Architect Phil Coffey: creating space in a tiny Highbury terrace house

Architect Phil Coffey rebuilt his Highbury home for £160,000 and it won him a top award
Halfway down an unassuming street in Highbury, north London, is a property that breaks with every convention associated with traditional terrace living. But from the outside there is no way of telling which of these modest homes, with their Identikit doors and frontages, is the odd one out.

The house in question belongs to Young Architect of the Year Phil Coffey and his wife Tamsyn. The couple demolished most of the original two-storey building back in 2007, leaving only the façade in place, and rebuilt their new space-savvy home based on the design that won Phil his award in 2012.

Phil Coffey
© All pictures by Charles Hosea
An extra floor in the Highbury terrace home created some unusual and useful space, such as this attic workspace

He abandoned the familiar terrace house layout and created a middle section without the usual ground-floor walls, so that a single space runs from the front door to the back garden, and he installed a glass staircase to create a view from the ground floor all the way up to a rooftop skylight. The resulting interior is a masterclass in how to get the most out of a small, potentially dark property on a tight budget.

Phil reveals the tricks of the trade he used to maximise existing space and create the illusion of a good deal more space — adding £500,000 to the value in the process.

Phil Coffey
Young Architect of the Year Phil Coffey and his wife Tamsyn (left); from the outside the house looks like just another terrace home (right)

The starting point: buying the property
Phil and Tamsyn, both 38, bought the Highbury property for £420,000 in 2006. The rebuild and interior design cost £160,000 — a reduced fee as Phil himself was the architect for the job — and the property is now valued at £900,000.

While the new building and interior architecture has been the main reason behind the increase in value, Phil emphasises just how crucial finding an affordable property in the area was to start with.

"I found the street by accident," he says. "I was doing a design job around the corner and spotted someone dart up an alleyway that I hadn't noticed before.

"I was curious about where it led, so I followed him and the path came out on to this row of traditional terrace houses. I immediately thought, 'I have to live on this street', first because it is beautiful, and second because these are very small properties for Islington. This area of London is dominated by big three- and four-bedroom houses. So this was something we could actually afford."

Phil Coffey
Digging a metre down created a taller space and a step down to the main living are

Luckily for Phil and Tamsyn, the construction of the Emirates Stadium just across the road was making residents nervous about a possible negative impact on the area at the time. A resulting fire sale of houses meant that three on the street came up at once.

The couple tried and failed to secure their current, west-facing home in the first instance as their plan to knock the property down threw up some mortgage issues.

But Phil wasn't prepared to let go. "I didn't tell Tamsyn but I carried on trying to get the purchase sorted out by myself. We got married that year in August and at the end of my speech I told her we had bought the house."

Phil Coffey
The open-plan kitchen is on the ground floor at the front, with the dining and living space at the back

Transforming a long, tall space
After a seven-month design period the demolition of the property began in March 2007. The original two-storey house is now three storeys high. On the ground floor there is the open-plan kitchen, dining and living area looking out into a Japanese-inspired bamboo garden; on the first floor there are two double bedrooms and a bathroom; and on the second floor there is an attic workspace with a 13ft by 3ft window almost the length of the entire back wall, giving the illusion of a balcony.

On the ground floor, Phil decided to bring the kitchen from the back to the front with a dining space in the middle and the living area at the rear.

The unbroken view from the front door over all three spaces right to the back window and the outside decking beyond maximises the ground-floor length. And the "tall space" comes partially from the decision to dig down by a metre where the kitchen ends, creating a step down into the dining and living space.

Phil Coffey
The sleek bathroom creates lots of light and space

Then there is the staircase — arguably the most impactful, space-maximising element. The open design twinned with a second flight made of glass allows for another nigh-on unbroken view — this time up 30 feet to a skylight at the top of the property: well worth the somewhat unnerving feeling of stepping on to an entirely transparent upper level staircase.

"Some people are still worried about glass stairs," concedes Phil. "But there really is no need to be, and this is a private scheme so there's no reason not to use them. They let the light in from the top all the way down to the centre of the house, which is often the darkest part of the property."

As well as making the most of the entire height of the house, the stairs have been carefully designed to add width. Using wires instead of a traditional handrail is the difference between taking up less than half an inch of space and three inches.

This saves a total of a foot off the width of the whole house, which is significant enough in a small property to fit two double rooms on a floor previously only big enough for one double and a single. An instant value boost.

Phil Coffey
The first floor has two bedrooms and a bathroom (left); glass stairs allow light in from the upper levels (right)

Trouble-shooting: planning the design and remortgaging
Phil says the most difficult part of the process was not having a client — other than his wife — to bounce ideas off. "When you are an architect used to working for other people, doing your own project is harder.

"Then there was obviously some financial stress. We had to remortgage to be able to do what we wanted to with it. It was an interesting day when the chap came around to revalue it after we had done the work to tell us if we could remortgage to a high enough level to pay the bill. "Thankfully it was fine, but we would have had to sell if we couldn't."

Phil and Tamsyn are now seriously enjoying their space with other creatives. "We often host dinners here on a Thursday night," says Phil. "We invite around 10 creative people, a mix of friends and colleagues, and have a chit-chat. Tamsyn and I take it in turns to cook and we talk about architecture and design." Of course.

All pictures by Charles Hosea

* Emily Wright is Features Editor at Estates Gazette.

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