Don’t Move, Improve! 2020 awards shortlist: how three ingenious extensions turned narrow London box homes into spacious family houses

Spending on home improvements in London has jumped by more than a third in 10 years as property owners, constrained by Brexit unease, stamp duty and high moving costs, renovate rather than relocate.

Government data reveals that £2.3 billion was spent on private projects in the capital last year, up from £1.7 billion in 2010. At the same time demand for new homes dropped eight per cent, according to the Federation of Master Builders. 

The total value of private building jobs stayed below the £2 billion mark until after the 2016 EU referendum, when property sales slowed, says the Office for National Statistics. The figure then rose to £2.1 billion in 2017 and peaked at £2.5 billion in 2018.

Homeowners save on stamp duty by staying put, but extending also saves on land. In a densifying city, amid a housing shortage, it’s vital we improve existing properties, explains Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture: “Land is London’s most valuable asset and we need to use it efficiently. By extending our homes we are doing just that.”

NLA today reveals the best 25 residential renovation projects in London completed in the past 12 months. Some 200 entries for the highly anticipated Don’t Move, Improve! awards 2020 were whittled down by judges to 25. Each one plays Tardis-like tricks to maximise space and light and the handful of winners will be announced next month.

This week, in the first of a two-part series, Homes & Property tours those shortlisted projects that transformed dark, narrow boxes into family homes.

Dartmouth Park, Camden


Richard Keep with wife Tatiana with their daughters in their Dartmouth Park home that has been transformed with three roof terraces (Juliet Murphy/NLA Don’t Move, Improve)

Homeowner and architect Richard Keep and wife Tatiana made New London Architecture’s shortlist by extending their 700sq ft first-floor apartment into a 1,700sq ft three-bedroom family home that’s now perfect for them and their two young daughters. 

The couple added three zinc “boxes” on top of the original Thirties block in Dartmouth Park conservation area in Camden. The soft brick and zinc exterior of their home now complements the neighbourhood’s elegant townhouses.

“It was the ugly ducking on a beautiful street of grand houses,” says Keep. “It was a two-storey house, converted into two flats, on the corner plot. It had the best location but stuck out like a sore thumb. In the local urban context, it just didn’t work.”

The zinc level gently distinguishes between the old building and the new section which contains a long living room, a breakfast area and kitchen. Light pours in from windows on all sides. The outstanding features were the three roof terraces, looking in different directions over the rooftops and towards Highgate Hill. 

“We watch the sun rising in the morning with coffee on one terrace and finish the day with a glass of wine on another enjoying the sunset,” Keep says. The project cost £380,000.

Deptford, south-east London


Caroline Knight and husband William added two floors to their home to make the space their growing family required (Charles Hosea/ NLA Don’t Move, Improve)

Caroline Knight’s 1,200sq ft two-storey detached house in Deptford is barely recognisable following their improvement project. 

After 10 years there, and with two growing children, furniture designer Knight and her husband, William, started to look further afield for a bigger home. 

“We have a boy and girl who shared a room until they were eight. At that point we knew we had outgrown the house,” says Knight. “But as we looked we realised we wanted to stay close to the school, our network and within the community.” 

Concerned about water levels they went up with their house rather than digging down, adding two floors that comprise two rooms and a bathroom, and taking the building to 1,500sq ft.

Architects Threefold transformed the narrow ground floor into an open-plan kitchen-living area with a roof light and bi-fold doors that open on to the courtyard. To preserve space the kitchen wall is a sequence of hidden cupboards, a utility room and a pantry. 

The new dual-aspect top floor is a flexible space that serves as both a study and a living room. There’s a terrace overlooking Deptford and the DLR in one direction and views of Blackheath Hills in the other. 

“I love that Threefold kept the uniqueness of the property but that it still sits well in the area,” says Knight.

Doubling up in Crystal Palace

Co-founders of The Flash Pack creative studio, husband-and-wife team Tyson Benton and Victoria Pearce also had to make room for a growing family. 

The couple bought a 1,000sq ft brick detached Sixties house in Crystal Palace that sits at the end of a run of almost identical homes. 

With the architect Frederick Rissom of R2 Studio, they doubled its size by replicating the building and offsetting the new section to the back and side, clad in black zinc tiles. “The existing house was narrow in shape, had low ceilings and was split into small spaces. The house felt disconnected from the outside,” says Rissom. 


Husband-and-wife team Tyson Benton and Victoria Pearce had to make room for a growing family (Anna Batchelor/ NLA Don’t Move, Improve)

The overlap from the old to the new is marked by a step from the living area into kitchen and dining spaces that look out on to the garden and mature trees.

The trio had fun with the materials. A bright blue steel upright, deliberately left exposed in the kitchen, matches the blue steel staircase which was handmade by a local steel worker. Upstairs the ceilings were removed to show off the beams and give more height and space. 

Clever design for small spaces was a theme throughout all 200 Don’t Move, Improve! entries this year, says Ellie Stathaki, architecture editor of Wallpaper, and NLA judge.

“The search for ways to maximise the available square footage is a near-constant requirement in London,” she says. “However, even a relatively small alteration can change the perception of a whole room and create architectural value.” 

So, in a city where house prices are high, there’s hope to renovate even on a tight budget.


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