Dr. Alex Veal
Design Festival Luton & Beds 2016
ARTARCHITECTS is design-led firm of architects, based in London and working throughout the South of England. We have a diverse portfolio of work, including office and retail projects, one-off houses, residential extensions and refurbishment projects, as well as schemes for education and community use.
Alongside our work in practice, we are also engaged in architectural education - at the University of Bedfordshire, the University Cambridge and the University of East London - and see these roles as both complementary and informative to our work in practice.
The projects shown in this exhibition have all been undertaken by our practice over the past two years, but we have given particular emphasis to a series of commissions we have undertaken to extend and refurbish nineteenth-century houses in London and the South-East.
Through these projects, and others not illustrated here, we have gained an understanding both of the challenges and opportunities that these types of building present; and through this, an appreciation of the tools available to help make these structures more suitable for contemporary living.
ADAPTING THE VICTORIAN HOUSE
The Victorian houses illustrated in this exhibition would probably not have been designed by Architects. The nineteenth century saw a huge rise in the population of England, from around 9 million in 1801, to 16 million in 1841, and 36 million in 1911; with this came a boom in house building, with numbers increasing from around 1.6 million in 1801, to 3 million in 1841, and 7.6 million by 1911 (Long, H.C., 2002. Victorian Houses and their Details, Oxford: Architectural Press, p.2).
In this context, construction was sometimes undertaken by large-scale developers, but more often by small building firms, who often relied on architectural pattern books, both for the overall layout and arrangement of houses, and for internal and external detailing. Similarly, the emergence of builders merchants, trade catalogues and off-site manufacture resulted in a large degree of standardisation across the sector, which is evident in the legacy of Victorian and Edwardian housing stock that remains in England today (Long, 2002, pp.2-4).
Illustrations from Victorian pattern books and trade catalogues (cit. Long, 2002, pp.55, 108, 44)
As a result of this standardisation, both in layout and detail, many of the issues that we encounter with these buildings today are common to the Victorian house type, lending themselves to design solutions that follow contemporary ‘patterns’ in much the same way as did the original construction.
Through our work in this field, we have come to identify a series of patterns that relate to the characteristics and challenges of these types of property, and to various design solutions that may be available to achieve our clients’ ambitions within this context. We have categorised these under the headings of ‘Briefing Patterns’, ‘Constraint Patterns’ and ‘Design Patterns’ as follows.
Almost invariably, our domestic clients approach us with the aim of extending their living spaces, and adapting the structures of their existing house to better suit contemporary ways of living. Often, residents will have spent many years considering how they might improve their homes, and have a good understanding of the opportunities and constraints that they will face in trying to achieve this.
Primary on our clients’ briefs is often the requirement to create larger, more open-plan, flexible living spaces, particularly on the ground floor. Unlike the cellular arrangement of rooms that is typical of traditional Victorian properties, our clients often want to adapt their homes to create open-plan layouts for family living, incorporating kitchens, living spaces, relaxation areas and even outdoor areas within a single space.
This type of arrangement, we would suggest, reflects more open social relations amongst family members than might have been typical in the past; a more informal and less compartmentalised attitude towards eating, working, relaxing and entertaining; and a desire to create flexible living arrangements that can adapt and accommodate different activities at different times. It also reflects wider pressures on space caused by the cost of housing in the South-East, and the need to maximise the use of limited space by creating multi-functional rooms, adaptable to daily change.
With increasing property prices and the desire to maximise the value of their homes, clients are often keen to increase, or at least not reduce, the number of designated bedrooms within their properties - whether or not they use the rooms for this purpose on a day-to-day basis. As a result, upper floors frequently retain the cellular character that they have had in the past, whilst opportunities are often sought to increase the number of bedrooms by extending into attics and roof spaces, making maximum use of the overall enclosed volume of the building.
BATHROOMS AND WCs
Associated with a desire to increase the value and amenity of their properties, clients often wish to add ensuite bathrooms and ground floor WCs - the latter frequently tucked away in unobtrusive spaces under the stairs. As a result, the cellular character of the Victorian house is often retained in these areas, and even increased.
One of the most significant factors that constrains the alteration of nineteenth-century houses is their historic character, and controls on development imposed through Planning policy. This is particularly the case with homes in Conservation Areas, and those that are Listed.
In these cases, particular care must be taken in the design and detailing of any alterations to the existing building. Sometimes this necessitates interventions that are designed to match, or to be ‘in keeping’ with the original; on other occasions, opportunities arise to better conserve the character of the Victorian house by introducing modern elements and clearly differentiating these from the existing building.
PERMITTED DEVELOPMENT RIGHTS
Outside of Conservation Areas and for unlisted properties, other Planning policies may apply that limit the extent and character of development. In these cases, Permitted Development rights often form the basis for what may be permitted in terms of extension and external alteration. These rights are intended to strike a balance between promoting development, protecting the surrounding environment, and the maintaing the amenity of surrounding properties.
This carefully-drafted legislation creates an effective ‘maximum volume’ that a house can extend to, whilst limitingexternal material choices and design details. Very often, the challenge of increasing ground floor space, and adding loft extensions comes down to a technical challenge of maximising the usable internal space within external geometric limitations.
Victorian houses are almost invariably constructed of load-bearing masonry, with brick, or brick-and-a-half, thick external walls. This primary construction material lends itself to relatively small window openings and the cellular division of rooms, both of which feature widely in these types of building.
