Don’t Move, Improve! 2020 awards: three of London’s most dramatic makeovers shortlisted for top architecture award

The seven-year itch has become the 15-year itch, according to new figures showing how long the average London buyer stays in a property before moving on.

Between 2009 and 2014, the average “length of stay” crept up marginally from 12 years and three months to twelve-and-a-half years but since then has rocketed to 15 years and three months as homeowners decide to avoid moving costs and invest in their existing property instead.

Figures from Savills reveal the number of London home moves in the past five years has fallen 27 per cent, with homeowners embarking on radical renovations as they plan to stay put for longer, experimenting with vibrant colours, trying out cutting-edge materials and bringing back the statement staircase. 

“For many there is value to be unlocked by improving their home rather than moving,” says Frances Clacy of Savills, adding that it allows owners to stay in a familiar area as they invest the money they’d have spent on stamp duty, moving and higher mortgage rates in their home.

For every three homeowners putting their property on the market, a fourth will opt instead for a major makeover.

The best of these projects, showing personality, led by owners committed to their property for the longer term, are being recognised by New London Architecture’s Don’t Move, Improve! awards 2020, with finalists now whittled down to 25.

Flecked terrazzo kitchen surfaces, emerald green polished plaster walls, black zinc tiles and sweeping mock-Georgian staircases all feature.

“We saw more embellishments this year, use of textured surfaces and rich colours,” says awards judge Andy Downey, of Elliott Wood civil engineers. “There was a confidence and personal expression among the owners and architects, who had moved away from monochrome, Scandinavian design.” 

The panel of six experts hand-picked the shortlist from 200 entries. The overall winner will be revealed on February 11 when five other special prizes will be awarded, including one for Most Unique Character. 

Here, we unveil some of the most dramatic transformations.

Disappearing Bathroom House, Waltham Forest

The architect-owners of a cramped Victorian terrace house in Forest Gate, east London, decided to rearrange their 688sq ft home rather than extend it. 

They knocked down the internal partitions to create one open-plan living-dining area which flows into the kitchen, and moved the staircase from the centre to the side of the ground floor.

To bring daylight deep into the heart of the home, the couple have played a trick with the bathroom at the end of the galley kitchen.

The double doors separating the two rooms hang together by magnets when shut — but left open, they hide the functional bath suite and frame the full-width window to the garden. 

The back garden can now be seen from the front of the house. The bright green Venetian plasterwork on the bathroom walls also helps to bring the outside in.


Fittings in the bathroom at the end of the galley kitchen “disappear” when the doors are left open, allowing a through-view of the garden from the open-plan living/dining area (Paula Smith)

“It reminds me of a device in Japanese garden design called shakkei, which means borrowing the view,” says judge Anna Liu, director of Tonkin Liu Architects. “It’s where views in the distance are pulled into the foreground through framing and composition.”

Mindful of materials, the young couple experimented with new sustainable flooring and surfaces.

The stairs and sideboards are made from Valcromat, considered to be the eco-friendly version of MDF. It’s a wood fibre panel engineered from recycled pine wood and branches from the forest floor.

Coloured by organic dyes, it comes in earthy tones including deep, mossy green and burnt orange.

This project is one of the smallest sites with the tightest budgets on the Don’t Move, Improve! shortlist and is being considered for the Under £75,000 award.

White Rabbit House, Islington

Goldman Sachs strategist Laura Imrie, 34, and her architect Christian Ducker have created a time machine in Islington.

From the outside the modest Seventies terrace house blends in with its neighbours — but the interior is a contemporary take on a grand Georgian townhouse. 

The two-storey home was stripped back to the walls and roof, taking it to three floors and making space for an extra double bedroom.


Speckled terrazzo and chequerboard marble in the hallway of this Seventies terrace house in Islington are a modern-day take on a grand Georgian townhouse (Andrew Meredith)

The sweeping cantilevered spiral staircase sits in a triple-height hallway, giving the effect of a “whispering gallery”, says awards judge Andy Downey.

The speckled terrazzo and chequerboard marble floor in the entrance hall leads to a green arched tunnel — giving an Alice in Wonderland vibe — into the kitchen and the new rear extension. 

The same green picks out the arched doorways upstairs, while pink polished Venetian plastering is used in the bathrooms.

The new rear façade is white brick and terrazzo, in a nod to Georgian marble fireplace surrounds, says Ducker.

Apartment Block, Islington

One of the homes vying to be named Best Home Improvement project 2020 is aptly nicknamed “the apartment block”. It’s a flat covered in 30,000 hand-cut wooden blocks.

The one-bedroom bolt hole was once a classroom in a red-brick Victorian school in the centre of Clerkenwell but in 2000 the whole building was converted into a residential complex.

The brief from the retired couple who own the flat and use it as their London base was to “future-proof it in a beautiful way”.

Ella Wright of Coffey Architects was also tasked with retaining the history and drama of the property. 

“We began by stripping away all the non-original features, including everything inserted in the 2000 conversion,” she explains.

The original windows were uncovered, along with cornicing and also pale green glazed tiles running along the bottom half of the living space. 


30,000 hand-cut wooden blocks were used to achieve the desired look at this apartment in a converted Victorian school (Tim Soar)

Timber and linen shutters have been fitted on to the south-facing three metre-high sash windows, giving some privacy and filtering beams and shadows that bounce across the apartment throughout the day.

In a nod to the materials and methods of the school’s period, 30,000 hand-cut oak blocks were laid on the floor and in the wooden staircase which leads up to a mezzanine balcony-cum-study. 

The desk overlooks the double-height living area and behind it the master bedroom is partitioned off by Japanese-style sliding screens. 

A black-and-white photograph of children working in the schoolroom hangs on the wall and a Victorian penny is laid into the wooden floor. 

“It’s like living in a wooden sculpture,” says the owner. “There’s a calm feeling waking up in this place.”

Such an intense celebration of wood may not be to everyone’s taste — and neither, for that matter, might green corridors or a twisted brick extension.

But then, these imaginative, show-stopping projects are built for the people who live in these homes, without an eye to the next buyer.

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