A practice’s debut new build scheme is a luxury house that tackled a sloping site and planning objections, with a sensitive blend of Georgian and slick modern architecture in north west London. James Parker reports
Sitting among a smorgasbord of house design styles in suburban Mill Hill, north west London, is a striking new addition by architects RISE Design Studio. The house created for a family of four, in the prominent location of Wise Lane, is the practice’s first new build. However, through collaboration and a careful design that’s a hybrid of contemporary flair and more traditional English architecture, a smooth result has been achieved.
The substantial five-bedroom home’s design combines a precisely-detailed, Georgian-inspired double-fronted facade with a more ‘modern’ staggered rear elevation. In this way RISE hoped to offer an architecturally sensitive while creative and sustainable result for the clients. The practice is now established in London, having completed many refurbishment projects, including in the commercial and education sectors, and jumped at the chance to step into the world of new build, high end residential.
Clients, Soho developer Mr Lobb and partner, wanted a building with bright, open interiors which “balanced modern living with the traditional idea of a home, says Sean Ronnie Hill, director at RISE. He admits that “one of their main concerns was that we hadn’t completed a new build,” but adds that he “managed to convince them that often renovations are a lot trickier!”
He says that renovation and extension of the existing 1970s-built house on the site would have been straightforward in terms of planning: “you could get an 8 metre extension through on prior approval, but it “would have made for a very large ground floor,” and would not have been the best use of the site. He tells ADF that once the architects had “dissected what the clients were trying to achieve,” and bearing in mind the zero rated VAT for new build – as the budget was not unlimited – “it seemed the best way forward was to demolish and build new.”
Also, the existing building was thermally poor, and would have needed to be internally insulated throughout to bring it up to current standards. While refurbishment was possibly the most sustainable approach, the project’s credentials were bolstered by the demolition contractors carefully segregating and removing the rubble for reuse.
When it came to the brief, the clients were “realistic and really grounded,” says Hill. “They said they’d like something, but understood if they weren’t able to get it.” With two teenage daughters, they wanted this, their “forever home,” to have “a couple of spare bedrooms” so that one could be a home office. Events post completion in late 2019 transpired to make that extra space even more useful than they could have imagined. Says Ronnie, “When Covid happened, the client emailed saying they considered themselves extremely lucky to have this substantial house, and to be able to work from one of the bedrooms.”
The clients wanted the front to look more typical of traditional London architecture than the more experimental rear, and avoid the minimal ‘white box’ approach of some recent local additions. Ronnie explains that the couple also wanted the look of an archetypal home: “Jude went back to her childhood and remembered when she had drawn a house on a bit of paper; we engaged with her on the idea of ‘what does a house look like’.”
The designers, led by project architect María Lopez Mata undertook a study of Georgian architecture, “starting from proportions on the ground,” and created a “very ordered” front elevation. The large windows, equipped with solar control glass, feature detailing such as reveals that echo London Georgian properties, and the heritage inspiration enabled the designers to slightly conceal the pitched ‘black’ zinc roof behind the small parapet that runs around the entire roof. “This meant we had real cohesion the whole way around the elevations, relating front to back,” says Hill.
The leafy site posed a big challenge, having a steep front to back gradient, and the design addresses this by providing an entrance via an upper ground level, with a few steps down to a lower ground level once inside. The sloping driveway, which was precarious in winter, has been levelled off, and a new series of low steps edged with leafy garden beds welcomes visitors, aiding accessibility for the clients’ visiting parents, and meeting Part M requirements.
The central atrium is the key design feature of the house, topped by a skylight in a protruding lightwell that brings the space to a 10 metre height, and alleviates the relatively deep plan enhanced by the play of light through the day. Hill says it was “the most efficient way to create the heart of the house, and a drama that you’re not expecting when you first enter.”
Rear guard action
The clients “weren’t trying to push us on the space,” says Hill, meaning that they were happy to let the architects explore ways to enhance the living spaces by breaking up the volumes to the rear, and not simply fill in a certain section of the plot with accommodation. This would also enable the architects to relate the volumes to the differing positions of the two neighbouring properties, with one sitting further back in the plot than the other.
Hill explains: “We could have just drawn a line and filled in more areas, but they were happy for us to manipulate the back, and create this really contemporary response.” Part of the reasoning was in trying to create a more human scale than the more monolithic front elevation, alongside the large window openings. “Breaking it up means people can relate to it a bit more than they would say an office block.”
The resulting rear elevation extends the open living area via three ‘fingers,’ helping to delineate kitchen, dining and living spaces. A fortunate precedent was given by one neighbour having already extended, and daylighting issues for them were avoided, thanks to a lack of windows facing the property. In the garden, the multi-level terrace descends to the lawn via steps constructed in a similar brick palette to the facades. The architects specified floor to ceiling windows and glazed doors rather than bifolds, due to their belief that “there are so many mechanisms in them that unless you go really high end, it’s too easy for things to go wrong.”
Planning & a hitch
While Hill says that gaining permission was helped by Barnet council being “pretty slick when it comes to planning,” partly due to being part-private, part-public, meaning they’re “more target-driven, less subjective,” obstacles however came from another quarter. The neighbour to the west with the most set back house (which the new house’s living space extends out to match), had misgivings about daylight and sunlight being compromised. He brought in the ‘big guns,’ hiring the ex-head of Barnet council to object to the proposal.
