As a domestic Architect based in South-East London, my main body of work is extensions… primarily ground floor extensions to period family homes.
In a previous life, I’d spent my working days fashioning city warehouse apartments, one off homes for D-list celebs and hipster workplaces, but in 2006 we had our first child and, in a bid to be more hands on at home, I joined a residential practice in Blackheath, specialising in Victorian and Edwardian extensions.
As our second child arrived, I became doubly familiar with the issues my clients faced as we embarked on building works of our own. In fact, the project coincided with the birth of our daughter… well almost. The first six weeks of my daughter’s life, and our first days as a family of four, were spent with us all in my mother’s bungalow in Bexley.
Moving back to your mum’s, with a toddler and a heavily pregnant wife, is not to be recommended but, despite the upheaval, we haven’t regretted it. Even with a further child, we’ve resisted the temptation of moving away from the area in search of more space. The fact is, that the home we’ve created for ourselves in our Edwardian terrace fits like a glove, albeit one that is a little snug.
Over the years, I’ve met many families faced with the same issues that we faced then – and since: whether to stay put and extend or move further out for more space…. whether to invest in the current home or to cash in on an equity windfall.
The arrival of child three raised the stakes and more recently we toyed with the option of moving further out ourselves but couldn’t bring ourselves to leave our treasured community behind. Admittedly, it was only fifteen minutes down the road, but to us it felt like a world away. On reflection, the works we’ve carried out to the house have extended our relationship with it. A decade after the build, we’re still here and look set for a decade to come.
The alternative was to make a break for more space, bigger gardens and outstanding secondary schools. As the roads get leafier and you move from Victorian and Edwardian to between-the-wars housing stock, there are still the same opportunities to make that space your own and increasing numbers of clients are swapping SW & SE postcodes for broad fronted 20’s and 30’s semis in the outer London boroughs. Had we opted to, we might once more have put our mark on our new home and face down the issues working with those properties can bring.
There are challenges associated with both typologies. Edwardian and Victorian terraces are closer set, with space at a premium. Living cheek by jowl with your neighbours can present issues at each step of the way through both planning and construction. In planning terms, you might be able to build to the limits prescribed by permitted development, but in some Conservation Areas, additional Article 4 directions could apply, removing certain permitted development rights completely. This doesn’t necessarily preclude extension, it merely means that the Planning Department will be involved in determining any application, often with a subjective interpretation of local planning policy. Further guidance on permitted development can be found here.
Outer London Borough’s might have more prescriptive planning design guidance, which can restrict certain development, particularly side extensions. From experience, local authority planning and design officers in these areas can adopt an inflexible approach in determining applications. If your case were to go to a Planning Committee, the lay-people of the committee are likely to be even more conservative themselves, persuaded more by the number of neighbourhood objections than the merits of the individual case.
Despite these challenges, the better designed the scheme and the more convincingly presented your case, the better your chances of getting planning for your project. Extraordinary designs can often encourage planners to reassess their own Supplementary Design Guides (SPD’s). These are for guidance only, and whilst useful to control inappropriate development, should not be seen as a veto on creativity.
Designing to the guidance of some boroughs could result in generic, characterless extensions. There is also the danger of destroying the appearance of the host building by designing something too closely derived from the original. There are plenty of extensions around that might comply with Permitted Development or SPD criteria, but that have fundamental failings, either through poor internal planning or that have a negative impact on the external appearance of the host building.
There is an increased acceptance among planners that extensions should contrast with the host building, to maintain mutual design integrity. Lewisham’s draft SPD, which is shortly to be adopted, includes plenty of caveats to allow for distinctive, high quality design.
Beware though, it is possible to jump through design hoops to obtain planning, only to find that you have a scheme which blows your budget. That said, restrictive (but realistic) budgets can provide the creative inspiration in themselves.
I should throw in a reminder at this point that any scheme built under Permitted Development need only follow the Permitted Development criteria, rather than the SPD. In such cases there are a few fundamental considerations, some of which I’ve dealt with in this MGF article on PD and planning.
The first question raised in that article is do you know what you want? Whilst your Architect (should you make the choice to use one), should be asking you plenty of questions to develop an effective brief, you’ll need to consider how you currently live and how you would like to live, not just now, but also in the future.
