Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


Full of character and solidly built, Victorian houses are a constant favourite. There is something deeply reassuring about the brick-built British Victorian terrace, which still thrives in so many of our towns and cities. But for all their plus sides, Victorian terraces do need some imaginative reinvention to help them adapt to the more relaxed way of living that we want for ourselves today. So, with the housing market looking flat and moving less of an option for some, increasingly homeowners are looking at adding extra space at the back of their sturdy Victorians.

Around a fifth of the houses in the UK were built before 1919, with the building boom of the 19th century forming a big slice of them. But Victorian terraces do come with lots of box-like rooms and a limited amount of light, while today we want open plan family kitchens and dining spaces. The obvious solution lies in the back garden with an extension that makes good use of lost and neglected land, especially the forlorn courtyards – or side returns - sitting alongside the rear annexes that come as standard with so many terraced homes.

Opening up the back of a terrace with a generous kitchen diner, using plenty of glass to pull in natural light and make the most of views of the back garden, can totally transform the Victorian home and help bring it right up to date.

ROOM WITH A VIEW - £100,000-150,000
Architect Charles Barclay has lived in his Peckham terrace, dated 1885, for over twenty years. He first bought the house with two friends and then took over the mortgage. But by 2007, the limitations of the house were obvious, with the original annexe – or outrigger - at the back completely cut off from the back garden and the rooms typically cellular.

'The house has a lot of nice features but all the rooms are tiny,' says Barclay, 48, which shares the house with partner Jean-Claude Clifford. 'One way of dealing with that is to open up the two ground floor living rooms and knock them together but that can leave you with an awkwardly proportioned space. It was a typical case of thinking we either need to move from the house or change it quite dramatically.'

Barclay decided to completely remodel the back of the house, creating a large new kitchen, dining and living area opening up to a long garden. The new space pushes out an extra four metres from the original brick annexe but also pushes deep into it, while making good use of the side return that sat to the side. With a budget of £120,000, including costs for a party wall surveyor and agreement, Barclay created a generous open plan space of around 38 square metres in total.

Barclay and Clifford continued living in the four bedroomed house while the work was done over a six month period, with all materials and building waste – including barrow loads of excavated earth – going in and out of the house through the front door, as the garden is landlocked. Barclay introduced plenty of natural light in the new space, using sliding glass doors to the garden, a skylight and a modern version of a bay window to one side, looking into a garden shared with the house next door, as well as a small patio that serves as a lightwell. Elements such as a new fireplace help divide up the space inside.

'There is a slight risk of tunnel vision when you have a shoe box proportioned extension and a long garden,' says Barclay. 'As an architect, when you design extensions on terraced houses you have to find ways of mitigating that shoe box syndrome. So you create different points of interest – like the fireplace or bay window – to give you a different feel.'

The experience of living in the house has been totally transformed and even though the £120,000 extension might seem expensive relative to the £350,000 that the house was valued at just before the work was done, for Barclay the costs were well worthwhile.

'It's created a house that I'm happy to live in for another ten years,' says Barclay. 'And if you do a good job with an extension then you probably will get that money back eventually when you do come to sell unless the market does something drastic. And you do have to think of it in terms of the daily pleasure that the space will give you and that is worth something in itself.'

Charles Barclay Architects – – 020 8674 0037

UP TO THE WALL - £50,000-£100,000
Designed by Studio Octopi for a family in Queen's Park, this £85,000 rear extension to a three bedroom turn of the century house makes great use of the vacant side return alongside the brick annexe at the back of the building. A new kitchen and dining room has been slotted in to the existing brickwork and opens out onto a new timber deck and the garden beyond.

The lost strip of land that used to hold the side return is now home to an extended galley kitchen, with a long skylight above sucking in sunshine, while a mini courtyard has been preserved as a lightwell serving both the extension and the back reception room in the main body of the house.

The architects worked under the former permitted development rules - which have since been amended - as the concrete and glass extension only pushes out to a maximum of two metres from the original lines of the house.