However the architects were able to deploy consultants Strutt and Parker, who they’ve used previously as planning consultants. Hill says that if the objectors had had their way, “it could have been a massive block, the planners would have made us draw a diagonal line for the rear elevation.”
The resulting “fairly big compromise” made by the client meant that the master bedroom, ensuite, and walk-in wardrobe, all initially on the west side, extending over the living space, are now on the east flank. However, Hill is sanguine about this, saying it “might have actually benefited the overall architecture, made it more dramatic – we don’t often say that about what planners do.”
There are now three ‘fingers’ at first floor level too, albeit not extending out as far as on the ground level, but making for an interesting articulation. The middle finger, extending behind the atrium space, protrudes the furthest, a slight echo of the gentle protrusion of the entrance on the front elevation.
As a result of the site, the property is entered at the ‘upper ground’ level, containing two lounges, arranged either side of the tall, white atrium. This level sits about a metre higher than the lower ground level, meaning that you step down into the south-facing main living/dining space, with its striking zinc table and reclaimed Iroko timber worktop. Kitchen and utility are to the east, and a cosier wintertime lounge and “tucked away” gym sit to the west.
The height of the atrium is surprising after the relatively familiarly-scaled exterior. It contains a dark, industrial open staircase and balustraded gallery leading to the bedrooms, which are on the first floor. This form contrasts with the white space, but visually ties in with the dark, Crittall-style frames of the glazed screen, and the other Crittall windows.
At the same time, says Hill, “what’s cool is that you’re almost at ceiling level height when looking down into the living spaces, framing these interesting views to the rear.” The screened vertical core as well as the level change means the living areas, despite being open plan, do feel distinctly separated from the rest of the house, enhancing privacy for the bedrooms upstairs, with only a minimal amount of connection. “They have one little window looking through from a walkway between the master and the ensuite – it’s like an enclosed private quarter, but they can look into the atrium.”
As well as their daughters’ bedrooms at the front of the house, – there are two to the rear, plus the master suite. Arriving at the right layout was “very collaborative,” says Hill, with “lots of backwards and forwards with the client.” The architects use ArchiCAD to provide 3D and VR-compatible walkthroughs; “We’re pushing clients to really engage with us to look at as many options as possible, to have it in VR helps a hell of a lot, to work out what a 2D drawing means in the space,” he says. “It saves so many discussions on site, the more detail we can have the better.”
The client chose not to go for substantial attic space, instead there’s a vaulted ceiling in the master bedroom and ensuite; “the floor area isn’t that large but the height adds a lot of drama.” In one of the girls’ bedrooms is a “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe moment,” where a wardrobe secretes a steep fixed stair leading to a secluded roof space; the only occupied area on the ‘second floor.’ Despite the seclusion, a window enables them to still see the entrance.
The house has been designed to maximise sustainability, with a full fill of Knauf Earthwool recycled mineral wool insulation in the 100 mm cavity behind the brick facades, the product having been recommended to the architects by non-profit group Green Register. Hill says that due to the major impact of correct installation on building performance, builders “play a massive part in a house’s sustainability.”
Barnet Council requested ‘microgeneration,’ so a roof array of PVs was added. Says Hill, “we are always aiming for Passivhaus levels, but we haven’t got there yet.” He adds, “for clients, Passivhaus is a novelty, until more people start talking about it, it’s not on their priority list.” The house is equipped with MVHR, the plant housed in the ground floor utility – there’s an upstairs cupboard for the copious IT and cabling that serves the integrated lighting system and the house’s media via suspended ceiling voids.
As well as offsetting the very airtight design, which is around maximum leakage of 0.4 h-1@ 50 Pa (Passivhaus is 0.6) the MVHR helps to remove cooking smells in the open plan living area. Hill says the team “did a crash course in terms of how to use the air-tightness tape,” and “spent a long time getting the details right, working with consultants, different suppliers and the contractor.”
Other design elements specified for high efficiency include the glazed screen, manufactured by Italian company Ottostumm with a thermally broken frame, making it “a bit chunkier than 1950s Crittall mullions,” says Hill. The initial budget was forced to stretch slightly, with the build cost ending up around £1.1m, but this included all finishes, and sustainability features such as MVHR, PVs, air-tightness measures, and additional insulation.
The architect reports that this striking, yet in some senses relatively conventional home hasn’t caused any adverse responses from neighbours, as it “nestles well” in its site. This was assisted by the designers managing to retain a number of the mature trees at the front at the site. With the sintered Dutch brick (from BEA) having a reclaimed look, the exterior helps the building not only blend with neighbours, but also to feel it has existed for a considerable time – the client “didn’t want this sparkling new thing,” says Hill. The brick can be specified down to the ground, as it is F2 and can therefore withstand frost.
The ultimate purpose, to deliver a great ‘forever’ family home, has been achieved, and no doubt the Lobbs are very happy. Sean Ronnie Hill says that despite now living in a grand, but very sustainable home, they are “humble people,” illustrated in particular by how they commented throughout the build that they “couldn’t believe they were able to do this.”
- Architecture: RISE Design Studio
- Project architect: María Lopez Mata
- Contractor: GEB London
- Structural engineer: Tyrone Bowen, CAR
- Sustainability consultant: Enhabit
- Lighting design: Kreon Belux
- Sustainability consultant: Enhabit
- Zinc roof specialist: RAC Roofing & Cladding
- Specialist kitchen: RISE Design Studio + Liam Dryden
- Rooflights: The Rooflight Company