A trip back to Fiona Johnson’s Australian homeland set the wheels in motion to sell the terraced London house she lived in with her husband, Tim, and their two sons, Louis and Billy.
“I’d been visiting my three siblings and I felt so inspired by the way they lived,” she says. “I began to crave a home like theirs, with lots of light and space.”
The couple were also conscious that their boys – then aged 18 months and three-and-a-half years – would need more space and their small garden just wouldn’t do. After toying with the idea of moving away from London altogether, the couple decided to stay put in the capital where they run their travel business, Club Europe.
“I said I’d carry on living here as long as we bought a house that reminded me of Oz, with plenty of room for my relatives to stay,” she says.
The couple went about their search methodically, driving around the local area and earmarking roads where they knew houses had off-street parking and good-sized gardens – no easy feat in London.
One day, a local estate agent alerted the couple to a five-bedroom Arts & Crafts house they’d seen in passing, and mentioned that the owners might be interested in selling. The couple paid a visit; they liked the look of the outside, but when they walked in, what they saw ticked all the boxes on their wish list.
Despite their excitement, the couple weren’t blind to the house’s faults; Fiona knew they’d need to do some serious work. But as they’d pushed their budget to the maximum to buy the property, they had to sit tight and save up before they could begin work.
One of the main issues with the existing house was the rear extension, which had been built in 2001. There were no direct views and no access to the garden, it was starting to rot and the shallow steps in the kitchen were a trip hazard. Outside, more steps led down into the garden, which was about a metre lower down than the extension.
Upstairs, there was little storage, the bathroom was dated, and the master bedroom ensuite had a bath but no shower. One of the worst features was a chimney breast that ran straight through the house, dominating the boys’ bedrooms and cutting one of the converted attic’s bedrooms in half.
The ball finally started rolling when the Johnsons’ financial advisor recommended a local builder, Billy Heyman from BTL Property, who came over to see the house and hear their ideas.
“We discussed our thoughts for an improved rear extension and Billy came up with some great suggestions, such as removing the chimney breast and finding some extra storage solutions,” says Tim. “As a result of that conversation we began to realise that the whole spec of our project really had to change.”
Billy also suggested splitting the house on the ground floor. A defined step down into the planned kitchen-dining-living area would clearly differentiate between old and new. This would also mean bringing the garden level up, to provide a seamless transition to the outdoors.
When the Johnsons saw the quote, it was more than they were expecting at £320,000 – so rather than cut corners and compromise they decided to put the project back on hold.
“In the past we’d always gone about doing renovations cheap and fast,” says Fiona, “but this time we wanted to make more of a long-term investment in our home. We thought Billy’s price was fair and that we ought to follow his advice and do the renovations properly.”
The Johnsons saved for another year before picking up where they’d left off.
By now, Billy had forged a relationship with local architects, Granit, and suggested the couple speak to one of its directors, James Munro, about drawing up the final plans.
“We really liked James’ approach to designing for light and space because it fitted in with what we needed from our new extension,” says Tim.
James worked closely with the couple on the design, paying particular attention to the family’s day-to-day living routines and asking them the crucial question of how they envisaged using their new home.
“Our initial idea was to rationalise the back of the house, demolish the existing extension and look to create a strong contemporary yet complementary statement – while keeping the front of the property relatively traditional,” says James Munro.
James submitted plans for the 74m2 and they were approved with no questions in just eight weeks. In February 2013 the family moved into rented accommodation and the project was able to get underway.
Once the property had been stripped out, the builders started to demolish the old extension. It was only then they could fully see the extent of the differences in level, hidden under the subfloor. They had to remove an additional 12 skips of soil to correct the levels and allow a seamless transition between inside and out.
The new extension’s steel frame carries the load of a cleverly-designed cantilevered roof, and the structure is finished in block and white render like the existing house, which helps to visually tie the two together.
There were very few changes on site, with the only exceptions being tweaks to the joinery and floor tiling layout. This helped keep the project running smoothly, and just five months later the house was finished, allowing the family to move back in.
The Johnsons’ rejuvenated home is a credit to Granit and BTL Property, both of whom were as conscious of the smallest details as the bigger picture. Features like the clerestory windows that run above the bifold doors in the extension have been deliberately placed to draw in extra light, while the removal of the chimney breast has transformed the boys’ bedrooms.
“We’re so glad we waited and did the project properly as we absolutely love it,” says Fiona. “The light and space is very much like Australian living, and it’s lovely to have a connection with the garden.”