A growing family in a London conservation area sought the help of an architect close to home to help them expand their modest property for the long-term, having caught the extension bug on an earlier project
TEXT TOM BODDY IMAGES WILL SCOTT
Gary and Kate Westlake, and their one-year-old son, moved into an end-of-terrace home in Blackheath Vale, south London, in 2004. At that time, while having a fairly straightforward layout with two-storeys at the front and one at the back, it served their needs. But when their second child was born it was clear they were going to need more space.
Looking at extending, they were fortunate that Kate’s brother Ben is an architect (founder of Minifie Architects), so embarking on their own construction project was a less daunting prospect. A few years later – in 2012 – and after establishing which parts of the home should be improved, they completed a traditional kitchen side return extension, which made “a massive difference,” says Gary. “Straightaway, from being in a terraced house with restricted space and a galley-style kitchen, we now had a table that you can get eight people around.” The extension featured a glass roof that spanned the length of the kitchen, creating a room filled with natural light throughout the day. Gary says it has become the “hub of the house.”
This project only fuelled their urge to go further. Their children were also growing, to say the least – their by then late teenage son was approaching six foot six tall! “Other parts of the house such as the bedrooms just needed an increase in space,” says Gary.
At this point, the family had two options: remain and try and work out ways of adding space, or look to move, and for a while they pursued this idea. However as they wanted to stay in the area, there was a lack of suitable properties within their budget, or any ‘projects’ that “were interesting enough,” says Gary. Owning a graphic design company, Gary has a strong enthusiasm for architectural design, so a house that would allow them to be creative was a top priority. “I wanted a ‘doer upper’, something we could make our own mark on.” Given that this wasn’t possible, they decided to work with their home, and approached Ben a second time to gather some ideas; in the event, Gary would work closely with Ben on the design.
“Ben and I had some really long conversations about architecture, and we came up with some really cool ideas,” says Gary. The brief was to maximise the footprint as much as possible, and reimagine the space – “do something really interesting with it.” In terms of specifics, they wanted to increase the size of the children’s bedrooms, giving them enough room to do school work. Downstairs, the aim was to create extra recreational space such as a lounge – says Gary, “I wanted another room where you can break away so we’re not all fighting over the channels, or just somewhere to go and read a book.” They also somehow wanted to retain space for a bathroom.
With their requirements and ideas agreed, Ben and Gary began drawing up plans. However, some design complications stood in their way.
As the house is in a conservation area, its exterior detailing had to be carefully considered, including sensitivity about what external finishes should be specified. Even though the original intent was to use modern materials to clad the back of the house, the planners insisted on using London stock bricks. “There were things like that where we completely respected the planning and the conservation stipulation of using certain materials in certain areas,” says Gary.
Another complication was their idea to include a dormer at the rear. As this would be the first one on the street, Ben was sceptical about its chances of getting through planning. However, as he had worked on the kitchen back in 2012, he’d got to know the planner quite well and spoke to him regularly, tweaking drawings and ideas as they went along. On top of this, to avoid any last minute immediate objections, the team involved the neighbours throughout the planning process, communicating with them as much as possible.
Three months after submission, planning was granted, despite Ben and Gary’s nervousness about the dormer. “We thought the dormer was going to be a non-starter, and some of our ideas were just going to be too big of an ask,” says Gary.
TAKING MATTERS INTO HIS OWN HANDS
Construction started in December 2019 and continued until June 2020. To keep costs down, Gary and Kate decided to stay in the house. This was a decision that Gary came to regret during some of the more disruptive parts of the build.
“Ben played a significant role at the start,” says Gary, “he was often onsite, and always at critical stages, managing our expectations and having good dialogue with the contractor.” The contractor not only knew Ben from the previous job, but had also worked on other builds in the street. That preexisting trust was vindicated by a considerable part of the build which was smooth sailing.
However towards the latter stages of the renovation things became problematic. Covid hit and derailed different aspects of the build – materials were in short supply and builders and tradesmen stopped turning up, and it became “a bit of a bumpy ride,” says Gary.
While the actual house was complete, the garden room and certain finishes were not. Gary: “The contractor didn’t desert us, and we were still having good conversations, but it just got to the point where things weren’t being done quickly enough.” With this in mind, the Westlakes cut ties and moved on.
Gary reached out to other companies but because of the pandemic’s unpredictability, people were cautious to take on new jobs. This is where Gary bravely decided to take matters into his own hands. “I realised that I could probably do some of the work myself, and during lockdown I was at home a lot more, which meant I could be a lot more hands on.”
