Simon and Jo Morris made over their home in Hitchin with their architect, transforming it from an open-plan layout to a set of distinct, harmonious spaces that worked better for their growing family
TEXT TOM BODDY IMAGES JWB ARCHITECTS
In the historic market town of Hitchin, Hertfordshire, a Victorian terrace has been delightfully renovated and extended to create a modern and very functional family home. The original layout has undergone a significant overhaul, featuring a loft conversion, the addition of a family bathroom on the first floor, and a spacious rear extension that effectively doubled the size of the original ground floor.
The inception of the project was born out of a practical necessity – after nearly a decade in their home, the homeowners Simon and Jo Morris found themselves yearning for more space as their two young children, Eli and Indi, grew, and their needs evolved.
While they considered the possibility of relocating, Simon and Jo couldn’t bring themselves to leave Hitchin. The town was not only highly commutable to London, which is where Jo worked, but as Simon describes, Hitchin has “its own identity, with plenty of cafes, restaurants and good schools.”
Despite their attachment to the town, the couple recognised the need for a complete reconfiguration of their home to meet the evolving needs of their family.
The existing open-plan design, while having its own charm, occasionally felt cramped. Simon admits, “We did sometimes feel like we got on top of each other, and craved our own space.” Thus, a primary goal of the project was to create distinct areas that allowed privacy within the home.
The biggest restriction of the house’s previous layout was the downstairs bathroom being located at the rear of the ground floor, completely blocking any connection to the garden. To access the garden the family had to go through a side door which was situated next to the downstairs toilet.
Despite the desire for a substantial layout change, the family aimed to preserve elements of the original Victorian design. “The brief was essentially ‘not a box stuck on the end of the house’! We wanted a modern, interesting style but one which worked in harmony with and echoed the forms of the rear of the original property,” explains Simon.
The architect that the couple tasked with the renovation of the home was Joe Williams, of practice JW Bespoke. “We looked at several architects online, but we wanted to find a local one with more creativity to their work than many had,” explains Simon.
The couple were blown away by Joe’s portfolio, and his style, which closely aligned with what they wanted to achieve on their build. As Jo and Simon both work in creative industries (Jo is an account director for a large design and marketing agency, and Simon an interior designer), they had already developed some good ideas, but Simon comments that they “just needed someone to bring these to life in a real and practical way!” Describing Joe’s contribution as “incredible,” the couple credit him for bringing reassurance and a calm demeanour, as well as valuable advice throughout their project.
PLANNING & CONSTRUCTION
Despite the proposal including a large extension, navigating the planning process proved relatively smooth. However, as they were extending approximately 7.5 metres beyond the back of the house, the client and architect were “very conscious” of the neighbours. In an attempt to avoid any possible conflict, they created lower eaves in order to minimise the impact of their home on neighbouring properties.
That said, a neighbour on one side also had ambitions to extend in the future. “We liaised with them and agreed that we could build a new party wall ‘across’ the boundary,” explains architect Joe. This had huge benefits for both parties and made for a much more efficient use of space. Another happy outcome was that he was also subsequently appointed to design and deliver their extension.
The construction process, while efficient, brought its own set of challenges. The builders’ swift progress, though a positive, demanded quick decision-making which left little room to muse on an idea or approach. While the majority of their work was good, unfortunately some of the finishing wasn’t up to Simon and Jo’s standards. “Being a designer with an eye for detail, this was very important to me!” explains Simon.
Not only this but the project was built against the challenging backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, with material shortages and price hikes adding to the stress.
The build also had its challenges from a practical point of view. The house, like many Victorian properties, benefitted from a side access passage from the front through to the rear garden. Joe Williams emphasises, “Maintaining this was important from a practical point of view, but it did present design challenges!”
The passageway’s narrow dimensions meant that only a mini-digger could fit through, meaning that “the build sequence was very important!” explains Joe. Fortunately, both neighbours were helpful and allowed the builders to extend their working area.
Further complications came with more unexpected costs. The area in which the original kitchen had been built was essentially sitting on sand. After discovering this, a completely new floor/foundation was to be constructed.
As with most construction endeavours, managing the budget took a central role. The unexpected costs meant remortgaging became a necessity, not once but twice. “We also had to remortgage for a second time towards the end of the build, as we realised we didn’t have enough to complete the internal aspects such as the new kitchen,” asserts Simon. Despite the kitchen being on a tight budget, the team managed to get clever with a combination of IKEA units and doors, with various suppliers providing other elements. “It doesn’t have the look of a typical IKEA kitchen!”
