Don’t Move, Improve! Meet the Londoners who have added 70sq ft of space without an extension - turning a tired Sixties Dulwich house into an award-winning family home

A confident use of colour, storage tricks and space-saving sliding doors turned this Sixties house into a flexible family home.

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Affordable housing was built in Dulwich back in the Sixties, with 115 modular family homes on land that had once been the site of five grand villas owned by the Dulwich Estate.

The two-storey brick houses sit on curving roads punctuated by small green spaces where children still play, creating a “model village” with a friendly feel in south London. At only 880sq ft each, the homes have three bedrooms, one of which is a box room, plus an open-plan ground floor and a small garden.

In 2006, a residents’ management committee took over this family area. Efficiently run, each year any extra funds are used to spruce up the estate, such as adding a communal chicken coop two years ago.

That same year, Frederik Rissom, 44, and his wife Emily, 41, both architects, who’d been living in a Victorian upper maisonette in Crystal Palace, bought one of the houses.

“Crystal Palace had got too expensive, so I put SE24 in the search, and this came up,” says Emily. The property appeared to be too small, but they went to look anyway.

Chirpy colours for a happy family space: blocks of yellow, orange and blue work together in the open-plan ground-floor living area, all pulled together with white walls and wood flooring (Charles Hosea)

Their first impression was of a cramped hall with a very small storage room set awkwardly off it, which tall Frederik couldn’t stand up in. But the rest of the house “felt comfortable and was light and bright,” Emily says.

There was only one bathroom, which was upstairs and needed a makeover, and the tired DIY kitchen was on the open-plan ground floor.

The living space was divided halfway across by a thick wall that held a fireplace. A nice Sixties mahogany stair and handrail ran up the other side, but was smothered in varnish. The floor was oak wood block and also varnished. The house was liveable and had potential.

The Rissoms made over the bathroom at once, with pleasing honeycomb tiling and valuable extra storage, and Frederik set up a fledgling architectural practice in the box room.

Honey, I’m in the bath: the bathroom was made over with honeycomb tiling  (Charles Hosea)

Like most Londoners, the couple did things in stages. Having sorted out the bathroom, they replaced the ugly plastic windows — the wide frames of which stole light — with slim timber and aluminium ones.

Stripping the varnish off the stairs took weeks. Frederik then set about renovating the back yard with bricks set among original slabs.

Kaspar, now six, arrived in 2010. Meanwhile, the Rissoms saved up to renovate the entire downstairs. They sketched over Christmas 2014, while Emily was expecting Anella, now two, and submitted plans the following spring.

Since Frederik had worked on similar houses, he knew what the Dulwich Estate would allow, and the plans went through without a quibble.

Bright’s right: orange rubber flooring and the new roof light let the sunshine in (Charles Hosea)

The key change was to enlarge the unsuccessful front lobby, absorbing the useless small room into a new square space with a big roof light, adding almost 70sq ft. Glass around the top of the walls, and a frosted panel beside the front door, ensure constant, glorious light.

This hardworking space improves the whole downstairs. Its back corner holds a nifty bathroom with a washer and drier tucked in. Along one wall beside the new bathroom are three full-height Ikea storage cupboards with bespoke fronts, one mirrored.

On the back wall beside the loo a workbench holds Emily’s sewing machine. This area closes off with a sliding door, a clever, tidy touch.

Walk-in larder: removing a fireplace created valuable new kitchen storage (Charles Hosea)

The rest of the house is equally detailed — crucial in small spaces. The couple removed the fireplace in the central half-wall, making space on the kitchen side for a walk-in larder and the boiler.

The kitchen area is transformed by mustard units and a sociable breakfast bar set over further cupboards. Bespoke tiles create a feature back wall. A dining table, with bright red and baby blue chairs, is again bespoke, with a storage bench next to it, designed in birch ply by Emily and Frederik. A trio of pendant lamps is strung on cord above, while the ceiling lights are by Sixties designer Joe Colombo.

In the living area, Emily added modern furniture, including a sizzling green sofa in top-quality fabric.

We love it: Frederik and Emily Rissom saw potential in their 880sq ft Sixties house. Now it’s won an award (Charles Hosea)

Elsewhere, more strong colours are sympathetic to the original era and add character and verve to feature walls — charcoal in the living area, moody Prussian blue on the central half-wall, and sherbet lemon in the master bedroom.

The couple lived in throughout the chaos but got through it all in four months, ready for Anella’s christening.

Would they recommend a client stay on site? “Never!” says Frederik. “It was a nightmare. Even with good screening, dust still gets everywhere. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But we could not afford to move out.”

By keeping original door handles and hardwood details, and expressing the Sixties spirit in colour, textiles and shapes, this is a bold, cheery house that has finally reached its potential.

Work, rest and play: great use of space and fun decor in a child’s bedroom (Charles Hosea)

Frederik’s tip for small spaces

“In a small space every inch does three jobs, so good detail is crucial. A hardworking space should be delightful, not boring. You also need lots of daylight and colour, and though it sounds corny, the space must have a bit of soul. To get that you have to invest some of your personality into the design.”

Emily’s tip on colour

“You don’t have to buy expensive paint brands. Take something you like along and get a colour matched and mixed. Or look at posh colour charts and then get something similar from a cheaper brand. Use tester pots.”

This Delawyk Modular House won 2017's New London Architecture Don’t Move, Improve! Best Historic Intervention award, for its 'liveable and modest porch insertion'.


House in 2006: £360,000

Cost of works at mates’ rates and no architect’s fee: £150,000

Value now (estimate): £700,000

Back to the future: pendant lights make a feature strung above the dining table (Charles Hosea)



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