Despite the challenging tasks that lay ahead, Gary felt he was back in control. With help of Youtube videos, a Speedy tool hire account, and Ben on hand to explain various construction processes, Gary managed to clad the whole rear of the house, finish all fencing work, and reposition the footings, drainage and bulkhead on the front of the garden room, so that a window could be fitted. “I also laid the floor and finished some cabinetry. I even bought a router!” says Gary.
A further challenge was added into the mix by the arrival of Luna the Cockapoo during the build; an “interesting decision,” says Gary. “I’ve been pressured to get a dog for years, and have always said ‘only if we get a bigger house’. So even though we’d yet to finish, I agreed,” he says ruefully, adding: “I can’t be that Dad of whom your daughter later says I never bought her a puppy – I gave in.”
MAXIMISING THE SPACE
From being a confined end of terrace dwelling, the Westlakes’ home has been transformed into a commodious and contemporary space, filled with creative design solutions and unusual features to utilise the smaller areas. Originally 1100 ft², the renovation added a further 700 ft² to the home.
A two-storey extension has been built across the driveway to exploit what land is available. Ensuring that this extension maximised the space, the walls have been made as slim as possible, using brick slips. Rather than using off the shelf systems however, the contractor cut down the London stock bricks used elsewhere, to clad the side of the extension. “Traditional bricks would have eaten into the footprint of the interior, so we found a solution with the contractor. When you look at it, it looks like a full brick. It works really well,” says Gary.
Spanning half the length of the house, the extension has enabled the house’s interior to be reinvented. The original bathroom has been shifted to create a snug room, a single bedroom, and turned their son’s room into a double bedroom, allowing enough space for a desk to do his sixth form schoolwork on.
The 3 m2 snug room has not only met the brief of extra recreational space, but has also allowed them to keep a downstairs bathroom. As a compromise however, it only left a narrow galley-style space which wasn’t big enough for a conventional bathroom – this was where Ben had to be inventive. The solution was to integrate a large Victorian-style sunken bath which you step down into, occupying virtually the entire room. On the walls, 3.5 metre x 2 metre floral ceramic panels create the desired impression of a jungle-themed spa, and make
it a popular room with the children, and their friends.
The snug features a bespoke, frameless oriel window that wraps over the roof with a cantilevered seating area facing out into the garden. Gary says “when sitting in there, it feels like you’re outside.” In the evening, two hidden, retractable wooden pocket screens can be pulled out to act as blinds for privacy, and LED strips on the walls and ceiling light up the room. Again making the most of the limited space, the sofa bed enables the snug to convert into a guest bedroom when needed.
Upstairs, the “box room” loft has been converted into a mezzanine bedroom for their daughter. “The previous space was too small for a double bed, and had very little head height – probably why no one on the street had built into the loft before,” says Gary. Underneath, Gary and Kate’s ensuite has been lowered to further increase the space. The controversial dormer adds internal space and provides views looking out over the heath.
Where possible, features are multi-functional here too. The upholstered headboard doubles up as a wardrobe, and the bespoke cabinetry such as the storage under the stairs helps utilise every nook and cranny. The stairs leading up to the bedroom’s upper level uses a glass balustrade to connect the space visually. “We avoided using a wooden balustrade as it would interfere with the looks of the bedroom – because effectively it’s still a fairly small space,” says Gary. Their daughter’s room now has a double bed and a vanity unit, and on its lower level, a desk.
In the garden, two old sheds have been replaced by a multi-purpose outdoor room. It acts as a home office during the week, and converts into an entertainment area for the family with DJ decks, TV and a bar on weekends. The flooring in the garden room as well as other outside areas replicates the tiling used in the original kitchen project back in 2012, creating a seamless look that flows from inside to outside.
The interior detailing throughout the home has been largely influenced by Ben, who made recommendations such as the designs for the lighting and flooring. But some inspiration also came from Gary’s work in graphic design. “I travel quite a bit, and am constantly exposed to different detailing and designs,” he says. Examples on the build include the Scandinavian references such as the birch ply in the snug, and the “hit and miss screening” which Gary saw in Japan. “I created mood boards and shared them with Ben regularly, then he pointed me in the right direction as well as giving a reality check on things.”
As Gary wasn’t willing to compromise on any aspects of the design, they did overspend. “We were probably about 30% over budget, but it was just important for me that once we were on this journey, I wanted to execute it against our original vision.”
The Westlakes have achieved exactly what they set out to do, and even though there were hiccups along the way, they love their new home, which has transformed the way they live. Gary and Ben’s already strong collaborative relationship, which was reinforced on the project, was a major factor. Gary admits: “I think if I was not willing to invest time, or have that aspiration, or not willing to spend money in certain areas, then there might have been more tension between us.” However, he adds: “Once we decided to go for it, we jumped in with two feet.”