Seeing the light

Sally and David Jensen love their Edwardian home, so they found extra space for their growing family with a clever rear extension


Sally and David bought their Edwardian mid-terrace home in 2018. The couple loved the property and its location in Greater London, but with two small boys, the house was beginning to fill with all the clutter of family life. Rather than move, however, the couple decided to extend.

“It’s a lovely house, but the side return was just dead space and became a dumping ground for the kids’ stuff,” explains Sally.

Even when they bought their home, Sally and David knew some form of building work was likely, as the house already had a typical older, single-storey extension to the rear that wasn’t up to the demands of modern family life.

“The kitchen stuck out, it was very old and had the original aluminium double glazing. It was functional, but there was no space to sit,” says Sally. The couple met their architects Ester Corti and Andrew Mitchell of London-based practice Mitchell and Corti, through friends “who raved about them.” Sally and David really liked the practice, and how they focus on inexpensive, out-of-the-ordinary design solutions. Their enthusiasm led them to commission Ester for the design of a new addition to their home.

Sally and Jensen’s brief was for a side and rear ground floor extension to add family space and turn the terraced house into a long-term home. The property had some interesting challenges, including being situated on a road which slopes downhill (making one neighbour higher than the other), as well as a change in levels between the front reception rooms and the rear garden. Sally, who wanted lots of light in the new extension, had her heart set on wide bi-fold doors, but “Ester talked us out of that, as we’re south-facing (at the back) and we would just overheat. Instead, we have off-set double doors, skylights, and a large, fixed window with a seat underneath.”

The result is a lovely, welcoming space, with a vaulted ceiling, an asymmetrical pitched roof, and skylights the family can open for ventilation. The exterior is clad in charred larch, which contrasts with the original Edwardian brick facade. The interior style reflects the contemporary architecture yet is sympathetic to the original building.

“With extensions, you have a choice of either making it seamless, or making a statement, and that’s what we chose,” says Sally.

The most striking aspect of the design is the off-centre pitch, making one side of the extension lower than the other. This addressed one of the key challenges, which was boundary height restrictions.

“What Ester did with the roof was very clever,” says Sally. “It’s a nice way to deal with the slope.” The vaulted ceiling means not only is there plenty of headroom inside the extension but also a sense of airiness. This is enhanced by the strategically placed skylights (the smaller ones are from Velux and the larger ones are bespoke), which let in both early morning and evening light.

The levels also change from front to back, and originally, there were two large concrete steps between the kitchen and the garden. Apart from being unattractive, they also presented a danger for the couple’s two small boys and created a sense of being ‘cut off’ from the outside space. Ester solved this by putting in new steps going down between the sitting room and the kitchen extension. This allows for greater ceiling height in the extension, which, in turn, opens straight into the garden. “I was reluctant at first, but actually it works,” says Sally.

The choice of charred larch as cladding on the outside of the extension was also bold. Almost black in colour, the process of charring timber to create the effect is an ancient Japanese technique, known as ‘Shou-sugi-ban’. This technique has lots of practical advantages, including not requiring any maintenance. It doesn’t even need to be sealed, as the carbon outer layer protects the wood, just like a stain or varnish. “I work in financial services,” says Sally. “So, I had limited imagination for this, but I got a sample, which I liked. It’s weathering nicely, but for us, the key feature was the minimal upkeep.”

The Shou-sugi-ban method is also environmentally friendly, as there are no chemicals involved, just fire. In fact, even competent DIY builders can achieve a good result, using minimal equipment, although most, like the Jensens, order the cladding already treated. Charred wood is also naturally resistant to both weather and insects. The timber doesn’t rot, even in damp conditions and at the other extreme, it also has good levels of fire retardancy. For many self-builders however, the best thing about Shou-sugi-ban is the appearance, as it enhances the beauty of the timber by raising the grain. The distinctive colour (which can vary), also works with both contemporary and more rustic designs.

Ester says that they chose to clad the extension in dark charred timber “to ensure longevity, and minimal maintenance.” They also wanted to avoid any issues around discolouration that can occur when using a pale timber. “We wanted to acknowledge the contemporary nature of this addition to the house by using a material distinctly different from those of the host building.”

