One bus, five houses

Coffey Architects is at home in Islington. Phil Coffey lives there and his young practice is in Clerkenwell, in the south of the London borough. For Open House this year, he took people on a guided tour of five of his houses along the No 19 bus route

Hop on, hop off – you only need one bus to see Coffey’s Islington portfolio.
Hop on, hop off – you only need one bus to see Coffey’s Islington portfolio.

The spiritual home of ‘New Labour’, Islington has always appealed to young professionals wanting to live within easy access of the City and the West End. Of the 32 London boroughs, it has the second highest population density (after Kensington and Chelsea) and very little green space – only the City of London has less.

Islington has a fantastic range of properties with classic Georgian and Victorian terraces dating back to 1780, and inserting modern additions into this historical context is challenging. Permitted development rights are not available to owners of flats or for properties in conservation areas, and the district is covered with conservation areas.
The complex urban grain of Islington offers many housing types, but there are some consistent themes. In section, homes here tend to be top heavy for modern living, that is, lots of bedrooms with little living space. The middle room on the ground floor of terraced houses is often under-used and isolated; and a better connection to the garden is generally top of the client wish list.

Adapting existing homes for modern living has its limits. The scale and complexity of extensions is often challenged at planning stage.

Modern Terrace, Coffey’s own house, has a real fire with a real bucket in the dining room.
Modern Terrace, Coffey’s own house, has a real fire with a real bucket in the dining room. · Credit: Tim Soar

Our architectural responses to these issues can be summarised as: reconsidering circulation for the entire home and any rear/basement extensions; the use of perspective lines that are perceived to extend to the sky or to the garden; the resolution of structure, services and space to carve new light into the heart of the plan; and the use of glazing to connect the living spaces to the gardens of existing homes. 

We try to make homes for clients that are peculiar to the existing site and are not fashionable or idiosyncratic. To that extent we believe they are timeless. We use self-finish materials wherever possible including glass, concrete, stainless steel and timber, reducing the need for maintenance and allowing the homes to age gracefully.

Starting at Angel, Court House is on Danbury Street, a short walk off Upper Street. It’s a three storey end of terrace family home. The project removes a double garage and in its place creates an ‘underground’ living area and study/bedroom with en-suite. The new living space has a roof which offers a decked garden to the existing home. This subterranean space feels spacious and light (not ‘underground’) and it doubles the living space in the home. The central court can be fully opened using aluminium sliding doors. The basement dig and construction were complex, what with being next to a listed building and the difficulty of creating a fully drained garden above.

Section through Well House, with a basement connection to the garden.
Section through Well House, with a basement connection to the garden. · Credit: Tim Soar

On the No 19 bus northwards towards Highbury and Islington, the Modern Terrace is on Whistler Street. The project is a lesson in dimensions and reinforcing the middle of the plan. The staircase climbs through three storeys in the middle of the house, narrowed by the use of stainless steel rope for balustrading. This, along with the removal of the chimney breast, makes room for a double bed in the middle upstairs room. When transforming existing homes 150mm can mean a lot. The open stair also allows for a natural ventilation strategy in these small homes, which can overheat in the summer. Bifold doors at ground level and bifold windows on the top floor create a constant flow of air through the property when temperatures rise. The glazed stair from first to second floor allows light into the dining area on the ground floor with its real fire. 

Crossing Highbury Fields to Ardilaun Road, Well House is a four storey terrace which had mean living areas and a neglected garden. The floor of the low-ceilinged basement has been lowered and this space has been connected to the garden and living area above through the use of an atrium lit by an ocular window with a scissor section incorporating oak stairs. These defined spaces over three levels flow into one another; they provide spaces for living, dining/kitchen and children’s play area. A power floated concrete floor, concrete worktops and fireplace give strength to the architecture, linking the spaces materially. 

Court House, where an underground living area replaces the former garage.
Court House, where an underground living area replaces the former garage. · Credit: Tim Soar

A short walk away towards Green Lanes, Cut House on Leconfield Road is a two bedroom apartment at lower ground level. A generous living volume is created in this small, tight site. The striking section is generated by the desire for a full width extension to the rear of the property while maintaining light to the middle bedroom. The angled roof is expressed internally letting light into the kitchen and increasing head height to the raised garden behind. The oak panel-clad ceiling forms an element which connects to the outside space.

Back on the 19, up to Finsbury Park, and a 10 minute walk to the north is Folded House. This detached house on the borders of Islington occupies a prominent but difficult triangular site. The original house was split in plan and section. The garden was divided in two for privacy reasons and the home’s top floor was only accessible by a narrow secondary stair. The project explores the idea of an architectural promenade. We made a new entrance between the detached house and end of terrace to Lancaster Road. Passing through the lobby area a three storey plywood square spiral stair folds upwards to a massive skylight above. The route continues below the stair towards a woodland view through the kitchen and is terminated by a suggested turn towards the newly configured garden. The new folded geometry is stitched into the cartesian geometry of the existing house through the use of a third ‘irritant’ geometry of recessed lighting.

Working specifically on existing buildings requires much more flexibility on site and a more intense relationship with the project team.

Folded House does just that – it’s an exercise in geometry.
Folded House does just that – it’s an exercise in geometry. · Credit: Tim Soar

But adapting existing homes for modern living has its limits. The scale and complexity of extensions is often challenged at planning stage. Permitted development rights when applicable are helpful: however we have found that many planning departments are less likely to give permission for anything other than would have been acceptable under permitted development anyway. The new rules will help this situation as a 3m extension to the rear of a number of properties is often not deep enough to meet our clients requirements. The suggestion of an increase to 6-8m will make life significantly easier for a large percentage of our residential work. 

The population of Islington is very mobile. Resale values are a very important consideration for most clients and our architecture has been shown to add significant value to all the homes we have improved. But working with clients, contractors and consultants at this scale requires a great deal of trust in order to get through the difficult periods in a project. Working specifically on existing buildings requires much more flexibility on site and a more intense relationship with the project team. The resulting strong relationships have allowed us to benefit from a lot of referral work.

We enjoy visiting our clients and their homes long after the projects are completed. The way people live and grow into homes that we have helped create enable us to design better future homes. Now all we need for future Open House tours is for Mayor Boris to roll out the new Routemaster on the No 19 bus route.

Section through the Cut House, with its angled  kitchen-diner.
Section through the Cut House, with its angled kitchen-diner. · Credit: Tim Soar