REINVENTING THE SUBURBAN SEMI –
WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
The suburban 1930s semis of Metroland and beyond deserve a little more of our love and respect. Ask people to name their favourite period for the English house and most would probably say Georgian, with Victorian a close runner up. Few would put the 1930s semi-detached houses of suburbia high on the list, even though many were well built with good features, from decent sized gardens to high ceilings plus occasional flourishes, like stained glass windows. They may not be Art Deco gems, like some of the tube stations that fed Metroland itself, but for the most part they stand up well and now they are being reinvented for Twenty First Century family living.
We still have the developer's details of the house my grandparents saved up for in Rayner's Lane, with all of its promises of healthy living, enticing freshness and all the modern conveniences. These were houses to aspire to and went up in their thousands along the Metropolitan line and elsewhere across the country in the 1920s and '30s – as the city populations swelled and along with them the ranks of the ambitious middle classes – before the War got in the way, although they were still much in demand in the 1950s. As today's property market cools the suburban semi is being reassessed and remodelled, with their shortcomings overturned by imaginative architects like Gregory Phillips.
Phillips has earned a reputation as a house surgeon to the semi-detached suburban home, having reinvented a whole series of them in dramatic style, among a range of residential projects. Now Phillips has turned his attention to his own home in Muswell Hill, north London, transforming a very ordinary 1930s building into a contemporary space with a fluid layout, plenty of light and great connections to the large back garden. It's just the kind of project which adds to the gradual rebranding of these stalwart houses which still form a good chunk of the country's period housing stock, often sitting in leafy and well planned areas making many of them prime pieces of real estate.
"Our house is 1930s metropolitan style and similar to thousands of houses around North London and the suburbs," says Phillips, who shares the house with his wife, Sara Gordon, a company director and charity worker, as well as the couple's three daughters, Imogen, 10, Tess, 8, and Chloe, 6. "It would have been quite a comfortable family house in its day and the great thing about them is that you do have the potential for all your key living space on one floor. But the bad thing about them is the proportions of the original rooms, which were all separated off from one another. The extension, though, has made a huge difference."
The family were living in a smaller house not far away, but fast outgrowing it. Having done everything they could to enlarge the old place, they found their semi in Muswell Hill two and a half years ago and set about remodelling the building. Like many such houses, the building was neither listed nor in a conservation area and Phillips found he had full freedom to create an eye-catching single storey rear extension.
Like many of the dramatic extensions which he has created for his clients, Phillips' own scheme is essentially a modern glass structure coating and enlarging the rear of the building. The line of the extension is angled in such a way as to create privacy for both the family itself and the neighbours, with a vast bank of glazed doors which can slide back for easy access to a timber deck and the garden beyond. The extension, which added around 45 square metres of extra living space and enlarged the ground floor by around a third, also involved opening up the internal layout at the back of the house and created a universal living space which can be used by the whole family.
Taking out much of the rear brick wall of the house to make the addition – while resupporting with new steelwork – allowed Phillips to come up with a largely open plan layout with a new living room/breakfast area linked to the kitchen at the heart of the building, as well as to a large dining area set off to one side. To the front of the house the former dining room became a separate music and television room, while Phillips also converted the inter-connected garage alongside the house as a studio and playroom.
"For day to day living it's great to have a single space that you can live in, cook in and eat in," says Phillips. "The loft style, universal room is just fantastic for everyday life. The other great thing is that you do get these great connections to the garden at the back. When the house was first built there would just have been a pair of French windows and a small window to tie the house to the garden. Now in summer we can slide the glass right back and really get that inside/outside feeling. I love the openness of it."
The work to build the extension took around five months, with some weeks spent staying with relatives during the most intense building work. Creating the new addition, with under floor heating and high spec glazing, also allowed Phillips to improve the insulation standards of the house and save energy. The total cost of the extension was around £350,000 including VAT, although not including architect's bills, with Phillips being both architect and client. Phillips estimates that the family have added around £600,000 worth of value to the remodelled, four bedroom house in an area where semi-detached homes sell for anything between £1m and £1.8m.