The Jensens hired a main contractor to carry out the building works, and they were “amazing,” says Sally. ABR Contractors built the extension, using masonry construction before attaching the cladding. The firm also renovated the bathrooms and made changes to the plumbing system. With four people in the family, Sally and David opted for a new ‘Megalflo’ central heating system. This system – mainly a steel storage cylinder – mimics the pressure of the water mains, ensuring reliable and constant hot water throughout the home, even when a second tap or shower is running elsewhere.

Naturally, with so much building work going on, the couple did consider fitting underfloor heating, but decided against it for two reasons; cost and concerns about access for repairs, should anything go wrong. In the end, Sally chose column-style period radiators, which she describes as “a nice bridge” between the old and the new parts of the house. Successfully merging the old and new was a significant part of the project.

“The new extension would add space both to the side and the rear of the property,” says Ester. “It would also create an open plan feel and connection to the more formal living rooms at the front of the house.”

Within the extension itself, there is a utility room, a coat cupboard, a kitchen with a large island, full-height pantry cupboards on one side, a sideboard, a dining area, a window seat, and an informal lounge and TV area with a sofa. Within all this, the kitchen is the focal point of not just the extension, but the entire house.

“I think it is possible to get carried away with the aesthetics in a kitchen, but it needs storage,” says Sally. “With kids you always need more storage, and I was very specific with Ester over this. We bought a whiteboard and workshopped ideas together.”

Sally and David bought their kitchen from supplier DIY Kitchens, which they describe as “super.” The cabinetry has a flat panel and modern doors, and the worktop is composite quartz from Surfaceco. The Jensens chose this product as it is far more hard-wearing and family-friendly than its pricier rival, marble. Matching wall and pendant light fittings make the design feel even more cohesive and complement the neutral colours. With an induction hob, concealed appliances and a cooker hood that blends into the wall, the kitchen is simple, efficient, and quietly elegant.

The window seat adds a lovely, homely touch to the space, creating an informal spot to sit, read, or just look out at the garden through the oversized window. Created bespoke for the family and made from pale oak, the window seat also provides more essential built-in storage, helping to keep the floor free of toys and other clutter.

Mitchell & Corti like to play about with paint colour combinations, and the Jensen’s extension was no exception.

“We wanted to keep the room feeling bright yet practical. However, we wanted to add some character and continuity throughout the room, and a touch of signature colour and vibrancy to the design,” says Ester. The colour, a muted sage green, is painted below the dado rail level and unifies the room, despite the different levels and zones (such as cooking and eating areas). A wooden dining table and chairs bring a more traditional feel to the space, echoing the older parts of the house, and the engineered wood floorboards were not only
a cost-efficient option, but also bring warmth, as well as practicality to the space.

“I didn’t want a kitchen I would be worrying about,” laughs Sally. “And my two boys really test it to its limit.”

For Sally, the biggest challenge was completing the project during the Covid lockdowns. Not only did this delay the start of the building works, but the family found they needed to stay living in the property, and not relocate to Sally’s parents, as originally planned.

“My memories are that is was a very intense period,” recalls Sally. “The saving grace was the nurseries were still open, but it was a juggling act.” Instead, the builders, ABR Contractors, created a temporary kitchen in the double reception room, which was sealed off from the extension by a plywood wall.

“That was my high point,” says Sally. “I loved them taking down that temporary wall, despite the new kitchen not being quite finished, but I got a sense it was worth it.”

The build itself went very smoothly (apart from a leaking pipe at 6 am, which was swiftly fixed by their builders) and now the family have lived in their new space since 2021. By extending out, up and even to the side, the Jensen family now have all the space they need with two growing boys, making this the ‘forever’ home they had dreamed of.

Their new extension has transformed not just how they use the house, but how they live, too.

“The kitchen is where we spend most of our time,” says Sally. “We have oodles of space, which is exactly why we did it. It is a very social space; I love that we can have people around, as it just absorbs people. But the thing I love most, is the sense of light. We spent a lot of time talking about it with Ester and now I just love it here at all times of the day.”