The initial phase of the project involved the removal of the existing bathroom at the rear of the house. This made way for the primary extension encompassing a new modern kitchen, dining and seating area. It also facilitated the incorporation of additional storage, a combined downstairs WC and utility room, with a refined lounge space with ample room for a piano.
The extension has aluminium, Crittall-style doors which open directly onto the slate tiled patio and out into the garden, providing a much more cohesive living and entertaining space. “We use the garden so much more than we used to as we now also have a back gate onto the alley behind our house leading directly up to the kids’ schools, which is very handy! It has completely changed the way we live; we always say it is like having a new house!” asserts Simon.
The architect Joe says the challenge in terms of the new layout was deciding where to locate the new family bathroom, a decision which would have a major impact on the current bedroom arrangement. In the end it was decided to move it into a further first floor extension. Joe explains: “We also opted to extend upwards, also forming a loft conversion with a dormer window.”
This redesign has not only added more living space downstairs but has also provided the children with their own areas. “By doing the loft conversion it has given our son a really good space for him to bring his friends back to,” says Simon. “He is a very keen drummer and the space allows him to have rehearsals up there with his friends. Given they are hidden away at the top of the house it has not been too disruptive, however you would have to ask the neighbours for their side of the story!”
Downstairs, the interior conveys a modern, sleek aesthetic, blending bold contrasts of black and white with the warmth of natural wood. “We wanted to achieve a space that didn’t feel the same as so many current interior schemes with the standard shaker kitchens with oak herringbone flooring,” says Simon. The aim was to achieve a contemporary design that also gave a nod to the original house’s character.
The kitchen features thin 12 mm marble-effect worktops, with a large island built with an integrated sink and brass tap. A separate built in hot drink/breakfast alcove within the kitchen units sits adjacent to this. The combination of oak veneered doors and matte black doors creates an overall sense of elegance in the space.
The couple also “couldn’t resist” choosing the jet black satin finish engineered wooden floor for the kitchen. “We could have had tiles but I’m not a fan of kitchen spaces that have tiled sections with wooden sections for the rest of the room. I prefer a floor that unifies a space,” explains Simon.
The theme of black extends throughout the home. One side of the new extension is painted completely black, including the sloped ceiling which counter-intuitively makes it feel much larger. “Black is an elegant, contemporary colour, and has so much depth. I much prefer it to the grey interiors which have become so ubiquitous,” says Simon.
The extension has delivered two generously sized bedrooms, as well as the new family bathroom, front living/TV room, and a large bedroom with expansive views from the loft room. “As with any extension to an existing house, making it feel part of the home, without the need to weave through endless corridors, is important,” asserts Joe. “But I think we achieved it here.”
Joe puts an emphasis on designing a route through the extended house that feels as though it ‘could have always been that way.’ The exception is arriving at the new open
plan space to the rear which hits you with “the wow factor” – it’s an area filled with light, space, different levels and forms, which all provide a canvas for contemporary interior design finishes.
“It all combines to create a really warm environment that makes you feel cosy and comfortable straight away, while also being super striking and contemporary,” explains Joe.
The external aesthetic of the renovation draws inspiration from the original house’s shapes and forms. An interesting aspect of the original home was that, despite being in a row of terraces, the plots were taken on by different builders at that time, so there are subtle variations in their design.
Its original exterior boasted an asymmetric nature which the team wanted to introduce into the rear elevation of the extension. The team were also keen to avoid a large set of doors at the rear. “Having a separate window is super practical for natural ventilation – particularly when combined with the small window to the rear of the kitchen space for cross-winds,” explains Joe.
The picture window serves the dining space and provides another cosy nook for reading or pondering while looking out to the garden. A charred larch cladding was then specified for the recessed section, to contrast but also complement the brickwork.
Some sustainability considerations were woven into the project, with bricks sourced from large developments in London and the installation of a new gas combi boiler,
coupled with underfloor heating. While low energy was not the couple’s primary focus, the measures reflected a conscientious approach to environmental impact within the project’s budget.
Now comfortably settled into their transformed home, the family are very happy with the way it’s turned out. They have found joy in the newly separated spaces – each area having its distinct purpose, from the front living/TV room to the large kitchen extension that now serves as the heart of the house. In stark contrast to the previous layout, the downstairs area is now a blend of openness and privacy, providing a balance of social and more tranquil, private spaces.
Reflecting on the project’s success, the couple’s architect expresses particular satisfaction with the ‘can-do’ nature that defined his clients’ attitude. Despite budget constraints and the unforeseen impact of external pressures like the pandemic, Joe enthuses: “Simon and Jo knuckled down and pulled through to create such a wonderful home that will serve them for many years to come.”