Phillips is finding that he is getting an increasing number of calls from families looking to do similar things in a cooling market. "Moving at the moment means so much emotional stress, now that it's harder to borrow money to buy a home and more difficult to get property chains to work for everybody," Phillips says. "We get calls from people saying that they have had enough with trying to move and want to extend instead,"
In a fast rising market, some clients may have thought of making a fast profit on extending their suburban semis or – in an era of gazumping – bought the second or third house on their wish list and turned to someone like Phillips to turn it into the house of their dreams with a contemporary layout. Now it's more of a long term view, with growing families deciding that they will hold on to their homes – foregoing the costs of moving and stamp duty – and extend instead.
Recent projects for Phillips have included a large rear extension to a house for an artist in Kew, which involved designing a new living, dining and kitchen space in a glass extension leading to the garden, where Phillips also designed a painting studio in matching style. A 1950s neo-Georgian home in Sheen was also reinvented with a glass addition holding a new living room and dining room. These are the kind of additions that can make a big difference to a family home and revolutionise the whole way a family uses the space it has.
"One thing I feel really strongly about," says Phillips, "is that that you should be able to enjoy your whole house all of the time. So even the spaces that might get used a bit less – like a more formal dining area – can be seen and enjoyed all the time. Family houses of my parents' generation had formal rooms that only got used twice a year and we can't afford to live like that these days and it would seem almost obscene if you did."
Studio MG Architects recently remodelled a large four bedroomed period semi in Putney, transforming an ordinary house into a highly contemporary home with a more open plan and fluid layout, now on the market with The Modern House at £1.75m. The large glass backed extension at the rear of the house leads out to the garden, with big sliding glass doors that retract to create an indoor/outdoor connection and a sense of light and openness. A roof terrace up on the roof of the two-storey addition creates a dramatic entertaining platform, complete with mini-outdoor kitchen.
Not that this is just a London phenomenon either, with suburban semis a familiar sight in most major cities. In Leeds, Bauman Lyons Architects have reinvented many period houses including a 1940s semi for graphic designer Briony Spandler and her husband Paul. Rather than moving, the Spandlers commisioned a £100,000 two storey modern extension at the side of their home, which sits right on the edge of green belt land.
Bauman Lyons designed a new double height family room opening out to a terrace and the garden, with a rooflight drinking in natural light. A studio at first floor level provided a design studio for Briony. making the most of views out across the nearby valley. The planning process was frustratingly slow, taking over a year in all, but the construction itself took five months.
"It's part of an increasing development for homeowners to extend rather than move," says Simon Warren of Bauman Lyons. "I see this as a statement of what can be achieved for an ordinary budget by anybody who wants to extend their homes."
Many other period building types have been reinvented over the years, from disused factories turned into designer lofts and Victorian city centre terraces updated as airy, open plan starter homes. Now the suburban semi, reinvented for a new way of living, is finally coming in from the cold.
Gregory Phillips – www.gregoryphillips.com – 020 7724 3040
The Modern House – www.themodernhouse.net – 08456 344068
Studio MG – www.studiomgarchitects.com – 020 7524 7523
Bauman Lyons – www.baumanlyons.co.uk – 0113 350 8460
EXTENDING YOUR SEMI
1) Get a recommended architect on board and start talking to your local planners early – try to find out what you can and can't do before you start spending money and take note of any planning restrictions.
2) Think about what resupporting the house could involve – taking down a rear supporting wall means new steelwork to hold up the extension and the rest of your house. Make sure you have a good structural engineer involved.
3) Look at your access options for your builders – think about how easy and costly it might be to get building materials and machinery in place for a rear extension. Semis usually offer much better access than terraces.
4) Look at the pros and cons of large sheets of glazing – think about the orientation of your house and consider how large banks of glazing might affect your new living space. Discreet brise soleil screens can be added if there is a risk of too much sunshine glare.
5) Insulate and go high spec – Use high spec, low emissivity glass and take the opportunity to upgrade insulation to reduce heat loss and save energy.