London discovers the courtyard

Inner courtyards create space and let light flow into all your rooms. Ruth Bloomfield discovers how it's done
With the property market moving like sticky treacle, doing up has become the new selling up. Instead of blithely upsizing whenever lifestyle dictates - and finances allow - families are becoming ingenious in their ideas for creating space.

Extra room is a joy but sometimes sacrifices have to be made, especially if you want a bigger kitchen and have to slice something off your already small back garden. But there is a solution to this dilemma - the urban courtyard.

Not only does an internal courtyard provide extra, secure and easily accessible outdoor space but it will also change the feel of a home in a simple and inexpensive way.

We meet the architect who created courtyards for two London families at the back of their classic period homes, confident that the extension was a lifestyle investment that would also bring a significant financial return.


Melody Road, Wandsworth

It was the house that time forgot: when a young family took on this property it had not been touched since the Seventies. The new owners wanted to extend the four-bedroom home to give them more living space, but the project was complicated by the fact that the garden tapers, making it impossible to extend straight back.

Architect Matt Giles was given a budget of £140,000 to reinvent the ground floor and make the house feel as light and airy as possible. It had the same layout as thousands of other Victorian homes, with a traditional ground-floor layout consisting of a front room, small, separate dining room and a long thin kitchen.

Melody Road, Wandsworth
The new extension houses the colourful kitchen
Almost the first thing to go was the dividing wall between the two reception rooms, creating one large living room. Meanwhile, a 20sq m extension - which had to be "stepped" to fit into the garden - was built, creating an open-plan kitchen with vibrant blue steel columns and a living room with a garden view.

The pièce de résistance was a courtyard hewn from the dreary side passage. From the traditional front living room full-height glass doors lead to the courtyard.

The neat space, which floods the front and the back of the house with light, connects the two rooms and gives both a double aspect. The area is not large (2.4m by 1.8m) but is big enough for the family's daughter to use as a small, safe outdoor playroom. "It is essentially a device for getting a lot of light into the house, and you can also sit out in it," says Giles.

The courtyard cost about £12,000. The project took six months and the property's value has risen from about £900,000 to £1.3 million, almost tripling the initial investment.

Nightingale Conservation Area, Clapham

A classic Edwardian-semi had already been heavily and badly extended when its current owners moved in. The extension was a cold, dank and drab conservatory at the back, and a somewhat rickety lean-to was built over the side passage.

The new owners, a couple with two children, were desperate for change and longed for free-flowing, open-plan living. Project architect Matt Giles ( was given a budget of £300,000 to revamp the whole house.

Nightingale Conservation Area, Clapham
Budget: £300,000 to revamp the whole house and maximise the light into the middle
Half of the money was spent on revamping the ground floor of the three-storey house, opening it out into three flowing spaces: a reception room at the front, a TV/lounge room in the middle and - in the newly built extension - an impressive kitchen/dining room, giving the family an extra 35sq m of space.

Having lengthened the footprint of the ground floor, the challenge was to make sure the middle of the house wasn't left dark and gloomy. The solution was to turn the side passage area into a compact courtyard with sliding glass doors to allow light to flood through the house.

In good weather the doors can be opened to allow a flow of cool air, and the courtyard is large enough (around 2.5m by 2.3m) for a display of plants and space for relaxing or entertaining.

"The whole purpose was to get as much light as possible into the middle of the ground floor, and get the feel of the outdoors into the middle of the house," says Giles. The timber-clad extension has floor-to-ceiling glass doors leading out to the garden and a skylight to let in even more light.

"The extension is clad in timber because we wanted to get some texture on the façade. Our clients wanted a natural material, and this gives a nice, vertical, refined texture." It also echoes the garden decking and the oak floorboards indoors.

Getting planning permission for the work took just eight weeks, and the project took seven months to complete, finishing last summer. Half the original budget - £150,000 - was spent downstairs. Upstairs, the biggest structural project was creating a new, fifth bedroom in the loft.

Nightingale Conservation Area, Clapham
The new extension and doors, plus the small inner courtyard, let the light flood through the ground floor
Giles estimates that creating the courtyard cost only £15,000, and he considers it money well spent. "It is incredibly light now. There is so much natural light that you don't need lights on during the daytime."

Robin Chatwin, a director of Savills estate agents, said this type of property - unextended - would be worth around £1.3 million. But the works carried out would have increased that to around £1.8 million - a very decent differential of half a million pounds.

Photography by Edmund Sumner and Logan MacDougall Pope

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