When Sotheby’s medieval manuscripts expert Lizzie Treip was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the Nineties at the age of 35, it was a shock. London isn’t an easy place to get around at the best of times, and nor are some of its quirkier old houses.
Treip, her architecture critic husband Rowan Moore, and their children, Helena, now 20, and Stella, 17, were living in exactly that type of house - made from a joined pair of late Regency cottages in east London, in one of the few terrace streets left unscathed by Second World War bombs. With their graceful iron balconettes, these tiny houses, now listed, ooze charm. But the staircases inside are steep and narrow, and if you have difficulty walking, the front-door step, steps down to the garden, or a step between two rooms will be a problem.
The street was derelict in the Seventies and the local council offered people the right to pairs of houses for £400. Treip’s double house was bought by a couple who, she says, had been to art college before the man became a builder and did all the work himself.
Light, space and air: Helena, Lizzie and Stella on the balcony
In 1992, just married, Treip was on the lookout for a home. “Somebody at work told me about this street so we came to have a look and rather fell in love with it.” When she and Moore bought the house there was no central heating, the wiring was “home-grown” and there were very different levels between the houses where they connected.
Across the back of the property, the garden was half a storey lower than the front, so the do-it-yourself hero had made a balcony on enormous concrete pillars, with rickety wooden steps to the garden. “He overengineered or under-engineered,” Treip says. Nevertheless, they bought the house, made their own improvements, planted the double-width garden with climbing roses, and raised their children.
However, as Treip’s MS slowly progressed, she realised major changes would be needed. It became impossible for her to climb the stairs. “I had a chair lift, but they are so ugly. I loved the garden, but couldn’t get down to it for two years, as I didn’t want a fall. We had been thinking of doing something for years, and went through endless variations.”
In 2011 it was time for action, so they drew up a shortlist of six architects, and interviewed three. “6a were the best by miles. They are very nice people - and that matters hugely.”
Slowly, the idea emerged of a timber-clad building undulating gently down the north flank of the garden, with its long southern side basking in sunlight, looking on to the remaining half of the plot and curving around a mature sumac tree. The French doors to the balcony were taken out, and the balcony itself was glassed in and made to slope gently to the start of the new building.
Outside and in: a turning circle sits at the end of a gently winding path through the garden, overlooked by the airy balcony
Corridor to calm
The moment you step from the colourful family kitchen through to the new part, all is calm and awash with sunlight. The walls are white, the floor is plywood painted white and is softly pitched so that Treip’s motorised chair can travel down it easily.
Along a wide, curved corridor punctured on the garden side by picture windows, large cupboards with lug handles at an easy height provide ample storage. All the light switches are the same height, and sockets are raised so Treip can reach them. Simple details like this make a big difference. On the outside, the structure is clad in reclaimed hardwood sliced from old railway sleepers, with 12mm gaps between. This silvered wood, marked from previous use, gives the outside a warm, grey, zebra-ish feel.
In several places inside, what look like cupboard doors lead into spaces in the stripy carapace. Once open, they make slotted wooden vents through which the garden can be glimpsed and air can flow naturally throughout the new “house”. The exposed roof timbers of the new structure are painted white, giving a fresh, New England look.
At the far end there’s a bed-sitting room, and a wide door to a functional bathroom. The wall to the bathroom isn’t full height, so everything feels airy and connected. Treip’s new extension, which she likens to an oasis, feels like a holiday cabin, full of pleasurable surprises, the best of which is the glass door to the garden. Right outside is a deck, where she spends much time surrounded by her garden. The plot was redesigned with an undulating path running between baby silver birches, while perennials provide year-round delight, from rare geraniums to pink Japanese anemones, blue agapanthus, and the prolific white climbing rose and ornamental cherry. At the end of the path, a turning circle lets Treip get back again.
Design as thoughtful as this, absolutely tailor-made to the user, is what good architecture is about. This home isn’t flashy - though it is beautiful - but it does all the client asked for and more, for a reasonable price. And it is a temporary structure, made entirely of wood, all the way from its foundations to its roof, so that one day, if wished, it can be taken down. Her oasis has, says Treip, “a very light footprint”.
HOW TO GET THE LOOK
Design: 6a architects (6a.co.uk)
Structural engineering: Price & Myers (pricemyers.com)
Jarrah hardwood sleepers: from ashwellrecycling.com
Carpentry/joinery and builder/contractor: John Perkins Projects (johnperkinsprojects. co.uk)
Lug pull-handles: made by the contractor from aluminium
Paint colour: Not Totally White by Papers and Paints (papers-paints.co.uk)
Garden design: Mark Cummings (mcgardendesign.co.uk)
Total cost of build: approximately £150,000.
Portraits by Adrian Lourie. Other images by Johan Dehlin @6a architects