Architect Cezary Bednarsk's bold Notting Hill family home

This dramatic new home in Notting Hill is the genius idea of Cezary Bednarski, an architect used to worldwide challenges. No wonder it has the wow factor
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Spending hours in the company of architect Cezary Bednarski is one of the more life-affirming ways to pass the time. Intelligent, street-smart and fast-thinking, this 2001 Manser Medal-winner spends much of his time designing iconic bridges and public spaces the world over.

The discipline needed to build on a tight urban plot in Notting Hill Gate is of a different kind — but he has succeeded in creating an iconic contemporary home for his family on a prominent corner location within the Colville Conservation Area near Portobello Road.

Cezary Bednarski's modern block in Notting Hill
Cezary Bednarski's modern block in Notting Hill is in stark contrast to his neighbours' traditional terrace houses

Cezary Bednarski
Cezary Bednarski built his home to suit the needs of his wife Yeni and their family
The five metre-wide by 18 metre-deep corner plot was created some 35 years ago when a dangerous structure notice was served on a house that stood there, long since left derelict by a Nigerian prince. The council demolished the place. The site became a local venue for children’s football games and, later on, a bit of a dumping ground. A lively mural on the side of the neighbouring property added some colour to the mix.

The planning process
The council finally sold the plot and Cezary picked it up in 2007 for £650,000. The planning process had two stages — first to get approval for a change of use from public open space to residential, and second, for detailed planning permission for what was finally built. Luckily the neighbours weighed in with letters of support and approval came in just six weeks.

The tiny site was too small for a single house with a garden, which pushed Cezary — needing to make his investment make sense financially — into the idea of building two “vertically detached” houses, thanks in part to the corner location allowing two very separate entrances. Cezary’s design history indicated quite clearly this was not going to be a run-of-the-mill townhouse.

“Our functional brief was a home for four, with ample space for music-making and racing Scalextric,” explains Cezary. “The emotional brief was for ‘light, bright, easy spaces’ and a warm home that was connected to its setting. The building is of its time in terms of aesthetics, use of materials and spatial solutions.”

The house makes every use of its site with a two-metre-long strip to the back to allow light into the rear of a neighbouring house. Externally, the terrazzo panelling at street level provides what Cezary calls a “defence” against the random acts of passers-by (this being what agents might call a “lively” part of west London — Cezary reports that a few bottles were thrown at the nearly finished house during the riots in summer 2011), and breaks up the white render. But the highlight, of course, is the remarkable grill-like window structure that brings light into the upper living area, where Cezary and his family live.

Notting Hill house
The glazed "bay" windows allow light in but maintains privacy

A modern take on bay windows
Constructed of oak, with long pieces of glazing carefully installed on-site, the window structure resembles a kind of modern take on a bay window, an east-facing oak façade overhanging the pavement by a foot, giving welcome additional space, benefiting the streetscape and, of course, the owners. Cezary has squeezed further extra space by protruding the front elevation of the house by nearly four feet relative to its neighbours, giving the impression of bookending the terrace.

This device accomplishes much more than a simple space-grab, however. For one of the crowning achievements of Cezary’s design is the way it allows glimpses of the local area from the most unexpected spots. By glazing part of that protruding front elevation, Cezary can spend an enjoyable Saturday afternoon surveying the street below down to Portobello Market; the window on the east façade allows more of London to emerge.

Individual windows frame certain bits of unexpected nature — one in particular is cleverly filled with a single tree in the street, another with distant parkland, giving the impression of being in the countryside rather than the middle of the city. Yet privacy was also a major issue. None of the fixed glazing in the bay window is clear — Cezary used a clever system called Vanceva, which provides an interlayer between double glazing to allow about 15 per cent transparency. “It has the effect of being a bit like London smog,” he jokes.

Inside the entrance is via stairs up to a first floor (the “lower” house has been sold off to a Dutch architect and his wife) where the en suite bedrooms are located.

Upstairs, there is a fine living room, kitchen and office space, where Cezary works and can spy on the comings and goings at the local Sarm recording studios, one of London’s iconic rock landmarks. Ceilings almost 10 feet high make the spaces feel more than generous. A further flight of stairs takes you up to the roof garden, which is used partly as a vegetable patch and for communing with nature.

Notting Hill house
The bright kitchen is from Italian supplier VIK (left); the open stair risers maximise light in the hall (right)

Construction system
This high level of design, using bespoke detailing for every aspect of the construction, took time. Cezary reckons he and his office spent a total of 4,500 hours (averaging about 550 man days) on the scheme, but it’s a great place to be. Cezary concludes: “There is joy, inventiveness and surprise to it, and to the living in it, and this is its most precious quality.”

Homebuilding and Renovating
He used shuttered in-situ concrete, reinforced with steel, for the construction of the house. “We wanted thermal mass and not to be rocked by passing buses and lorries,” he explains.

The concrete was probably the most effective way to create the overhang and the wrap-around glazing in the lower house. There is only one column in the house and all perimeter walls are structural — meaning that the subdivision of the individual floor plates can be altered by future owners.

This article first appeared in Homebuilding & Renovating magazine.

Photographs by Simon Maxwell

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