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Flying high

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Building any modern housing in Kensington & Chelsea is something of an achievement. Alan Power Architect's project for gullwing houses takes flight

While the local regime may be architecturally conservative, the locale is more varied. This pair of houses is on Portobello Road, itself more associated with its vibrant, multicultural market. Climbing up the hill from this, the road shades into more exclusive antique shops and finally into a quiet residential area. Most of the immediate houses are small urban cottages (about, say, 75m 2), then beyond, five-storey mansions, with nothing much inbetween. The architect is building a pair of houses of about 200m 2each.

The site already had a planning permission for residential use when this architect started; the architect went back for another.

The site is immediately between a chapel used as a nursery school and a vehicular access to another site. The site's previous occupancy was a 1950s commercial building - so not a formal terrace context to fit into.

Despite concerns raised by local amenity groups and a somewhat sceptical planning committee, the objections at the first planning committee meeting focused mainly on materials. For example, should not the proposed polished-plaster entrance be of second-hand stocks and the fritted first floor balustrade be wrought-iron railings?

The architect went back to the committee a second time with a box of material samples, including a specially made mock-up of a structural glass corner.With the help of supportive planning officers, planning permission was granted. The project is now on site.

The site is tight for this amount of development. Flank walls are solid party walls. To the rear there are a couple of metres before the neighbours' back garden wall. There is no space for car parking. The building is tight to the street, so will have a framed screen wall with timber panels before steps up to the entrance to create a bit of distance from the many market-bound passers-by and the parents and children from the nursery who gather on the pavement outside. To achieve three storeys, they have dug down about 1.5m, supporting one flank wall with steels and underpinning the chapel wall, creating space for a lower-ground bedroom floor. The upper ground (entrance) level will have a bedroom/study at the front plus kitchen and dining space beyond. A neat touch is canting the rear wall of the house so that there should be a little less sense of staring out onto the rear boundary wall. Tall plants are planned.

The main drama will be the open-plan first floor with its gullwing steel frame, its columns on the party wall between the two houses, which will provide cantilevered support to the roof and surrounding column-free structural glazing. The fritted balustrade at the front will help provide privacy from the street; the planning permission does not allow the shallow balcony/set-back to be designed as a front sitting-out space, though there are to be centre-pivoted glass doors onto it.

Daring to be different has paid off here, a promising design by the architect and a credit to the small developer, Mandeville Estates, in what is its first speculative newbuild scheme.

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