Bowled over

Patricia Wynn Davies meets a couple who turned a skittles club into a knock-out home
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Architect Peter Camp lives with his wife Katherine Virgils, an artist, and their two sons in Kennington, London

Architect Peter Camp lives with his wife Katherine Virgils, an artist, and their two sons in Kennington, London

For about three years, we'd been searching for a bigger home in Kennington. We loved its central London position and the mix of Georgian terraces and semi-industrial. We look out to some of the most graceful architecture devised by man, but gasometers are visible above the rooftops, Tony's Café is next door, and on a fine day roars from the Oval cricket ground and the chimes of Big Ben ring around our courtyard.

When I first saw what we later named Bowling Hall, my first instinct was to say to my wife: "You'd better come and see this." The space covered the lower ground floors of two grand Georgian houses set back from the road opposite Kennington Green, plus a big extension running the length of the back garden of one of the buildings. The idea of "courtyard living" flashed across my brain.

The houses were laterally converted in the Sixties before planning became more restrictive, with flats on the upper floors and the Irish Bowling Club below. Skittles enthusiasts enjoyed many an after-hours drink here, I'm told, but by the early Eighties the club's heyday was over.

The bowling hall became an office space, sub-divided into little rooms, and was then left empty for five years. This was how I first saw it - it was advertised as a commercial property - decaying, dingily lit by old strip lights, and full of old furniture and rubbish. Down one side of the extension were the signs of its past life, the high, narrow windows of the defunct skittles alley.

It looked a complete mess, but it offered enormous possibilities and with our two growing sons, we needed much more space, ideally at ground-floor level, than we had at the time. We felt confident about the task ahead - our previous home had involved designing and building a residence from scratch on the flat roof of an apartment block in Chelsea.

Size was an important factor for us - 2850sq ft of building surrounding 2000sq ft of overgrown and neglected garden. But it was the courtyard aspect that clinched it , the possibilities of the garden and the fact that all the living space was adjoined by it. We imagined being able to walk out into the garden from any part of the building, or criss-crossing the garden to get access to different parts of the house -- and all this within a listed Georgian setting.

The exterior still retains a kind of anonymous, semi-neglected feel at street level, which is a foil for what we've created beyond. The dimensions - from the front door to the back wall is 125ft - offered us tremendous scope. The design I decided to use is based on the "Elizabethan procession" concept found in hall houses of that period. You proceed through a series of public spaces, each becoming more intimate, until you reach an inner sanctum.

The delineations, or "thresholds", between the public spaces - reception hall, kitchen and dining area, main reception hall - are informal, employing mahogany and opaque-glass sliding panels rather than using conventional walls. The layout of the building also enabled me to create separate activity and/or sleep zones for us and the children or visiting friends at opposite ends of the courtyard, linked by a communal living area.

Lowering the level of the garden by three feet was a critical feature in creating a sense of continuity between the inside and the outside of the building. Most of the rooms, including the main bedroom, now open on to the terrace and lawn via large, sliding glass doors. A eucalyptus and a palm tree add a touch of the exotic. The project is naturally a reflection of my professional life, but Katherine also saw the chance to transform a decrepit space into a modern showplace for her work.

What we made into the main hall has skylights and four big, sliding doors into the garden and it's better than a gallery. We hold an annual Open House in the autumn where Katherine and other artists use it to display up to 70 paintings. It's at times like this that the flexibility of the house really comes into its own, with people spilling out on to the lawn and re-entering from various vantage points. Katherine uses the house as a workspace, too, and with so much light and greenery she can work here for days at a time without getting cabin fever.

I wanted to use the best of modern techniques and materials; the many metres of hosing carrying the under-floor gas heating mean that no unsightly radiators spoil the lines of the interior and low-emission, argon-filled glass in the doors to the courtyard ensures that heat generated inside gets reflected back.

We spent £200,000 on the changes we made, but property values have risen and because we converted commercial premises into residential, we got the VAT back. Most importantly, the house has turned out to be everything we dreamed of, as I remind myself in the summer when short-cutting across the lawn from the kitchen to the bedroom with the morning coffee. The one-time skittles club is now a fully-functioning exercise in inside/outside single-storey living in an urban setting.

Peter Camp can be contacted at peter@peterbellarchitects.co.uk, 0207 387 8483; Katherine Virgils at pckv@freenet.co.uk

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