Let there be light

DESIGN 'The problem with the layout of the traditional Victorian terrace is that the extended part at the back cuts off the ground floor from light and from the garden...' Not now, it doesn't. By David Redhead
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The Independent Culture
Nice and ordinary is the phrase that best describes the Kensal Rise district of northwest London. Just north of Notting Hill, its turn- of-the-century two-storey terraces are arranged in homogenous rows, each with its own little front garden, its stained glass flowers over the front door and its decorative mouldings round the bay windows. The streets are leafy and serene and, just around the corner, there's a park with a playground, tennis courts, a bandstand and a nice little cafe, frequented by middle-class mums with kids in tow.

To Canadian-born residents Steve and Hilary Billinger, Kensal Rise represents a suburban heaven. "It's hard to find friendly places in inner London where everyone talks to each other like they do here," says Steve. "This is a real, old-fashioned neighbourhood."

But to step through the Billingers' front door (behind the white car in picture, left) is to discover that their suburban heaven has a twist. With an architect, Mark Guard, the couple have turned their terrace on its head. The two bedrooms and bathrooms are now at the back of the ground floor. The focus of domestic activity has shifted upstairs. Here, Guard has demolished four pokey bedrooms, hidden a supporting beam in the roof and, as if by magic, the banal terrace has acquired the elegant open-plan character of a modern loft.

The first floor consists of one simple, white, wood-floored space, nearly 60 feet long, containing a spacious living room and a kitchen and breakfast area in stainless steel. Beyond it, a new staircase descends to a conservatory with a double-height glass wall which bathes the back of the house in light.

"The problem with the layout of the traditional Victorian terrace is that the extended part at the back cuts off the ground floor from light and from the garden," says Mark Guard. "Turn it upside down and you get more light into the living spaces where you want it."

The ingenuity of the design - built in four months without the need for planning permission - is enough to make you wonder why such metamorphoses aren't more common. "Presumably most people with ordinary houses think they can't afford an architect," suggests Hilary Billinger. "But we wouldn't have done it if the figures hadn't added up." The Billingers' strategy, masterminded by Mark Guard, was to establish the local going rate for a decent house - about pounds 160,000 in 1993 - and then to look for the cheapest wreck on the market. They bought their home derelict for pounds 100,000 and, remarkably, paid Guard a further pounds 75,000 to complete the conversion. "It's cheaper to alter a top than a ground floor," Guard explains. "If you demolish a supporting wall you only have to hold up the roof with beams, not the whole house."

Guard had other cunning cash-saving tricks up his sleeve. "Mark is clever at giving the illusion of luxury with cheap materials," says Hilary. The elegant stainless steel bathroom basins are typical. They are made of catering-sized mixing bowls supported in frames made of basketball hoops.

But what on earth do the neighbours make of the alien glass box that has landed as if from outer space amidst their back yards? The Billingers, though suspecting that "people think we're quite mad", say that it has provoked more admiration than Nimbyism. Its feasibility in places where Victorian terraces don't fetch pounds 175,000 each is obviously a moot point, but perhaps their house - now shortlisted for the 1995 RIBA awards - could even become a blueprint for other suburban revolutionaries. That's certainly the way that Steve Billinger sees it.

"There's only one thing I would change about the house, and that's its location," he says, mistily surveying the adjoining gardens from the conservatory. "With windows like these, we really need a mountain or a waterfall to look out on."