Face Off - Real Homes


The owners of this post-war home decided to give it a radical new look – but they had a battle on their hands


Charles and Caroline Humphries have a Second World War bomb to thank for their sleek, zinc-clad home in north London. If their street hadn’t received a direct hit, flattening a block of Victorian houses, they would probably never have got permission to give their current home a radical revamp. The group of post-war brick buildings that replaced the bombed homes are so unremarkable they’re almost invisible, and they sit by pastiche period properties and a single contemporary wood-clad building. ‘I looked at the higgledy-piggledy mishmash of styles and thought getting planning in this environment shouldn’t be too much trouble,’ says Charles.


The architect and his wife moved into their ugly duckling in 1995, and then added a kitchen extension at the back. It was small enough not to require planning permission, so they gave it a zinc roof and a wall of glass bricks. ‘At the time we couldn’t afford to give the house a proper facelift, so we got on with living in it,’ says Charles.

A decade later, with more cash in hand, the family decided to remodel. ‘We love the area and it was more cost effective to remodel than move,’ says Charles. ‘Watching Grand Designs also made me get round to revamping the house – which is quite an embarrassing thing to admit as an architect.’

Charles’ design is about as radical as remodelling can get with out actually starting from scratch. Despite leaving three sides of the building pretty much intact, the street facade is unrecognisable. Gone are the pedestrian bricks and the traditional windows. Instead, a passer-by sees an asymmetric expanse of zinc cladding and glass. But despite a consensus that the previous facade had little going for it, not everyone was so keen on the new look.

theselfbuilder_face-off3‘There’s a clause in Islington’s Urban Development Plan stating that the borough will encourage good modern architecture,’ explains Charles. ‘When we put the application in, the planners loved it. But about two weeks later we got a phone call telling us our design had been rejected.’ The application had filtered up to the conservation officer, who had immediately said no. They were invited to compromise, and were shown a sketch of what the conservation department would accept.

The revised plans would see the entrance moved from the side to the front, and placed it in a symmetrical brick facade. The flow of the house – the shape of its windows and cladding – had been changed from horizontal to vertical. ‘It’s like they had taken the design and removed all the elements that made it modern,’ recalls Charles. ‘We had three choices. Give up and move out, compromise, or appeal. We chose to fight our corner.’

theselfbuilder_face-off4Their application had been rejected on 14 separate grounds. ‘If you need to find that many reasons, none of them can be good ones,’ he adds. A date was set for their appeal hearing and Charles built up his case. When the day came they sat down with the planning inspector and explained their design. ‘It was great – we really felt we had our day in court. Caroline and I agreed that even if they rejected us, at least we felt we’d been heard.’ A few weeks later an envelope dropped through the door. ‘It was like exam results all over again. They make you read all the way to the bottom of the letter before it becomes clear that you’ve won.’

theselfbuilder_face-off5Thrilled by their victory, Charles started the ball rolling as quickly as he could. The family stayed with friends across the road and watched as their home was picked apart. They’d decided that their five-foot front garden gave little value, and the space could be better used incorporated into the house. To support the new front wall they dug down and created concrete foundations eight-feet deep; on top of this, a steel frame formed the structure of the new wall. Infilled with timber, this was clad in the sleek grey zinc sheets which are now such a signature of the remodelled house. The new front wall is joined to the rest of the house by a glazed slot running all the way up one side.

To gain more space they also added an extra floor. ‘We cast a concrete beam around the top of the four external walls and built a steel frame on top of it,’ describes Charles. The walls are rendered white and the front one sits a metre back from the main facade, allowing space for a balcony accessed from the master bedroom by glazed doors.


Internally, the ground floor is open plan. The side entrance allows the space to extend across its 20-foot width. Stairs lead up from the front door to the first floor, where the bathroom and a spare room look over the rear garden. Ten-year-old Justin gets a huge L-shaped bedroom running along the front of the house. The full-height glazed window is half opaque glass and half clear, simultaneously giving an element of privacy and a view. The master bedroom and en suite take up the top floor, with views from the balcony across London.

‘Renovating the house also gave me the chance to update the house’s green credentials,’ says Charles. ‘We lined the new walls with external insulation and packed 75mm of the stuff into the cavities of the old ones.’ All the windows are double glazed with low-emissivity glass, which reflects heat back into the interior.


The new condensing boiler is 98 per cent efficient, and water can also be heated by the solar panels on the roof. Charles chose the Thermomax vacuum tube system, because it can be laid on a flat roof and remains invisible from the street. A £400 grant from the Government and £1,000 from the council reduced the cost to £1,000. An intelligent thermostat prevents energy being wasted on unnecessary heating, and a heat recovery system recoups 80 per cent of the heat from the air leaving the house and transfers it to the fresh air coming in. ‘The heating bill for the house is a quarter of what it used to be,’ says Charles. ‘It’s about £1 per day.’

The changes to this house have been more than superficial. It’s been valued at twice the price of a pre-facelift version nearby. The family have gained a gorgeous contemporary home tailored to the way they live, which is kinder to the environment into the bargain. This isn’t plastic surgery, but a more fundamental operation that’s given a Fifties home a new lease of life in the twenty-first century.


‘Be dogged and detached.’

Useful contacts

Architect: Heat Architects www.heat-architecture.com
Ironmongery: HomeBits www.homebits.co.uk
Windows: M+S Aluminium www.ms-ali.com
Doors: Senlac Windows and Doors www.senlac-windows.co.uk
Zinc work: NDM Roofing www.ndmltd.com
Solar Panel: Ecologistics www.ecologistics.co.uk
Sarna Roofing: RCC Ltd www.rcc-cambridge.co.uk

Words Joanna booth Photography Jefferson Smith
Web www.heat-architecture.com/projects/barnsbury

Be practical

  • So why do you want to remodel? Do you want more space? To change the use of certain rooms? To make your home more energy efficient or flood resistant? All these factors will affect your choices just as much as how you want your home to look, so pin them down early on.

  • The age of your building should give you some pointers towards how it’s constructed, but you shouldn’t start any firm plans until you’ve got the professionals in for thorough structural investigations – you’ll have no idea of what works will cost until you know the state of your building. More work early on should pay off later as hidden nasties won’t pop out causing stress and unexpected costs.

  • Services may need extra work – replacing or adding pipes and drainage, better wiring or a new heating system. These all carry cost, take time and cause disruption.

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