The London Evening Standard, November 2009, Feature
Most people would be horrified to come home and see the entire rear of their house missing. But when Aurore and Andy Down’s builders had finished taking down the back wall of their Muswell Hill semi-detached home the couple were not the slightest bit jittery, just thrilled.
“There’s nothing better than knocking a wall down because suddenly it gives you a new view,” says Andy. “And when this wall came down it completely transformed the house overnight. The advantage of being architects is that we know it’s going to be all right.”
The couple were looking for more space for their growing family when they found the house. They were not originally drawn to the two-storey, late-Twenties semi but as the estate agent took them round, they came across a huge basement below a trap door.
“There was no natural light but lots of volume. Our architects’ brains started working, thinking we must be able to do something with the space,” says Andy.
The house was in bad shape. With the weight of earth from the garden pushing in on the basement’s back wall it was in real danger of collapse. Rather than spend a fortune shoring it up, they decided on a more radical solution: to dig down and lower the level of the garden, completely demolish the lower back half of the house and replace it with double-height glass.
It was a bold vision, and it paid off. Today, in their huge light-filled family room — the hub of the house with sliding doors out on to the garden and a double height atrium opening out into the sitting room above — you would never guess that once this was a forgotten basement.
The other big draw of the house was how much wider it was than the Downs’ former home. They wanted to make the most of that and keep the former basement as a single space without walls or collumns chopping it up. Their solution was to ring it with a large square steel frame — like a ribbon around a box — to take the load of the floor above.
A second steel frame, like a giant picture frame, enclosing the double-height glass wall, holds up the rest of the back of the house. It sounds complicated. But as they were gutting the entire space anyway, inserting the frames was pretty straightforward. Even planning wasn’t a a problem. They extended out by only 6ft 6in so they could get away with lawful use.
What turned out to be the biggest headache was digging out the garden. The side passage was too narrow to squeeze in a mechanical digger so the builders had to use spades.
“To the horror of our neighbours we had a big heap of earth in the front drive for six or seven months,” says Aurore. “Every morning the lorry would pick it up and by the end of the day it was full again. It was continuous. You can’t begin to imagine how much earth we had to get rid of.”
The whole process set their schedule back by six months, and put a huge dent in their budget. So when it came to adding the fittings and finish and sprucing up the rest of the house they had to be canny. Going straight to the source for materials helped a lot. They ordered the limestone for the kitchen and living room floors, the patio and the first-floor bathroom as a job lot from a quarry in Bulgaria. Other bathroom fittings they bought direct from warehouses in Italy, rather than through dealers in the UK. “I learned a lot about Customs & Excise,” Aurore says.
They did look into buying a fancy off-the-peg kitchen but realised they couldn’t afford it. So they hired a carpenter to make their own from MDF with a spray-on gloss finish at a quarter of the price. The island unit is also MDF. It was clad in stainless steel by a swimming pool company.
On other features, however, they weren’t prepared to compromise. The kitchen splashback is a single, seamless glass panel that spans the entire length of the work surface. The manufacturers agreed to supply it — at triple the usual rate — but refused to accept liability if it was broken during delivery. The couple had always planned to convert the attic into a master bedroom. But out of exhaustion, lack of money and concern for their neighbours, they took a few years off before they got to it. When they did, Andy suggested doing it on the cheap. But Aurore convinced him they should go the extra mile, adding three dormer windows — the third to accommodate their en-suite bathroom.
“When it comes to the look, we have the same taste,” Andy says. “But we have a very different attitude to money. Sometimes we argue like crazy. I’m the one trying to save money and Aurore’s saying ‘if we’re going to do it, lets do it well’.”
Doing it well has meant taking five years to finish the house. But it also means they have stuck to their original vision.
GET THE LOOK
Architects: Archplan Architects and Property Managers (020 8340 1747; email@example.com; www.archplan.co.uk).
Glazing, including sliding patio doors, from Fineline Aluminium (01934 429922; firstname.lastname@example.org). Cost: £8,000.
Floor tiles in the kitchen and living-room, patio tiles and first-floor bathroom fittings all from pre-cut limestone from Bulgaria, for a total cost of £10,000 (£50 a square metre).
Furniture: reproduction of Eero Aarnio’s bubble chair was bought over the internet; other retro pieces from Alfies Antique Market, Church Street, NW8 (020 7723 6066; www.alfiesantiques.com); kitchen stools from Purves & Purves (www.purves.co.uk).
The attic conversion cost £60,000 and included three dormer windows at £7,500 each.