By contrast, the contemporary aspiration for open-plan ground floor arrangements, coupled with large areas of external glazing, suggests a completely different form of construction comprising post-and-beam structures, and light-weight infill panels.
The structural challenge for many of our projects is therefore to open up the enclosing brick construction of the original house, to introduce substantial steel beams and posts to support the remaining masonry construction, and to create large glazed areas, particularly between ground floor rooms and the garden.
Combining these two structural principles: load-bearing masonry and supporting steel frames is, of course, a challenging process, particularly when working within the partly unknown context of an existing Victorian house. The results, however, can be extremely effective at achieving the spatial aspirations for the ground floor living accommodation whilst preserving the historic character of the building externally.
LIGHT AND AIR
The ambition to maximise ground floor living areas often gives rise to ambitions to extend the house into the garden, an aspiration that is broadly supported by Permitted Development legislation. Often this will take the form of an extension across the rear of the property; or commonly, a ‘side-rear’ extension that in-fills the gap between the outrigger and the property boundary.
The resulting interior space often becomes wider and more usable as a result, offering the possibility to exchange a galley kitchen, for example, for a wider kitchen area, incorporating an island unit or seating area.
The frequent problem with this type of arrangement, however, is that while the new spaces become more open, with better access to the rear garden, rooms towards the middle of the house can become entirely internal, with no external windows, or direct access to daylight and ventilation. In these cases, it is particularly important that careful thought is given to the introduction of rooflights, courtyard gardens, or other design features that ensure that the effect of the extension is not deleterious to existing rooms.
As with all projects, the cost of the works will always be an important consideration. The allocation of monies to alterations that will deliver the most significant long-term benefits is therefore a priority in most cases and a key factor in design decision making.
At a larger scale, it is recognised that, although the projects represented in this exhibition are often commissioned by wealthy middle class families, they are indicative of wider pressures on the housing market in the UK more generally, and of the economic necessity to maximise the use of existing housing stock at all levels.
A variety of design techniques and motifs typically arise in these types of project, some of which may be derived from client ambition, and others from the challenges of working in this particular environment. Some of these are identified below and together indicate that contemporary alterations to Victorian houses are often based as much on a range of ‘patterns’ as were the original nineteenth-century buildings.
Perhaps the feature most favoured by our clients to give effect and expression to the open-plan arrangement of the ground floor spaces is the bi-fold door. Providing a practical means to quickly open up the rear of the house to the garden and to integrate internal and external spaces, the bi-fold door requires the substantial removal of existing walls and the support of load-bearing masonry above.
Extensions, as we have discussed, limit the amount of natural light and air available to existing internal rooms. However, the use of roof glazing - either as punched rooflights, or as a continuous glazed roof - gives opportunity to provide natural lighting and ventilation to spaces that may be much deeper within the plan.
CONCEALED STEEL FRAME
Typically, the steel structure that provides support to the retained masonry structure above ground floor level is covered with fire-resisting plasterboard and is therefore not visible internally. On the outside of the building, there is also little indication of the extent of steelwork incorporated into the building to support the weight of the existing house.
It is perhaps this somewhat unremarkable characteristic of these projects that is most significant in creating such an unobtrusive character to the drastic structural alterations that have been made to the original building.
INSIDE - OUTSIDE SPACES
Often integral to the new bi-fold doors is another device that seeks to bring interior and exterior spaces closer together, in this case by the use of similar floor materials internally and externally, and the avoidance of any change in level between the two. When the bi-fold doors are open, but also to some extent when they are not, the boundary between interior and exterior spaces is blurred and the open-plan arrangement of the interior extends out to capture the adjacent garden space.
THE HOTEL BATHROOM
As a model for new bathroom installations, those found in high-end hotels around the world have become synonymous with the luxury that is sought in domestic projects. In a similar way, it seems likely that the hotel bathroom is an important factor in encouraging the desire for ensuite bathrooms, as opposed to shared family facilities.
THE SHOWROOM KITCHEN
Just as the layout and aesthetic of contemporary domestic bathrooms appears to derive from the hotel model, so the proliferation of kitchen showrooms and high-tech kitchen designs inspires many client choices for kitchen appliances and fit-outs. With the kitchen placed at the heart of the new open-plan living space, it has become a feature as much of design and aesthetics as functionality, sometimes replicating internally the effect of the sports car on the driveway at the front of the house.
The materials used on the outside of these Victorian house extensions are typically traditional and modest in appearance, similar to those used in the original building, and in neighbouring properties. The reason for this may often be that the choice of materials is limited by Planning considerations; it may also be the result of a desire to be ’in keeping’, and to conform, at least externally, with the surrounding urban environment.
Internally, however, the situation is often reversed, with a desire that open-plan living spaces should be designed in a much more modern way, using materials that have a more contemporary feel and which complement the polished kitchen installation. The effect is often enhanced by the use of recessed light fittings and flush electrical components to enhance the modern feel of the space, and in contrast to the traditional external appearance of the building.
As a practice we have found that the repeating designs of Victorian houses lend themselves to a range of contemporary design options that are reminiscent of nineteenth-century pattern books. Just as Victorian housing reflected variety within these patterns, so in the projects we undertake, we find variations and differences unique to each site and to our clients’ particular needs. Each project therefore remains challenging, requiring an individual and carefully considered design response. While the identification of patterns is therefore a useful tool in our understanding of these houses, and in design development, it remains only a source-book of ideas on which we can draw for each new project.