'The majority of new extensions to period houses make use of the side return, as it offers extra width to space at the rear of period properties,' says Chris Romer-Lee of Studio Octopi. 'There is a lovely view from the rear reception room across this little courtyard and through the extension and into the garden. But a considered approach to light and glazing is critical. Extensions should never just be about having as much glass as possible because this doesn't create good living spaces.'

Studio Octopi – – 020 7633 0003

LIGHT VISION - £150,000-£200,000
Journalist Chris Giles, wife Katie and their two young children live in an 1840s terrace in Camden. Their three storey home was let down by a 1970s lean to extension at the back that Giles describes as 'small, damp and draughty'. With the children happily placed in a nearby school, the family didn't want to move but were eager for more living space.

They went to architect Alan Crawford, at the Crawford Partnership, who designed a striking two storey rear extension across the width of the house for just under £200,000, featuring a new playroom/guest room on the upper level and a kitchen/diner on the ground floor with a bank of folding glass doors opening up to the garden. A large skylight along a double height portion of the dining area helps bring in plenty of sunlight.

'Our enjoyment of the whole house has been transformed by the additional living space,' says Giles. 'There is no way that we would still be living in the house now without the extension. Instead of cramped living we now have a functioning and stylish kitchen/diner which is the heart of the house. We had no idea that the space would transform the way we use the house so much.'

Crawford Partnership – – 020 8444 2070

21ST CENTURY TERRACE - £200,000+
As part of a full refurbishment and reinvention of this five bedroom, Victorian family home in Notting Hill – which included a rooftop sun room – architects Michaelis Boyd opened up the lower ground floor of the house and extended into the rear garden.

An existing bay extension was swallowed up by a much more ambitious contemporary treatment, creating a dramatic dining area as part of a large open plan kitchen/dining space. The new addition extends into the garden by four metres.

A wealth of natural light is supplied by a bank of sliding glass doors to the garden, plus two large skylights over the dining area. An open stairwell allows light to circulate between floors.

'Natural light from above via roof lights is stronger,' says Alex Michaelis of Michaelis Boyd. 'Having different sources of natural light allows for a diffuse filtering of daylight into the spaces. These extended zones are usually family oriented areas that spill out into gardens or terraces and creating living and cooking areas at the back of the house allows for family privacy.'

Michaelis Boyd – – 020 7221 1237

Q. Will I need planning permission for my extension?

A. Yes, if you go more than three metres from the rear elevation of the house you will certainly need planning permission. Under three metres could be allowed under permitted development, although if the house is listed you will still need listed building consent.

Q. Are many Victorian houses extended under permitted development rules?

A. Ninety per cent of extensions will have planning permission. Permitted development rules tend to be too restrictive. Three metres is not very much or very useful.

Q. Will I have to pay for any party wall agreements with my neighbours if I extend my house?

A. Yes, the responsibility for all costs for party wall agreements and party wall surveyors rests with the person having the work done. Although the costs are supposed to be 'reasonable' these costs can become excessively expensive in relation to the costs of the extension and the bills start climbing.

Q. How long will it take to get planning permission for an extension and how long to build?

A. It will take eight weeks to get planning permission and to build a good extension will take at least ten to fifteen weeks. Also, remember that if the rear of your house is landlocked all materials and waste will need to come in and out through the house itself.

Q. How much will an extension cost?

A. The biggest thing that will affect the cost is how much structural work you do and the square metreage can also make a big difference. To do a reasonable job, it will be at least £60,000 plus VAT and you could easily double that.

Q. Will there be restrictions on the height or length of the extension?

A. Some councils are starting to get extremely tight on these things and careful about what they let through. Some London boroughs impose a limit of around two metres in height for rear extensions, so sometime we have to lower the floor level to get a really good ceiling height inside. Every council has slightly different rules but it can be worth pushing the planners hard on height and length because it can make a big difference to the project.

Andrew Dobson is a director of architectural and design consultancy Dobson and Vivian,

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