News – Extending a semi-detached house

If you live in Tunbridge Wells, you could be forgiven for frequent pangs of kitchen envy. For a not-particularly-big town, it has reached bespoke kitchen services saturation point: the shopping parades seem to sell little other than upmarket takes on rustic, contemporary and every conceivable variation of shaker units. You just try getting away with flatpack in this place.

So perhaps it was inevitable that when Sue and Chris Baldock moved into their 1940s semi there seven years ago, they knew that there was room for improvement. The house was typical of the period: all fancy brickwork, lead lighting and Tudorbethan timbering at the front. But unfortunately, also typical of its era, the layout didn’t quite live up to the historical pretensions once you stepped through the front door: a living room to the front, a neglected dining room tucked behind and a barely there kitchen cramped into the corner at the end of the hall, behind the stairs. As if to tick every box in the cheerless, suburban checklist, a dreary PVCu Victorian-style conservatory had been thoughtlessly tacked on at the back of the house.

“We knew we would have to extend because we couldn’t afford to move again but I didn’t really know what to do,” explains Sue who, together with her husband runs the town’s branch of the Italia Conti theatrical school. ” I called lots of local architects but they were very traditional — everything had to be oak frame and that wasn’t what we were after.”

Happily she saw exactly what she did want a couple of years ago while flicking through a magazine, and immediately contacted the architect responsible, London-based William Tozer, who runs his own practice, William Tozer Architecture and Design. “I didn’t think he would come to Tunbridge Wells,” says Sue, “but he did.”

William smiles modestly and explains that, while it is very flattering to have one’s work admired, he didn’t really want to produce the same design time after time, so persuaded the Baldocks to let him rethink their requirements. “The brief is often the same with these projects — ‘We want to refurbish the kitchen and dining room and want more storage and more light.’ I’ve never had anyone say that they want a poky Victorian extension,” he laughs.

Initially he suggested building into the side access of the semi, but this was pooh-poohed by the planners. “They said a flat-roof extension wasn’t ‘in keeping’, but by giving it a pitch it would have been virtually unusable because there would hardly be any head clearance,” he sighs, still frustrated by the obduracy of the planning gestapo.

So, under their Permitted Development (PD) rights, Tozer suggested the couple extend into their roof space to create a double bedroom and shower room and then apply for permission to extend the ground floor at the back of their home. The ploy worked and the rear elevation of the Baldocks’ home now wears a rather magnificent ten-feet flat-roof extension that pulls together the former dining room and scullery kitchen into a modern kitchen/eating/family room (the front living room is now used as the Baldocks’ office). It is light-filled and elegant but not achingly so: the couple do, after all, have a young daughter to accommodate, and Tozer does not appear to be of the look-but-don’t-touch school of architecture.

Instead, the room is attractive, spacious and practical. A tiny utility room and loo have been carved out of part of the former kitchen and a lot, an awful lot, of storage has been built into the long wall that runs the length of the room. The kitchen area is a stunning, icy white – “Magnet units!” says Sue, triumphantly – topped with Corian and glass splashbacks, and the floors are oak throughout.

But what separates this extension from the usual kitchen/diner knock-throughs is the vast expanse of glass sliding doors that entirely fill the rear wall facing onto the garden. Sue obligingly pulls them all away into the space at the side of the house so that the back is entirely open to the neat little garden. The dining table teeters just on the edge of the divide as if unable to make up its mind whether to stay in or out. “If we have a barbecue and it rains, we can all just run inside and sit at the table,” says Sue. “It’s just like being out there — but drier.”

Upstairs in the loft room, William has performed a similar trick with concertinaing, foldaway, glass doors and long stretches of thin timber horizontals across the opening, producing a playful, treehouse effect. Because the roof slopes on three sides – this is an end house – the room is not especially large but the magically disappearing rear wall does give the impression of a great deal more space. The Baldocks had to sacrifice their tiny box room to make way for the beautiful, wooden, open-tread staircase to the loft. But, as Sue cheerfully concedes, they had barely been able to fit their daughter’s cot in it so the impact has been minimal (and, with some more of Tozer’s clever storage, could create a reasonable home office in the alcove that remains and, perhaps, rescues their front room from the tyranny of paperwork).

Although she has been responsible for the colour schemes – a slatey grey on the stairs and a cool bluish grey in the loft room with the downstairs kitchen/living room completely white – Sue was happy to leave many of the details to William — “I wouldn’t have a clue… that’s what I employed him for.” William agrees that clients should be able to express their own tastes and preferences in their homes. However, when he says, “The lampshade that you [Sue] chose at the end wasn’t the one we talked about!” it’s hard to tell if he’s joking — playing the role of the archetypal controlling architect.

Whatever negotiations were undertaken, the results are harmonious and delightful and the process took just 18 months from initial consultation to virtual completion — the spotless cream carpets in the loft have been down less than three hours. However, the build itself took two months longer than the 20 weeks predicted. There are dark mutterings about the contractor that was used and William explains that it had been a “difficult relationship” but the results are impressive and Sue remains remarkably unscarred by the process. “I think the hardest thing is seeing the builders treat the place like a building site when you’re still trying to keep it clean and keep on top of things,” she says. “That is traumatic and then there was one moment when we were all camping in the front bedroom and my daughter had to sleep on the floor. I thought: ‘What have I done? This isn’t right, the poor thing,’ but we got through it.”

And “apart from being skint”, the remodelling has added to their quality of life. “Sometimes I get used to having it like this and then someone who hasn’t seen it comes around and is really blown away by it,” she says. “We forget but it is so wonderful that my daughter can sit at the table with her homework and I can keep an eye on her while I cook. I love it. I really love it.”