“You don’t get stone rocket ships!” must be one of the more bizarre phrases ever uttered following a planning committee meeting in response to objectors describing the new development as ‘space age’. But Zoran Baros and Sandra Bilsborrow were the proud recipients of this little gem of surreality and no doubt plenty more besides when they tried to get approval on their astonishingly radical plans to remodel and extend a run-of-the-mill 1916 bungalow in Preston.
“They set up a planning committee meeting just for us,” explains architect Zoran, who confesses that he’s used the house he and Sandra purchased in 1999 “as a bit of a prototype to see how far we could experiment with contemporary design.” Zoran and Sandra were the only ones who were willing to take a risk on the bungalow, which suffered from subsidence and failed to inspire the imagination of local housebuyers.
“I knew that I wanted to do something with it,” continues Zoran. “It was in a very good location and close to family. I’ve always been keen to try to stretch existing properties as far as they will go, and this seemed like a great opportunity. My colleague Paul Daly, who is an associate in our architectural practice, was instrumental in the development of the design, and from the outset we wanted to push the boundaries.”
Planning successfully negotiated – it was a controversial application, opposed locally but supported by the planners – work could commence. “The general theme is for an experimental wraparound extension that punctures into the walls of the existing building where it needs to,” sort of explains Zoran. Basically, there’s a modern extension to the side and rear but rather than completely meshing this with the old interior, the large part of the existing exterior walls have been kept — this isn’t necessarily an opening up, more of a new buffer around the outside, separating new and old. This is best exemplified in a new corridor, which sits between the original exterior wall and a new stone ‘spine’ wall off which the new flitch beam roof truss structure partially sits. “It was designed to make a clear distinction between the preexisting and new form, set on an east-west axis as an orientating device,” says Zoran.
The new side extension is very much the focus of the revitalised bungalow, enjoying views through the glazed pivot door out onto the garden. One of Zoran’s key design themes is structural honesty. “I didn’t want to hide away the structural elements of the house,” he explains. “I like the honest ‘industrial’ approach.” Actually, in the new living space, Zoran’s taken the industrial look to extremes — even exposing a galvanized steel brace on the wall.
These fantastic design touches – more of which later – are all the more impressive considering that Zoran and Sandra weren’t directing builders to carry all this out from a luxury local rented cottage — they were initially living 30 miles away in Manchester. Later, they lived in the bungalow during work, all of which was managed directly by Zoran, who got involved in as much DIY as possible along the way. “Partially this was because we wanted to closely manage the subcontractors, as the success of the contemporary design depended so much on the details being carefully executed, but also because we were operating on a very tight budget.” And this, really, is one of the most appealing aspects of Zoran and Sandra’s project. Despite having its main focus on house design, the story of this project is about so much more — it’s about how, on a very modest budget, even the most ordinary of houses can be transformed into an effective, working home suitable for the 21st century. The sandstone wall, for instance, gains its charming random finish because it consists of off-cuts from Johnsons Wellfield Quarries in Huddersfield. Materials such as plywood have been used in innovative ways internally (as blanks for the internal doors, for instance), furthering the mix of high design and cost-effective, realistic approach.
One of the key improvements to the house has been in the quality of light. “While we have used the shell of the original house and even broadly followed the window positioning,” says Zoran, “we have increased the size of the openings, and this allows much more natural light into the house. Of course, with us trying to maintain the existing walls too, this ensures that the rooms at the centre of the house are as light as possible.” One way in which Zoran ensured that these original rooms are still attractive spaces was to work on vertical height (and light) as well as side windows — the kitchen, for instance, is relatively small in terms of floor area but feels much more generous as a result of the double-height ceiling.
The conversion of the attic space (bungalows built in the pre-war period tend to have voluminous lofts) has been critical to the success of the layout. It is home to the most spectacular piece of design magickry in the whole house — a one-piece engineered timber desktop that runs the whole length of Zoran’s home office and then sets off vertically to form a kind of balustrade to the cantilevered staircase. The home office itself overlooks the dining room, adding significant architectural interest to the layout. The rest of the attic level is currently taken up with a self-contained ‘apartment’ with bed space and lounge for visiting guests, although the layout is designed to be flexible and will accommodate two single bedrooms and a bathroom or a double bedroom and large en suite, as needs arise.
Outside, it’s the rear of the property that represents best just how far Zoran and Sandra have taken this house in design terms. With its two strong monopitch roof sections casting mighty angular shapes, the bungalow seems from this angle more Huf Haus than anything else; it really is impossible to believe that hidden away inside is a 1916 bungalow.
God, this is one hell of a house — a real statement that, given clever design and plenty of vision, pretty much anything can be achieved out of any building you care to mention. It’s a triumph of hope above all — and has all those elements that truly great houses have: smartness, intelligence, bravery and, most importantly, surprise. Zoran himself is happy to admit some of the experiment’s practical failings – “It would have been much simpler to take it down and build from scratch,” he admits – and it is so out of the comfort zone of what you would usually anticipate in terms of flow and layout that it can be a little unexpected as a visitor. As with any self-confessed experiment, not all of the results are completely what you might expect. But given this mix of low-budget grounding and stupendously ambitious design, you can’t help but be impressed.