London-based practice Alan Higgs Associates has just completed its 100th private-client housing commission. From one-off new-build projects to large-scale reconstructions of existing buildings, director Alan Higgs discusses how the fl ooring issues are remarkably consistent.
Ceilings and walls in houses are often pure planes with few practical complexities, using a limited choice of materials and finishes. Floors are more encumbered by joinery and furniture; they have strong relationships to other building elements and flow to contiguous external areas.
They also have many practical performance requirements, including how they wear, maintenance responsibility and slip resistance. They have even more technical interfaces; is there sub-floor heating? Is the structure rigid enough? Do the areas need movement joints?
How will screeds perform?
Is there enough drying time in the programme? How are varying levels handled? We try to turn these realities to our advantage and harness the flooring as a principal moodsetter in experiencing space.
Even on a tight budget, we encourage clients to have the best floors they can possibly afford. We then provide a floor that will just get better with age and use. A sense of luxury is important, both visually and for the very important barefoot factor. We always think about hard or soft, cold or warm and rough or smooth.
The way the floor reacts to light is very important, with some materials having a luminous quality, some a polished sheen, and some a flat or even light-absorbing effect. Acoustics are critical if we are trying to create a calm and quiet house, especially if there are children generating noise or neighbours hearing it.
There are also somewhat more subjective thoughts: my first architect mentor insisted that antique furniture should never sit on carpets, and a recent client wanted crocodile-skin embossed linoleum because it evoked a childhood memory.
I left that unexplored.
Our strong modern interiors are also not tied to current fashions, which the project illustrated shows; no limestone, wide floorboards or leather panels. It is typical of the majority of our London briefs, a large family house for full reconstruction, with an adequate, but not really excessive, budget.
GROUND FLOOR This is fully floored with a brown and white terrazzo tile.
This was the second material that we chose for the house (after bronze ironmongery) and it sets a theme for the whole building. The tiles are very cheap to buy but expensive to lay; they require two wet-sanding and polishing processes, but they are still about half the price of a poured, in situ floor in the same material. They will work well with tracked-in water, be indestructible under the childrens' bikes and repel the worst kitchen disasters. The terrazzo fitters will actually lay the screed over the underfloorheating pipework, causing significant coordination issues, but they will then be responsible for the levels, moisture content and protection. The external decking will be laid at the same level as the terrazzo, and be stained a matching colour for maximum continuity.
FIRST FLOOR The stairs up to the first fl oor are the same terrazzo but in pre-cast units fitted over cast concrete. The hall reverts to the same tiles, which extend into the guest WC and our signature circular doormat is coir, recessed into the floor with a bronze trim. The big drawing room and library at this level has an American black walnut floor. This will be visually warmer and softer, and of a similar hue and depth of colour to the terrazzo. This floor is also heated, so we are using woodblocks as they have minimal shrinkage problems and can be glued in place. The small blocks will also not accentuate, as boards would, the out-ofsquare geometry of the house.
This grand room has two fireplaces, for which we have designed new surrounds in bronze aluminium panel, and the hearths will use the same terrazzo, again in pre-cast slabs. There is trench heating to augment the floor heating, so we are fitting it with beautifully engineered bronze grilles, custom made for precision and consistency.
SECOND FLOOR Matching walnut is used for the stair upwards, to link with the adjacent rooms and give more substance to the stair and more tactile quality to the hand rail and balustrade.
The first carpet now appears, and is a thick, expensive, orange-wool stair runner. We introduced this to enliven the experience of a five-storey stairwell, and to add a sense of there being something worth ascending for. It will also be safe and quiet in a family house.
This level of parents' bedroom, bathroom, dressing room and study is finished with the same walnut wood-block and a large, soft plain grey velvet-pile wool rug in the bedroom. We sometimes use wood in bathrooms, with caveats, but not in children's anarchic splash zones.
THIRD AND FOURTH FLOORS The stair joinery here changes to softwood for economy, painted the same warm grey colour as the walls and doors.
The orange carpet becomes an inset on the large landing with a walnut border. This detail separates the strong carpet colour from the grey, less luxurious and hardwearing carpets of the three bedrooms and the purple and rose sheet-rubber floors of the bathroom and utility rooms.
Rubber is an extremely versatile material and is available in sophisticated, slightly odd colours. It is quiet, soft and contrasts very well with tiling, polyester-based Durat and other hard bathroom surfaces. I also have a slight wariness of stone and tile floors high up in old houses, and prefer a more movementtolerant material. The colour consultants for these rooms are Millie, Freya and Grace, aged 11, eight and five, who all have very good taste.