Coppin Dockray has restored and enlarged a light-filled Trevor Dannatt house that was rotting into a wilderness
Homes with walls of glass seem to be a modern trope long overdue a rethink, for the blunt instrument of plate glass transparency as much as for the thermal losses. The precursor in the sixties was a more subtle treatment that can make a moment, bring a smile and transform a brick wall into a dappled under-canopy. In a newly revived house in Hampstead, north London, Trevor Dannatt – better known for his work for the London County Council and on the Royal Festival Hall – designed such a building.
Its new owners had walked past for years taking children to school, but the overgrown laurels and yew meant they had never even seen the house itself. And when they made their way through the tunnel of trees on their first visit it was to find a dark entrance, which looked distinctly unpromising with its rotting window frames. But as soon as they had stepped inside they ditched the estate agents’ advice to raze the house and think of this as a plot for development.
It was the light that captured them; scooped in from the south through high clerestories, brought in on corners and around a courtyard. And much of the work of Coppin Dockray has been to reveal the original light-tempered volumes. As much technical ingenuity and architectural attention has gone into ensuring the family home has a seamless flow, remaking the extensive windows, creating a warm building that wouldn’t overheat and rebuilding a second storey bedroom extension.
The plot is in the garden of the one of the neighbouring Edwardian villas, as attested to by the old fruit trees. Once 32 of the less precious trees had been felled the original structure became clearer. Facing into the garden is a 52m² pavilion-like room; its south facing corner carved into windows catching the warmth of the sun and with north views of the garden either side of a chimney piece. This has been turned from an L-shaped room with corner study to a grand room that feels as large as the rest of the house. It doesn’t quite know what it is yet, part sun room, part snug, part dining, part gallery and library. Though it is a lovely space, it is perhaps hard to use and it is possible to foresee internal partitions going back up.
On the street-side a tightly planned single storey block with four monkish bedrooms, that set up a banal rhythm to the facade, has been replanned and extended by Coppin Dockray to house three larger bedrooms. In the 1980s this pavilion was given a mansard roof to add bedrooms, a staircase uncomfortably squeezed in. Coppin Dockray has rebuilt this entirely as a dark sculpted box.
Between the two large volumes is smaller one; a garden room looking out onto a wilderness of a courtyard and a kitchen with little space to manoeuvre. When Coppin Dockray inspected the house this had been extended into the original covered parking to the site line, along the back of the house.
The almost-invisible front door is tucked into the side of the building. A narrow entry sequence rapidly opens up and it is here that the flow of living spaces created by Coppin Dockray is most tangible. Four tiled timber steps lead into the one-time garden room, now occupied by an informal table where the family of six naturally gather, looking out at the spare forms of silver birch in the courtyard, and in towards the delicate projecting counter. This, with a high level ledge, suggests a comfortable division between the ‘being’ of the table and the ‘making’ of the kitchen, where it runs alongside a textured work surfaces into a comfortable play or study space looking onto its own courtyard.
As soon as they stepped inside they ditched advice to raze the house; the light captured them
Having taken one route through the building, I follow the hosts back to crux of the house where dogs and children converge as shoes are pulled on, book bags grabbed and forgotten things remembered. Down those steps alongside the front door and into the light double height space of the new stair where once sat an en-suite (you can nip left for the laundry room). The staircase curls up elegantly with a sweet chestnut banister – the 32 models made to get it right proving their value. Upstairs a very rational set of three rooms – two bedrooms and a study for writing – lead off the landing; the two corner rooms of this new extension drinking in as much light as possible.
So that is the tour of the house over. The sun has come out, revealing the complexity of the light from different angles. The texture of the brick floor and materiality of concrete is gently modulated by the smooth sweet chestnut joinery that runs through both. Only the occasional vent gives away that it hides not just storage but also air conditioning; this the first time Coppin Dockray has put it in a residential project. But despite the remarkable temperatures in the summer of 2022 – up to 40˚C in London – the family reports that they only used it once. That is perhaps testament to much work on ventilation and insulation, with roof vents, doors and windows easily opened. ‘The doors were just open from May to July,’ says the family – which was made easier by some being designed as stable doors to prevent dogs and small children straying too far.
The reworking of the house brought a predicted saving of 59% in carbon emissions. Timber-framed double-glazed windows with low U- and G-values made a huge difference, particularly since this building has so many windows. There is also a lot of roof for a relatively modest-sized house; these were stripped and insulation added, tapering off at the edges to keep a slim profile. Where floors surfaces changed they were insulated too. And extra summer shading is already growing delicately around the house with silver birches in the south-facing courtyard.
It’s a lovely space, although it is possible to foresee internal partitions going back up
The architect speaks of the remarkable qualities of the house, both then and now: ‘For such a slender north-facing building, it enjoys a surprising and constant in-between quality: never either fully interior nor exterior.’ This revival is the work of an intelligent, thoughtful and sometimes painstaking team at the very tiny practice of Coppin Dockray – primarily two women, Sandra and Bev. It has the hallmarks of two of their early projects, on David Levitt’s Anstey Plum in Wiltshire and Jørn Utzon’s Ahm House in Hertfordshire. Followers of The Modern House may have been hankering after such buildings for years, but Coppin Dockray really brings them back to life beyond their visual qualities alone; the practice enlists a deep understanding of both the spatial qualities of family dynamics and the technical demands of bringing a building back to life to operate in a time of climate emergency.
Gross internal area 299m²
Gross external area 337m²
CO2/m² predicted 25.05kg
CO2/m² original building 60.76kg
Form of contract JCT ICD with Contractor’s design 2016
Architect/interiors Coppin Dockray
Garden designer Jane Brockbank Gardens
Lighting designer Lightplan
Structural engineer SDS Studio
Services engineer Jones King
Acoustic consultant Hann Tucker
Approved building inspector Shore
Contractor Sherlock London
Black aluminium rainscreen trays Millimetre
Standing seam zinc roofs Rheinzinc
New bricks Edenhall, now Marshalls Brick and Masonry
Windows and external doors K&D joinery
Cement floor tiles Popham
Wall/mosaic tiles Domus
Timber floors Thorpes
Joinery Artichoke/NBJ Beesting & Stone
Sanitaryware Duravit, Vola