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Work in progress

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Having given an inter-war suburban house a strong new identity, Jeffrey James Design has handed the project over to the client Clients determined to be different have provided Jeffrey James with his first new-build project. They are determined enough to have built themselves a timber 'garden shed' at the bottom of the garden, some 7 x 4.5m, where the family of five lived while the refronting and first fix was done. They then moved in and are now gradually completing the job as time, money and new ideas permit.

The immediately surrounding area of south London has many streets of Victorian consistency, but where the house stands is an exception. It is a street 'scrambling for identity', in James' view. Refronting the house and adding a full-height, flat-roofed storey where there was a pitched roof, were supported by the planners from the first. As was the decision to focus away from the street with a near-windowless facade. It is a highly abstract composition, a screen wall, intended to express the ethos rather than the function within. It is a bit more formal than you would expect for these clients.

Beyond the exclusive facade - intentionally more exclusive than that of the Eldridge Smerin house (pp36-40) - the house in part focuses inwards, but it also looks to to the rear where it looks across a populated valley, giving some of the feel of a hill town. The house reaches out to this with extensive glazing and a terrace on the ground floor, a first-floor balcony and on the new second floor, broad glazing and a roof terrace.

So far the bones of the reorganisation are in place.With the clients now living in the house, the usual contractual sequence of second fix throughout, then finishes, is not happening.

Instead there are islands of the clients' work-in-progress while keeping the house habitable. The clients are content to live with their studwork for a few months at a time.

Apart from opening up the rear of the house to the valley, the most radical internal change has been repositioning the stair and opening up the ground floor. Where once there was a dark entrance corridor, there is now a a three-floor-high light shaft created to illuminate the front of the groundfloor plan and the circulation above.

The house's sloping valley-side site led to the original section stepping down the hill, with the front room almost a metre higher than the rear rooms.Now that the ground floor is all one open space, the ex-front room area retains that level difference, making it stage-like.

(Radiators are built into the step face. ) With the clients' taste in off-the-wall art already on the wall, and their working in set design, we can expect some drama here one day.

The project is not now moving fast, but neither is it hanging over the clients. It has become a family project; the six-year-olds know what a cross-head screwdriver is and does. One of the clients, at least, dreams of moving on from this project to a more radical, new-build start somewhere else. For James it is personal too; his background is also a hands-on one - designing and making interiors and furniture - and he is pleased to be deconstructing the sort of house he grew up in.

A job like this has its own issues, about insurances and what might constitute practical completion, about whether that lavender emulsion really is a good idea. It is not the sort of approach that gets hospitals and offices built; here, though, it is a very appropriate design service.

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