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How to Build a Home with The Wow Factor

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Julian Owen explores what areas of a home offer the opportunity to design something a little out of the ordinary, which will continue to inspire occupants and visitors
contemporary home with Velfac windows

Whether we want it for own personal sense of satisfaction or simply to impress neighbours and visitors, most of us would like our home to create that elusive wow factor. However, actually achieving this rarely happens by accident, as it’s usually the result of a talented designer’s creativity. Here, I’m taking a closer look at what areas of the home might benefit from something extraordinary.

Working with the site

You might be lucky enough to have an amazing site just sitting there with the capability of becoming a naturally eye-catching feature of your project. In fact, there are many famous houses that owe their success as much to the setting as their construction. One fine example is Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Falling Water, which is positioned directly over a large waterfall, to spectacular effect – even without the gold leaf finish, it’s instantly striking.

If the plot doesn’t come with a ready-made picturesque setting, think about whether it’s big enough for some readjustment by a skilled landscape designer. Controlling the views of the dwelling from the street or creating a spectacular outlook from inside can work wonders.

contemporary barn conversion

Liddicoat & Goldhill have included various inspiring elements within this barn conversion. The striking mezzanine and spiral staircase create a dramatic statement, while focused lighting across the beams below enhances the impressive atmosphere (image credit: Keith Collie).

The catalyst for many striking property designs has been when the architect is confronted with or resolving unusual problems, often as a result of difficult site conditions. Such projects tend to appear in areas where the land supply is limited and expensive, making it cost effective to build an eccentric house on what might seem to be a less-than-ideal plot.

For example, many striking homes have been produced on London sites that are very long and narrow, where clever design has overcome the fact that windows can’t be placed in the usual places. The extraordinary creativity triggered by such restrictions can result in astounding, often award-winning, dwellings.

Jotul woodburning stove

If an open fireplace isn’t an option in your scheme, a woodburning stove is a popular alternative. This design by Jotul has side glass so that the warm glow of the fire can be enjoyed from multiple points in the room.

Your home’s layout & volume

The internal house arrangement will make an important contribution towards its overall wow factor, as skilled manipulation of the standard zones could create striking effects. When a designer is preparing the layout, they will also be thinking about the volume of rooms.

Raising the ground floor ceiling height significantly higher than the standard 2.4m is an economical way to create an impressive looking space. In fact, one of the reasons that Georgian interiors are so impressive is that it became popular to have heights of 3m or more in the principal rooms. But while high ceilings often add awe, it’s important to get the proportions right – being too tall or wide can result in odd-looking spaces.

To make even more of an impact, contrast the area that you walk through just before with the main attraction. A large galleried atrium, for instance, will be all the more dramatic if you pass through a small lobby beforehand.

tall ceiling with exposed timber frame

The tall ceiling and exposed timber frame with metal studding creates a striking open-plan living space in this project by Hudson Architects. Expansive glazing on both sides of the room allows in plenty of natural illumination, while a woodburning stove offers an attractive and functional focal point at the end of the room.

If you’re in favour of a less subtle approach, impress by making spaces larger than is necessary for their role. This works particularly well in hallways and landings.

If your house is positioned on a slope, then use the changes in level as an opportunity for something out of the ordinary. For instance, if visitors enter the house on what appears to be the ground level to discover they are actually on a middle storey that reveals a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape, or a mezzanine level that overlooks a lower storey, they will certainly be impressed.

Double height spaces, drops in floor level and raised ceilings also all have the potential to turn an otherwise ordinary room into something unexpectedly special.

double height oak frame ceiling

The exposed oak frame, double height ceiling and mezzanine gallery all work together to create an inspiring hallway in this house by Welsh Oak Frame.

Maximising light

Tailoring a design to fill the house with as much daylight as possible is another key priority for many homeowners and architects. This is because the way that we perceive a room is greatly affected by the way that light is distributed and reflected off the walls, floor and ceiling.

Large windows and rooflights will emphasise the size and quality of a space, but an alternative approach is to focus the light in specific areas to bring texture and contrast. This tends to work especially well within open-plan layouts. Thoughtfully placed glazing can also be used to exploit any good viewpoints.

Artificial light is also very important because it can totally change the character of the interior once it’s dark outside. Reflecting concealed illumination points onto surfaces and projecting beams up or down walls at an oblique angle are effective ways to produce dramatic results.

striking contemporary staircase

A striking staircase paired with a patterned feature wall brings texture and interest to this renovation and extension project by architectural practice Smerin.

Vamping an ordinary feature

The current trend to reveal the construction as part of the interior design offers the opportunity to make a feature out of a structural element – exposed roof trusses and steel beams are particularly popular. Oak offers an elegant result, plus it’s a wonderful material to work with; get the traditional look with pegged joints or use stainless steel bolts and wire cable ties for a contemporary twist.

A spectacular fireplace is often a go-to for creating an impressive outcome, the ultimate arguably being a large inglenook. This needs a sizeable area around it to create the full desired impact, but be aware that the regulations controlling heat loss make it difficult to get open fires past the building control officer

 A freestanding appliance like a woodburning stove is a good alternative – place it in the middle of a voluminous space to create a focal centrepiece.

glazed doors with stunning view

The glazed doors in this house by Fleming Homes offer a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding landscape.

The staircase is another major design opportunity not to be missed. Incorporate different materials to create something out of the ordinary – glass, stone or high quality joinery can all create a spectacular result.

There are plenty of alternatives to the standard doorset, the most popular being glazed bifold or sliding units. Using these will turn a solid wall into a curtain of glass, plus they can be left open or closed according to whether you want to section off an area.

Another way to offer the impression of a grand scale is to specify internal doors that are significantly wider and higher than standard designs, provided they are appropriate to the room size.

A potentially more affordable technique than any of the above is to use bright colour to striking effect – but be aware that too many different hues in one space can jar. A safer method is to use one or two strong shades in selected areas, such as on a single feature wall – take this a step further by creating a mural or even hanging tapestries (with the help of a talented artist).

First published: March 2017

Image (top): Velfac

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