When architects Katherine Woollacott and Patrick Gilmartin purchased a residential annexe moments away from Hampstead Heath, they did not anticipate the lengthy process required to achieve consent for a new house on the site; Gilmartin recalls a ‘Rubik’s Cube’ of planning negotiations; back-and-forths that delayed the project by over six years.
Located on Parliament Hill, at a slight bend in the road, the existing site was very unusual: a wedge-shaped piece on the street contained a former garage belonging to the house next door. It had been converted into a two-storey house in the 1970s, and largely separated in ownership from its neighbour. The plot did, however, include the long rear garden originally belonging to the larger house, and a small corner of its ground floor, through which the garden is accessed. The replacement house is now the couple’s family home as well as a studio for their practice, Woollacott Gilmartin.
Due to the nature of the constrained site, the building squeezes between its two neighbours and “wraps, climbs and twists” over the plot in a way that creates a quirky collection of volumes that combine to create distinctive internal spaces. The building’s tile-hung front elevation takes cues from the local vernacular of red- brick Victorian houses but reworks them with a contemporary twist: the faceted facade negotiates the curve of the street in a way that mimics bay windows, while a roof lantern – and passive ventilation stack – takes its shape from the street’s skyline of chunky brick chimneys.
Behind the large front door, the interior of the house opens up like Doctor Who’s Tardis, astonishingly larger internally than the exterior lets on. Changes in ceiling height and the composition of rooms coming off the hallway make it difficult to determine the boundary between the extensive new construction and the small part of the house that sits within the adjacent building.
The house comprises a basement level – which is independently accessible in case the couple opts to rent it out – and four storeys above ground, culminating in an unexpected Doug las-fir-lined ‘attic’ within the pitched roof, which is used as a studio. Complications of working within a conservation area and potential overlooking of close neighbours mean that most of the windows are placed either above head height or utilise deep timber sills. This also serves to frame views and create a soft light gradient down the walls.
The character of the house is derived from a compilation of intricate planning decisions, bespoke details and personal touches. In the kitchen, for example, a three-part sash window in the kitchen fully folds into the ground to expose the interior to the garden. A whitewashed brick and concrete core acts as a central marker throughout the building, visually connecting each floor while also acting as a heat sink to help maintain an even temperature. On some levels, this vertical thread becomes a fireplace; on others, bathroom walls.
Woollacott Gilmartin’s design also responds to concerns that contemporary architecture can fail to feel ‘lived in’ and cosy: “It’s often difficult to make a new- build feel like a comfortable home,” says Woollacott. Here this is successfully achieved through the clever interplay of materiality and light, and personal touches such as a hand-made coffee table and textile room partitions. This level of detailing makes the house feel bespoke and particular to the family: distinctive features range from the oval- shaped handrail on the stairs to the mix of ceramics – which Gilmartin calls a “greatest hits” of trendy bathroom tiles from the 1960s and 70s – and distinctive wallpapers crafted from off-the-shelf tin foil or brown parcel paper (although you’d never know). Timber flooring laid parallel to splayed walls meets with a staggered, ‘zipped’ effect.
Among the most beautiful features is the staircase – hidden from view upon entry behind a three-quarter-height partition – whose frosted glass treads and timber risers allow top light to filter down through the building. These subtle bespoke details create a delicate and hand-crafted feel, providing a warmth and comfort that enriches the complex and angular geometries established by the structure and envelope.
This article was originally written for Architecture Today
Photos | Luke White