Going underground in Dulwich: Victorian villa becomes sleek family home

A chef and his wife turned a tired Dulwich Victorian villa into a sleek yet practical family home - after spotting the potential of its huge, windowless basement.
Few of us would buy a house for the basement, but it was a big draw for former professional cook and restaurateur, Jack Tucker, when he and his wife and children went looking for a bigger house just around the corner from their old one, in Dulwich. 

Though only 12 minutes from Victoria by train, the Dulwich Estate, of 1,500 leafy acres, has long roads with rose-strewn Victorian and Edwardian houses, and is incredibly quiet. Owners and tenants have to maintain the outsides of their houses in keeping with the area, but are allowed to make changes inside and at the back  — which was key to the Tuckers’ decision to buy.

Three years ago, the family found their classic semi-detached Victorian family villa with square rooms. The interior was tired and the conservatory exhausted. There was a long garden for the couple’s two boys, 11 and 14, and plenty of room for growing fruit and vegetables. And, as the house was set on a slope, it had a low basement, windowless at the front, full of bicycles, a washing machine and bins, with huge, space-wasting hearths at its core. The couple felt they could do a lot with it. “It took up a quarter of the floor space and was completely underused,” says Tucker.


It is hard to believe what changes lie behind this front door, but the couple and their architect have proved just how  flexible a brick building can be, and how adaptable to modern lives.

Tucker and his wife, who works in the City, had pretty clear ideas. They wanted to dig out the basement at the front and give it a proper lightwell, and make a big room at the back. At upper ground-floor level they wanted to roof over the side return, and open things up to create a light and airy kitchen-diner kitted out with everything a chef needs — including lots of under-counter storage and a walk-in larder. For Tucker, the kitchen really is the heart of the home. They also wanted wood burning stoves in the main rooms. “You can’t beat the sound and sight of an open fire.” 

Next, they needed the right architect to realise their ideas — and they only had to look next door to find one. Richard Dudzicki had extended and remodelled their neighbour’s home, which the Tuckers liked so much that they hired him. 

Dudzicki understood the minimal, contemporary palette they liked, then added to the mix. Instead of an ordinary roofed-over side return, he suggested making the whole thing a glazed box, with glass-balustraded stairs running straight down to a glass door, which is exciting, as you can see all the way to the garden. In the kitchen-diner, wrapped in grey porcelain tiles on both floor and wall, the L-shaped island unit is perfectly placed so that the five-burner cooker it holds can be used from all sides. Everywhere, glass throws light around the cooking and dining  section. There are no pots, no chefs’ knives on display — it’s all put away. Tucker was very particular about that, and it makes this kitchen very serene.

In the once-dingy basement, now dug down to give a good ceiling height, huge steels replaced the supporting hearths, while the lightwell now has proper basement steps, windows, and a hi-tech drainage system running under the house. At the back, a big TV room with a purple velvet, family-size sofa looks directly out to the garden through floor-to-ceiling sliding doors. It also has a shower room — for grubby young footballers — and masses of storage tucked under those glazed stairs. And in the centre of the basement there is now a utility room.

To offset all this modernity, the rest of the house has been treated more gently, tying it to its historic past. In the hall, baroque plaster architraves over the two principal doors were kept, but as you go up, the décor and style subtly streamlines. Shadow gaps replace cornices and there’s a slim palette of soft grey carpet and pale grey walls. 

The same slate-like porcelain tiling used in the kitchen and basement is used once more on walls and floors in the bathrooms, with shallow trough basins and walk-in glass showers. It’s all crisp and cool. Even the boys’ top floor, with their own bathroom “so they can do what they want”, is elegant.

Nevertheless, there were disappointments. The ultra-sophisticated Ultima lighting system is, says Tucker, “too clever for its own good,” so if he was doing it again, he would try something simpler. And the first lawn died and had to be dug out. However, that wasn’t the worst. Halfway through works the first builder went bust. As Tucker says, it was like having a half-baked cake and needing a new cook to finish it — rather quickly.

Luckily, their architect found them another builder for whom Tucker has only the highest praise. “He really cared about what he did, and, like the architect, he is really conscious of a good finish.”

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