On the surface, the Thirties detached property on a leafy suburban street looks entirely normal, and indeed Caroline, her husband Steven and their four sons had lived there quite happily for 19 years.
The five-bedroom house was comfortably large enough for the family’s needs, but the living space never felt right. The dining room, for a start, was isolated and barely used.
The house sits on a steeply sloping piece of land so that, though the kitchen overlooked the back garden, the outside space was, in fact, only accessible via a rickety balcony and a set of perilous steps. And though the basement floor — colonised by sons Jim, 20, Owen, 18, Huw, 15, and Sebastian, 13, as a den — had direct access to the garden, it was a dark and rather unwelcoming space.
But the family loved their street in Southfields, south-west London; the youngest three boys were settled in local schools and studying for exams and no one wanted to move.
Caroline recalled: “To get a better house in this area honestly meant paying about another £2 million and we did not have that kind of money.”
And so the family decided to join the “don’t move — improve” movement.
The obvious way forward was to extend and reconfigure the back of the house. The problem was that, given the complexities of the sloping site and unhelpful layout of the property, they had no idea exactly how to go about it.
“There wasn’t any obvious off-the-shelf solution that we could think of,” explains Caroline, who works in financial services.
It was time to call in the experts and the couple decided to pick the brains of David Liddicoat, a partner in the young architectural practice Liddicoat & Goldhill (liddicoatgoldhill.com) and a distant relative. Their brief was simple: make our house work better.
Confronted with a traditional interwar house in a conservation area, the scheme Liddicoat devised was radical. He decided to update the house with a dramatic solution normally associated with the side walls of grand period mansions — an orangery.
Visitors to the house today get an immediate glimpse of how the orangery concept has been reinvented as soon as the front door is opened — a tantalising view down the hall, past the kitchen, and out into the garden via towering panels of glass almost four metres high that now make up the back wall of the house.
While the rooms at the front of the property have been left alone, the back has been encased in dramatic slices of double-height glass divided by black steel “fins”. Indoor steps lead from the kitchen down to a newly created dining space at ground-floor level, which also gives direct access to the basement that now benefits from lots of natural light.
Liddicoat decided against installing French doors leading to the garden on the basis that it wasn’t possible to commission anything tall enough for the space. Instead, he contented himself with a simple white-painted side door to the garden — albeit one which is four metres tall.
Electronic vents embedded high in the side walls can be opened (via remote control) to keep the room cool — and while the vast expanse of glass looks like a recipe for summer overheating, Liddicoat believes that the north-east facing aspect of the orangery, plus the shade from mature garden trees, mean that blinds won’t become necessary as the summer heats up.
Meanwhile, the old dining room has been linked, via a simple doorless entrance, to the kitchen and is now a popular place for the family to congregate rather than a little-used dead space.
Liddicoat admits he was not entirely sure how Wandsworth council would take to such an unusual scheme — and had privately been considering what his “fall-back position” would be if planners vetoed his double-decker orangery.
Happily, however, the council was enthused and the project sailed through in early spring last year. Work began a year ago. The family remained in situ during the build, cloistering themselves in the rooms that were not being renovated and watching with trepidation as the back of their house was peeled away.
Caroline got cooking for six on a camping stove down to a fine art — though the loss of the dishwasher was tough.
“It was really exciting — for about the first two days — then did start to feel a bit squeezed, but we didn’t have to pack up, or move our cats, and it was finished by Christmas,” she says.
This project cost just short of £200,000, including a new oak fitted kitchen with a black diorite stone work-surface, redecoration of the ground floor in à la mode pale grey, and a new heating system. The kitchen and orangery floor are tiled in Jerusalem gold limestone, in which Steven, who works as a banker, has been delighted to spot a huge variety of fossils.
The orangery has added 22 square metres and made the existing space feel bigger and better. “The house is twice as good as it used to be,” says Caroline.
The couple, both 50, are not planning to move but Caroline says she would be “amazed” if the improvement had not paid for itself. “My advice to anyone else who feels their home doesn’t work is to find themselves an architect.
“You will be surprised what the possibilities are and what the potential is — things can happen that you would never have thought of on your own.”
Little black book:
* The project was carried out by Considerate Building (consideratebuilding.com) — Caroline was impressed by how they ensured the house remained habitable for the family. The firm also built the new kitchen
* The hammered diorite work surface was supplied by Wandsworth-based Marble City (marble-city.co.uk)
* The limestone floor tiles are from Mandarin Stone (mandarinstone.com)
* The orangery is lit by spotlights from lighting specialist Mr Resistor (mr-resistor.co.uk)
Photographs: Charles Hosea