Don’t Move, Improve! Design Surgeries

Wednesday 28 February 2018

©Agnese Sanvito

Londoners descended on NLA on Saturday 24 February to hear free expert advice on how to improve their own homes – with key recommendations stressing the importance of dialogue between client and architect, engaging contractors early on to design out any unexpected issues in terms of costs or materials, and above all else demanding good design. A series of free consultations with over 20 architects, engineers, surveyors and interior designers provided a myriad of inspirational advice, alongside a packed family programme.

The talks programme kicked off with ‘How To Improve Your Home’, giving practical advice. Chair Cany Ash of Ash Sakula, and juror of the competition, praised the durability of good design in homes, having herself lived in one building for 36 years with it serving as a workshop, shared living space, family house and now a home and office. John Norman of Mustard Architects talked the audience through how to approach a project: start by making a list – ‘what do you want to do, what don’t you like, and any details even if they’re contradictory! Wherever possible, create long views through the house to make it feel bigger; think carefully about furniture to consider whether it could be multi-functional to make best use of space; and play around with the budget – for example, beams are needed to hold up a new roof so why not make a feature of them and make them beautiful?’ And most of all, don’t be concerned if your site has a lot of constraints – these compromises can make a project really unique and exciting.

Party Wall expert Robert Hopps of the Hopps Partnership explained how the Act works, noting to remember that costs are always met by the person undertaking the works which can be an unexpected cost when dealing with tightly packed sites with many party walls. The Act sets out the rights and obligations, allows you access to a portion of your neighbours’ land to set up scaffolding etc, and deals with any damage that may incur. Engineer Mervyn Rodrigues expounded the three main principals of structural engineering in domestic projects: loading – understanding how the existing building works and what you can do with it; making sure any amendments allow the building to remain stable throughout the build and afterwards, and considering drainage of the site.  

Our second talk provided design inspiration, looking at a series of case studies from this year’s competition. Catrina Stewart of Office S & M – one of this year’s winning practices – spoke of the importance of using materials ‘cleverly – within a family of materials, choose one special material and then a few cheaper ones to treat in a special way’ as they did with paint and coloured grout in their Valetta House project. Responding to a need for more space for a family of six, the project transformed the north-facing narrow house with careful, detailed extensions and unusual use of colour and material. Colour in particular can be key in ‘making the house more personal but also to extend the feeling of space’ and should always be ‘considered from the outset… as a building material that is intrinsic to the approach’.

Brian Heron, winner of Best Historic Intervention for his Water Tank project, discussed the challenges and joys of creating a self-build project – ‘there will be highs, there will be lows, but with optimism, anything can happen’. Now living in the flat with his wife and young son, his project took almost 10 years to complete, working around his own full-time job, but it has meant that they now live in a space that is tailored to them. Rethinking a disused water tank, bought at auction in 2008, the scheme was constrained within its own existing concrete shell, with no opportunities to extend or create balconies so they had to ‘think inside the box’. As such, the interior had to work extra hard to deliver a feeling of spaciousness in a one-bedroom family home. Brian lauded the capability of space-efficient bespoke pieces of furniture to allow enjoyment of the space, creating hardworking and practical spaces – including a piece in the bedroom which combines an adult bed, a child’s bed, hanging space, a cupboard, bedside tables and a trunk.

Romanos Tsomos of Yellow Cloud Studio also spoke of the ‘importance of creativity and ingenuity’ within sites, especially with the awkward sites that proliferate in London’s piecemeal layout which throw up problems of minimal access, limited height or views or tricky angles. Their Triangle project is one such example, reusing a neglected triangular space that was overshadowed and overlooked by neighbours to create a space that was flooded with natural light – something which is always top of every client’s wishlist but is a ‘scarce commodity’. The wedge-shaped extension uses carefully positioned glasswork to help express the shape of the triangle and provide daylight into the existing home and new space. It’s important to not consider just the internal space – your neighbours and planning authority will be much more likely to consent to an extension that is outwardly appealing too – this project was ‘designed to be enjoyed from above’ as well as within with its highly crafted warm interior.  He offered five pieces of advice to those wanting to embark on their own project: think bold, with simple and clear forms; try to create pockets of light in difficult spaces; use materials to improve atmosphere and warmth; keep an open mind; and most importantly, choose an inventive and creative architect – and always trust them!'

For more helpful information on how to set out on your own project, download the magazine for free, where you can also sign up to be notified about our forthcoming free Design Surgeries on 28 April, 23 June and 15 September when they open for bookings.

By Jenine Hudson, Senior Programme Curator, NLA

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