. Credit: Christian Brailey

A five-minute walk from Tufnell Park tube station towards Highgate, up a gentle climb, brings a large, detached, mid-Victorian villa in sight. The London setting has long since turned its buff bricks dark brown. For the last three decades of the 20th century it was a dental clinic, before being converted back into a single dwelling in recent years.

The principal elevation of the original house is three bays wide, flanked by later single storey extensions on each side, one of them a garage. The layout and the fenestration were typical Victorian speculative pattern book design; only three small French doors linked the rooms to the rear garden.

When the client bought the property in 2014, she felt strongly about opening the back of the house to better connect with the garden: ‘It (the property) needed some love,’ she said. Without any previous experience of commissioning an architect, she  shortlisted several from the internet including Architecture for London (AFL) . It was a relatively new office founded by a talented and entrepreneurial young architect and RIBAJ Rising Star Ben Ridley, who had a very clear road map for his emerging practice. 

Ridley understands that in the age of social media the old-school architectural business model of leveraging personal connections is out of touch. Naming the practice Architecture for London was a smart move, pushing his firm up the Google rankings. This, together with a website that genuinely communicates to the customers rather than other architects, resulted in patrons chasing after his practice, not vice versa.

Ridley was the first to be interviewed by the client and he immediately won her over; she appointed AFL straight away without meeting any of the other architects on the shortlist. His swift but effective drawing captured and expanded the client’s vision for her home. It was done with a deep understanding of the rules within a conservation area, so it was no surprise that the scheme sailed through the system with no objections nor complications. The completed extension looks pretty much the same as the napkin sketch which set the tone for the project.
 

  • The central white cube appears pushed up to make space for a barbecue table.
    The central white cube appears pushed up to make space for a barbecue table. Credit: Christian Brailey
  • Extensive glazing in chunky oak frames delivers the connection to the garden.
    Extensive glazing in chunky oak frames delivers the connection to the garden. Credit: Christian Brailey
  • The sliding doors that connect the living space to the garden as briefed by the client to AFL.
    The sliding doors that connect the living space to the garden as briefed by the client to AFL. Credit: Christian Brailey.
  • New bathroom at Architecture for London's Dartmouth Park House.
    New bathroom at Architecture for London's Dartmouth Park House. Credit: Christian Brailey.
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AFL understands that the old-school architectural business model is outdated

It was a full retrofit job, but the most drastic interventions were on the ground floor. Here a 17 metre wide rear extension, more than 4m deep, spans five bays, adding over 60m2 internal floor space to the house. It is clad in Portland stone, which Ridley says is a nod to the Chiswick House Café by Caruso St John, with its shelly texture and natural variations. 

This extension replaced a small two-storey one previously occupying the central bay. On the first floor, the vacuum left by this demolition was filled by a new volume, also clad in Portland stone. Externally the extension manifests itself as an interesting interplay between solids and voids, and seen from the rear garden it gives the impression that the white cube now in the central bay was deliberately pushed up to leave space underneath for the outdoor barbecue table.

The interior space cannot be fully appreciated without taking into account how the whole of the ground floor has been rearranged, while retaining some of the walls. The new layout essentially consists of three large ‘chambers’ defined by the three bays on the principal elevation running parallel to each other from front to back. They are connected by large fire-rated pocket doors kept open most of the time – somehow AFL managed to convince the inspector to sign them off – making the transitions from one chamber to another less abrupt.

The central chamber is the entrance lobby, where your eyes are drawn naturally to the back of the house and a new solid oak door with a large clear glass panel in the middle, framing the view of the garden in the distance. 

The chamber to the left is the new parlour and here all the Victorian fireplaces, cornices and ceiling roses have been sympathetically preserved and restored. The chamber to the right accommodates a sitting area to the front and the kitchen in the middle, unified by a dropped ceiling with peripheral LED strips. It also contains the dining space to the rear within the new extension. 

At the garden end of all three chambers AFL used expensive and chunky solid oak frames almost 3.5m high, glazed with large panes that fulfil the client’s brief for better connection with the garden and outdoor space.

For a 4m deep single storey rear extension, the standard solution would be to run the roof joists or rafters from back to front, but AFL decided to run them parallel to the rear wall of the house, avoiding an awkward clash where the new beams would have met the original house – an arrangement the practice had used before in a smaller scale extension in north London. Top notch concrete beams prefabricated in Denmark were used to satisfy the unusual span with smaller sections, and because they could be left exposed both internally and externally. Nevertheless the beams outside will no doubt weather differently to the ones inside, and only time will tell whether they are worthwhile. Externally, the Portland stone wall on the ground floor was skilfully set at a slight angle to the rear wall line, a barely noticeable but a delightful touch.

The influence of the client’s preferences is much more obvious upstairs. For example, on the first landing one is greeted with a full height replica of a tube station wall, complete with the Tufnell Park name. There is also a bath tub in the middle of the master bedroom; it is a private retreat, so why not? AFL’s measured rear extension, the sympathetic restoration of Victorian features on the ground floor and the eccentricity of the decor on upper floors make a fine cocktail.

There is a logic behind every design decision, and it’s evident that the practice is experimenting with something new every time it secures a commission, building on the knowledge acquired during previous projects.

 

The prefabricated concrete beams in the dining area.
The prefabricated concrete beams in the dining area. Credit: Christian Brailey

Perhaps it is time for the canonical history of architecture to treat house extensions more seriously as a typology. Such projects offer young and talented architects a platform on which they can test out fresh ideas early in their careers: one can trace the origin of the sculptural quality of Alison Brooks’ mature works to her early extensions, for instance. A clever ceiling detail found in a modest extension today could crown a museum hall tomorrow. 

AFL seem to be less bothered about intellectualising its designs, but more interested in the act of making buildings. In a sense it is the product of a new era of social media, which has no precedent – and the social media have no time for obscure architectural theories.

It might be a bit premature to predict how this charming yet pragmatic extension in Tufnell Park might influence architecture as a whole. Although stylistically it clearly has a familiar aura at least partially inspired by a certain school of thought, the architects behind it resist any suggestions of a house style – it’s too tempting for architectural historians and critics to only look out for repeating visual traits in an architect’s body of work, overlooking the new thinking that goes into each project. 

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