Thanks to some sympathetic remodelling this light-filled Sixties home looks as fresh today as when it was first built
Georgian properties she passed on the way. ‘I always thought I’d want to live in a period house, so I was quite surprised to find I wanted the one we own now,’ she says. Helen and her husband Ben live in a much newer home, built in 1960 using concrete beams, then a radical new construction technology. It’s one of a row of spacious terrace houses high on a hill, with views over the nearby woodland to the familiar central London skyline.
The couple first saw the houses when friends moved on to the street. ‘We came to visit and fell in love with their house,’ says Helen. So when one of the properties down the road came up for sale, they snapped it up. It was the distinctive look and feel of the place that attracted the couple. It’s a world away from a typical terrace – the rooms are large and open, with big glazed expanses bringing light deep into the house.
This is a result of the way the house was built. Traditionally, timber beams were used in house construction. These could not stretch the length of an entire house, so room sizes were restricted and internal walls had to give structural support. But with the advent of new technologies this could change. Beams made of reinforced concrete or steel are substantial enough to span the entire width of a house. The self-supporting shell allows the internal space to be completely opened up, providing far more flexible layouts.
Helen and Ben’s home is an early example of this technology. The houses in their street and in the surrounding area were built as low-cost volume housing, but were a radical break with tradition in design and construction. The open-plan possibilities were taken advantage of on the first floor, where the living room extends across the full width of the house. But on the ground floor the designers had stuck to a much more traditional, cellular layout. ‘The house must have been designed in the late Fifties, and you can see that it took a while for the way people lived to catch up with the possibilities of new technology,’ explains Helen. ‘The kitchen and dining room were small and enclosed, not for any structural reasons, but obviously just because this was the way people were expected to live.’
Ben and Helen were keen to change this and make the most of the space, but first of all there was more mundane work to be done. The previous owners had lived there for 25 years and little had been altered since the house was built. ‘The boiler was 40 years old,’ remembers Helen. They rewired, replumbed and repainted the house, installing new appliances and bathrooms. But they didn’t want to rip out all of the original fittings. The built-in cupboards and drawers in the master bedroom and the living room only needed a lick of paint or a good polish – even the original round Sixties handles remain.
They’d undertaken all this work on their own, but when it came to reworking the ground-floor space they decided it would be a good idea to employ an architect. ‘We knew it would be a big job, and way beyond our expertise,’ admits Helen. As an urban designer, Helen knew how valuable an architect’s ideas and knowledge would be. Through work she met Peter Besley of Assemblage Architects, and the couple asked him to help design their kitchen. ‘Working with an architect is such an illuminating and exciting process,’ she says. ‘They open your eyes to possibilities you’d never have thought of on your own.’
One of these ideas was a radical reworking of their ground floor. Peter suggested demolishing the internal walls and even slicing space out of the big double garage to create the largest room they could. In the centre of this, he designed a stunning floating worktop. Connected to the wall at one end and hanging from the ceiling at the other, the bench runs along half the length of the room and is a real show-stopper. The effect of having the whole expanse of floor and ceiling run uninterrupted across the house is massive – an island unit wouldn’t have a fraction of the impact.
All the joinery in the kitchen is bespoke, with gloss-sprayed wooden doors in white and slate grey, and a long, smooth, Corian worksurface. Ben is a keen chef and knew exactly what he wanted from the room. The large kitchen area allows him space to cook up a storm, and having the hob on top of the floating unit means he can face guests sitting at the bespoke oak table while he cooks.
The entire back wall of the ground floor is glazed, allowing plenty of light in and giving a real connection to the back garden and the stupendous view of London. The kitchen/dining area occupies almost the whole ground floor, with only a small garage and utility area tucked away at one end.
The first floor houses the bathroom, a spare bedroom and the beautiful living area. Again fully glazed along its outer wall, there is a small balcony running half its length, giving the family yet more valuable outdoor space. The wall dividing the living room from the stairwell is also glass, letting light deep into the house and making the stairs feel less cut-off and utilitarian. On the second floor, the master bedroom has a cute walk-in dressing room and separate en suite at one end, and a bank of built-in cupboards under the long window. Opposite is Rosa’s room, and in between is the book-lined home office.
The couple have tried to stay true to the period and design of the house in the way they’ve furnished it, too. They love the furniture of the Fifties and Sixties and have spent many happy hours trawling through the Mid-Century Modern furniture fair in nearby Dulwich. ‘It’s really interesting to see how designs develop,’ says Helen. ‘We inherited some William Morris chairs from Ben’s grandparents, and then later bought a similar dark wood chair designed in 1949 by Danish designer Ole Wanscher. You can really see a link and how one inspired another.’
Another passion is Scandinavian design. All the curtains are made from Marimekko fabric, some in bright blocky prints and others in pale and delicate hues. Whilst they buy furniture from big stores like Ikea and Skandium, Helen and Ben have also holidayed in Denmark, Iceland, Finland and Sweden, carting back home lots of pictures and glassware in their suitcases. And as well as furniture fairs and design shops, Helen visits open studio events where she can buy the work of local designer makers. Her current favourites are textiles by Caroline Hoy, ceramics by Daniel Smith and glass lightboxes by Saga Arpino.
Helen and Ben have no regrets about moving into their Sixties home. ‘In the past, people have been a bit sniffy about Sixties architecture, but I think it’s finally starting to be appreciated,’ says Helen. It’s a testament to Helen and Ben’s sensitive remodelling and the forward-thinking, technology-embracing original design that almost 50 years on, this stylish family home still feels incredibly modern and fresh.
The floating unit Helen and Ben’s stunning floating unit isn’t the sort of kitchen item you can buy off the peg. There are drawers inside and a gas hob sitting on top. A long strip light on the base throws light on to the floor, adding to the floating effect. ‘Because it’s a spanning structure it was more like designing a bridge than a piece of furniture,’ says architect Peter Besley. A steel beam runs along the centre of the unit, with fins coming off it at right angles to support the drawers and the worktop. At one end, the weight of the unit is supported from the ceiling, while at the other end it connects to the wall, meaning it’s very secure and can’t wiggle from side to side.‘The ceiling already has to support itself as it spans the room, so we knew it would take a pretty hefty beam to support the floating unit too,’ explains Peter. ‘It’s as if the initial house construction really welcomed the design.’
Developer Leslie Bilsby worked with architect Eric Lyons to come up with this type of architecturally designed but low-cost housing set in heavily landscaped areas. Their developments were called Span, the sucess of which led to many imitators. Development company Wates took Lyons’ pattern and also started building model estates, of which the houses on Sydenham Hill are an early example. As an urban planner, Helen finds it particularly fascinating to live in one of the first planned communities.‘It must have been a bold move in planning terms when it was first built,’ she says. ‘Despite the density of the housing, the light and space in the is amazing. It’s testament to the good design that once people buy these houses, they don’t want to leave and stay here for many years.’
‘Work with the building you have. Don’t just rip everything out of it’.
Architect: Assemblage www.assemblage.co.uk
Builder: M Building Services: 07958 200 740
Carpenter: John Russell Architectural www.john-russell-architectural.co.uk
Richard Wood: www.rtwoodfurniture.co.uk
Lightbox: Saga Arpino www.sagasstudio.typepad.com
Flooring: Kahrs www.hardwoodfloorstore.co.uk