Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


As a property developer, Alex Wingate has made something of a habit of falling for the buildings he has created. Over the years he and his wife Sukey have taken up residence in a couple of houses that he has developed. When it came to his new project, the Herringbone House in Wandsworth, the temptation again proved so great that Wingate and his family upped sticks from Notting Hill and moved south of the river.

"Fairly early on I realised that the contemporary design of the house and the target customer I had in mind matched us perfectly," says Wingate. "I had in mind someone with an appreciation of design, probably with a young family, who was thinking of moving from a smaller property to somewhere with more space. I came up with myself and to be able to create a home for yourself from scratch is a unique opportunity."

Wingate had found a unique site in a leafy South London street, lined with Edwardian houses and with parkland a short walk away. Unlike most plots of land suited for infill, this large site had the benefit of being set well back from the street and surrounded by large gardens. Between Wingate's land and the street stood the manicured green lawns of a bowling club, which agreed to sell him an extra sliver of land as an access road. There was space enough for not just one, but a pair of Herringbone Houses, one for the family and one to sell on.

"Most backland sites in London are cobbled together and sandwiched between existing houses so you usually end up with a half baked house folded in on itself, because of issues of privacy and overlooking the neighbours," says Wingate. "But here there's this big chunk of bowling club land between us and the street and so we could build houses that really look outwards rather than inwards."

From the beginning, Wingate was sure that he wanted to build something innovative and contemporary, a view supported by the local planners. After some research, he went to Alison Brooks, an architect who has rapidly established a reputation for original thinking with a series of award winning modern houses.

"Our first instinct was to create houses that act like viewing galleries for the bowling green," says Brooks, "and that they should relate strongly to the timber-fenced, backland quality of the site rather than the Edwardian semi-detached houses along the rest of the street. That was the starting point.

"It was also satisfying to design a pair of houses, as they begin to create a formal rhythm that suggests a streetscape in itself, rather than just being a one off. The architecture is also quite transparent at the ground floor levels and interlocks with the landscape and gardens creating a much greater sense of space and potential for indoor/outdoor living."

Having bought the site in late 2002, it took almost two years to secure planning permission and for work to begin. Wingate's six bedroomed house is four storeys, with a discreet basement holding a playroom for the children – Sebastian, 4, and Miles, 2 – and service areas. The main living spaces on the ground floor and the bedrooms above all make the most of the setting, with strong connections to the garden and open views from the master bedroom out across the pristine lawns of the bowling club.

"We made the decision to move into one of the houses during construction," says Wingate. "But we made very few changes to the design after making that decision. The basic layout and detailing stayed the same. In my book, the brief for a large contemporary family house meant large windows facing in all directions and lots of light. We have this central core of the entrance hall and this dramatic staircase – almost like a sculpture – and then three spokes coming off it like a pinwheel, holding the different elements of living space."

To one side of the entrance hall stands a more formal living room, furnished with a mix of new furniture, mid-century pieces and ethnic touches which the Wingates have picked up on their travels. To the back of the house is a family room, with fabric lined walls for texture and a cosier feel, while to the other side of the hall is a large open plan kitchen and dining area, again bathed in light and opening out to the landscape, with garden design by Christopher Bradley-Hole, who worked closely with Brooks.

"What was so successful about the house was that garden and house became one," says Wingate. "The garden is really a series of rooms in itself with something to discover at every turn, but it is also an extension of the house with every space on the ground floor interacting with the landscape. We've kept the windows level with the floor inside so there's this seamless effect with the perspective taking you through the house and then outside."

The layout inside was kept very fluid and flexible, with large folding doors discreetly tucked away much of the time but that can soon be closed off when having dinner parties or entertaining. Alex and Sukey Wingate – who works in television – worked with interior designer Allison Morse on some of the finishing touches, adding zones of texture and colour to certain areas to soften and warm the house. They also worked on lightly delineating certain elements such as the dining area, where a large John Bratby painting sits against a backdrop of a single chocolate wall. The fluidity of the house and the way it opens up to the outside, both help create an impression of a great generosity of space.

"This was the big difference to other projects that I've done," says Wingate, who used to work in banking before getting involved in property development in the early 1990s. "Usually a house looks at its biggest on the plans before you start and then it begins to contract as you build and start filling in space. But with this house the opposite happened for me. The spaces ended up being much bigger than I thought they'd be. We didn't really know if our dining table would fit well in the kitchen but we found we had acres of space. The kids often bring up their train set into the kitchen and set it up between the table and the kitchen island, turning it into an unofficial playroom."

And the herringbone coat itself, made from ipe timber, adds another unique dimension, creating a real sense of character as well as a rich texture, but without being showy.

"We were having a team meeting with Michael Woolford, the project architect, and the rest of the office at the detailing stage and we all agreed we were bored with the idea of horizontal timber cladding," says Brooks. "We started sketching out ideas and someone suggested herringbone. We thought why not? We are always interested in taking materials and patterns outside of their typical contexts and this was one of those eureka moments. If you allow it to happen, projects like this will soak up new and better ideas until the moment they are built."

Alison Brooks Architects –