Who is the project for?
Is this a long-term family project to enable you to raise children until they (hopefully) fly the nest, or will you need to be mindful of the needs of a generic family that you might one day be selling to, say in 3-5 years?
Does your brief look into the future?
Large open spaces are great for family life, but there comes a point at which it’s Like. Seriously. Not. Cool. to have your parents in the same space as you whilst you do whatever it is that teenagers do. Your delightful three-year-old will become a mono-syllabic fifteen-year-old someday, unless you are very, very lucky.
What dead space are you carrying?
Many period houses have a dead room. It’s the one that you walk through every day, ignoring as you pass through it to your favourite room; or it’s the one that’s crammed full of boxes that you’ve not been through since you moved… three years ago; failing that it’ll be the dining room that, bar Christmas time, is known more commonly as the ironing room.
It may seem that building a shiny new extension beyond the forgotten room, might exacerbate these problems, but careful consideration of the circulation, lighting and roof lighting can breathe life into this space.
Is there a room for you (and maybe your partner)?…
We all need to get away and while being in the thick of family life makes the day pass quickly, sometimes you just need to shut the detritus away and enjoy a box-set in relative peace and order. A drawing room (or even a snug) still has a place in the 21st century.
… or the XBox
The front reception room could be your nod to the past history of the house, all roaring fires and Christmas jumpers… don’t kid yourselves… this is where in ten years, your teenagers will be hogging the screen with their Xbox. Either way, a degree of separation might be worthy of consideration.
Storage, loos and laundry
Self-explanatory really. The more you can tighten up on this, the more space you have to live in. These are also best located at the heart of the house. If you can, consider a first-floor laundry, as this is where all the washing is generated. If you can’t, as is the case with most of us, treat yourself to a nice laundry basket!
Entry and circulation
Don’t feel constrained by the current arrangement of the house. Existing doorways can be repositioned, and walls conjured away… with a building regulations compliant engineering solution (although that sounds somewhat less magical).
Think about how much space you might be wasting by retaining parts of the current layout. Even kitchen locations can be shifted to make greater sense of a new open plan space to the rear.
It’s also worth considering what relationship you want between the front, and the extended rear of the house. Do you want a tardis-esque reveal, behind a closed door, or would you rather look through from the front door all the way to the garden beyond?
If you have the width, you might not need the length
Whenever I look at a house, I consider its width first and foremost. A long narrow extension might simply be creating a thoroughfare from front to back, recreating the forgotten spaces that are so typical of the middle room in a Victorian house. When extending, it is possible that you are simply create more dead space.
Wider properties give more flexibility. You might not need to extend back as far as you think if your house is, say 6m wide or more. Such dimensions are typical of Edwardian terraces; Victorian examples can be as slim as 4.5m, but with potential for side infill extensions; Inter-war housing could be 7m plus.
Sunlight and daylight
The aspect of the house has so many implications. It will define the character of a room through the day. It might inform the orientation of an island, influence the level of roof-lighting you need and whether you’ll need to eat your lunch in sunglasses. It can also dictate how receptive the planners might be to a larger extension, taking into consideration the potential impact on your neighbours.
Get a feel for how the sun travels around your house during the day, across the seasons. Think about your current favourite sunny spot in the house. An extension could change this or relocate it.
Connection to the garden
Inside/ outside living… for most of the year it’s just a cliché that you see in adverts, filmed in the south of France. For a few precious weeks, though, throwing open the doors allows you to live that dream. More tips on making the most of this can be found in my MGF article here.
Chances are, your extension will be designed to improve the connection to the garden. For most period houses, the larger formal rooms will sit to the front, with ancillary rooms, kitchens, sculleries and outside WC’s to the rear. Following a ground floor extension, the largest rooms with the best aspect (visually if not in terms of sunlight/ daylight) will be to the rear. It will and should have a profound impact on the way you live.
There are so many more things to consider, each specific to individual families and house types. I intend to investigate some of these in due course as well as the more practical considerations of extending. Hopefully this introduction is enough to start productive conversations between yourselves and, if you have one, your Architect.
Neel has generously donated his time and expertise in writing this blog for free. If you would like to show your appreciation, we suggest a donation to Shelter, here.
Neel Dakshy RIBA
Neel Dakshy Architecture
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