Grand Designs: five spectacular London homes are in the running for RIBA's House of the Year Award

London takes a starring role in the first Royal Institute of British Architects House of the Year awards, with the winner being announced on November 25. From a list of 20 finalists, a quarter are in the capital.

The dedicated award replaces the RIBA Manser Medal and is a sign of how huge interest in house design has become. “Domestic” architecture used to be talked about in a tone of voice otherwise reserved for “crafts”.

Today, developers realise Londoners insist on genuinely good-looking, imaginatively designed homes. Whether homes are one-offs or produced in high volumes, mediocre design no longer cuts it.
Of the five longlisted London houses, two are very big, glamorous and costly: Fitzroy Park House in Hampstead is glassy and modernist, while Levring House in the heart of Bloomsbury is an end-of-mews property made from concrete, brick and glass. Each uses double-height spaces in a considerable arsenal of special effects. 

Fitzroy Park, by Stanton Williams, sits on a steep slope on the site of a  Fifties house. The architects used the slope to their advantage, so that the entrance is at the house’s midpoint via a slender steel bridge. It is built from great panes of glass, pale limestone, and plentiful wood — from cedar and iroko to grey-painted Accoya outside.

The inside has floors and ceilings of oak, some herringbone — imagine the delicious smell. All six bedrooms are en suite, with timber-clad balconies on a cantilevered upper floor. Despite the abundance of glass, this 6,000sq ft house, looking out on to Fitzroy Park, is also private.  

At Levring House, in the Bloomsbury conservation area, architect Jamie Fobert has created a big, almost cuboid volume at the end of a mews, but by sinking it into a basement and creating a “broken” exterior of brick, glass and bronze, its size melds beautifully with the neighbouring houses and it seems a perfect fit.

It is set around a glazed atrium that goes right up through the  centre. A concrete structure with  terrific double-height spaces, a secret terrace and a 14-metre-long marble-lined pool in the basement, it is really out of the ordinary, deserving of a part in the next James Bond film.

Kew House is in Kew Green, another conservation area. Incorporated into a Victorian wall, this audacious prefab was created by Piercy & Company using Corten steel, which goes rusty on purpose, turning the colour of flaming autumn leaves. The house was built for two married structural engineers, who were involved in every aspect of construction of the two steel volumes connected by a double-height glass atrium.

The site near Kew Gardens, found by accident, had been an old stable block, which is why the weathered Victorian wall was kept. There are laser-cut patterns in the steel and a slide for the children direct to the basement. It also has lots of storage, making it a practical family home.

Vaulted House: ingeniously designed to make the most of a small, awkward space

The other two houses celebrate the ingenuity of London architects in finding crabby, difficult spaces and maximising them. The first — Vaulted House by vPPR Architects — was built on the site of an old taxi garage in Chiswick that was encased by brick walls, with 24 overlooking neighbours. All its light comes from the top, through six geometrically coved roof lights. Entry through a covered passage really makes this a secret house.

Built on two levels, the roof lights pour natural light into the upper floor, emphasising specific areas within its open-plan living space that has stunning geometric ceilings. The lower level is for bedrooms, but a retracting flat glass roof section throws light right down there, too. The space below can be used as a Roman-style courtyard in summer and a winter garden otherwise. 

The other small house, Courtyard House, uses a similarly wall-bound site in Hackney, a long, triangular sliver. Into that problem, architects Dallas Pierce Quintero cleverly inserted, on a tight budget, a refined little two-bedroom house using timber, brick and glass, with four separate courtyards. The unpromising site, with its two long boundary walls, dictated the design. 

Entering through an industrial gate, first there is one courtyard, then a  studio, then a herb-strewn yard, then the main house, which has another courtyard at the back with French windows, and a tiny inset space with an olive tree in it. Attentive use of exposed joists and blue-black bricks gives this budget house a distinctly luxurious feel.

Whichever house wins the RIBA prize, these five are all winners — in that each offers clever ideas for developers to profit from, no matter the budget size.

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