But when the architect Silvia Ullmayer, a director of Ullmayer Sylvester Architects, was called in to extend a one-bedroom flat at the top of a Victorian house in Highbury, north London, she decided to build an extension with a difference.
© All photographs by David Butler
The result is a Royal Institute of British Architects award-winning scheme which has managed to inject drama into what could have been a workaday project. There's a flexible, double height living space and galleried bedroom above, but the design doesn't lose touch with the fundamentals. So, space is still maximised, there's masses of storage, plenty of natural light, plus good insulation, and it's great for entertaining.
When Ullmayer first saw the property there was not much to like about it. For a start it was tiny. The minimum space standard for new-build, one-bedroom flats, as decreed by Mayor Boris Johnson, is currently 50 square metres. This property measured just 37sq m, into which were squeezed a narrow kitchen, compact living room and bedroom and windowless bathroom, all leading off a central corridor.
Ullmayer's client — an artist — bought the property in 1995 for £74,000. It was part of a converted house. The loft was accessible but did not technically belong to the flat, so the artist asked her neighbours if she could buy it and include it in her property. As the roof badly needed repairing because it was leaky, the deal was struck that she would pay to have it fixed in return for being able to take over the loft and extend her flat into it. And thanks to a recommendation from a friend, she found and hired Ullmayer to design the project.
"It was great to have the loft to work with to maximise the space but not necessarily maximising the number of rooms," said Ullmayer.
In 2009 she applied for planning permission for a reconfigured duplex flat with a super-size line of Velux windows embedded in the roofline above a new mezzanine floor in the attic space which slides back to let in air and light.
This room is used as a bedroom. Downstairs, after ripping out every existing wall, Ullmayer moved the kitchen beneath the mezzanine. The kitchen is separated from the double height living room by a sliding wall and the owner can either open out the entire space into one big room, or keep the two rooms separate, as she chooses. A long, slim wet room was also planned in. Planning consent was given in 2010 and work began that November, completing at Easter 2011.
Even after its extension the flat, at 54sq m, is still not huge, but it is spacious and every inch works as hard as possible.
All the joinery was done by Roger Hynam (rogeroger.co.uk) who built a bespoke kitchen with taller-than-usual floor units. Not only does this mean the (tall) owner does not have to stoop when cooking, but it also means there is more storage space beneath the blue-grey composite stone work surface. The colour scheme in the flat is largely grey, but as fans of mummy porn know, there are at least 50 shades to choose from.
The plywood kitchen cupboards are faced with a warmer grey with a hint of ochre, and the pine wood floors are mid-grey. The colour of the wood can be detected beneath the stain, giving a hint of warm russet. The sliding door between kitchen and living room features shelving which slides back behind the wall, while there are built-in cupboards beneath the staircase.
Also beneath the stairs is the wet room which is tiled in white-and-grey marble, but rather than the conventional "hotel bathroom" look, this stone has corrugations cut into it, creating a wonderful texture.
The flat, in its original state, was almost entirely featureless so a wood burning stove — economical and environmentally friendly — was installed in the living room. The room is sparsely furnished but it does possess a statement dining table by the Israeli designer Jair Straschnow (straschnow.com) which seats eight but can be folded away and, since it is made of bamboo, is light enough to move easily.
The stairs are clad in a grey lino — durable and inexpensive — with aluminium trims and the balustrade is glass to add to the feeling of light and space.
The bedroom features built-in storage along one wall, which includes a small work station and fridge-style shelving in the doors — measures that make for an even more hard-working space.
There is additional cupboard space beneath the eaves, which also incorporate a hand basin. Even the bespoke bed has storage, beneath the mattress, and space for books around the base. It has been built, like the rest of the fittings, by Hynam, and is on castors so it can easily be moved about the room, which is lit by the Velux windows. An electric blind provides shade when required, while a roof-top herb garden (in reality a window box which runs the length of the window) is just outside.
The decision not to build a conventional upper floor to the flat means that it remains a one-bedroom property. Had Ullmayer opted for a complete top floor she could have turned it into a two-bedroom property, which inevitably would have been worth more. But a surveyor was consulted before work began and so Ullmayer was confident that, given the fact that the property only cost £73,000, the £165,000 cost of the project would not leave her client in the red.
The latest estimate is that the flat is now worth around £320,000. Not that this bothers the owner. She had the work done so that she could stay in the flat, not to make it more saleable.
Photographs by David Butler