Get yourself a design for living

You don't have to live in a sexy loft conversion to kindle the creativity of an architect. The real challenge for house doctors lies in transforming an everyday home into an inspirational space
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The Independent Online

One reason given for employing an architect is for the unexpected suggestion that can turn a run-of-the-mill project into something extraordinary. Not surprising coming from Marco Goldschmied, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), but as Architecture Week approaches it is a timely reminder that good design can dramatically change the way we live.

During the week in early June, in return for a donation to the homeless charity Shelter, thousands of architects will spend up to an hour looking at the potential of people's homes and the improvements that can be made, sometimes using the most simple ideas. The week also does a great deal towards demystifying the profession. It is easy to get the impression that architects are interested only in landmark schemes or urban conversions, and that the average family home will be a poor substitute.

But in the search for more space, owners are as likely to extend the house they are living in as go through all the upheavals of a move. As we spend more on improvements so the scope for imaginative building work increases. Getting it right should provide not just those one or two extra rooms, but also affect the way the rest of the house is used. A tall order, perhaps, if budgets are limited, but particularly challenging if the house is special in some way and requires the approval of conservation officers.

Maeve Bhavan, who lives in a 17th -century timber-framed house in Kent, faced just such a dilemma. Hodges Place has been in her family for more than 50 years and is certainly as special to them as to conservationists, so when she and her husband decided they needed more space for visiting family members the only option was a new building in the grounds. The result is remarkable: a single-storey extension that confounds all our prejudices about melding new and old, and which was shortlisted last week for an architectural award.

In any project, but especially one that invites controversy, the trust between architect and client is crucial, and in this Mrs Bhavan had a distinct advantage. Her daughter and son-in-law were the architects and had her complete confidence. All agree that without that, their determination to create an extension so different from the old house with its deep pitched roof, black timbers and small windows might well have faltered. As it is, the 25m-long steel-framed structure, clad in wood with a wall of sliding glass, appears to be part of the garden rather than an addition to the house. Its crowning glory is a flat grass roof.

"It was terribly important that the atmosphere of the place should not be destroyed. The extension runs along the wall of the old kitchen garden, and what is remarkable is that if you stand back you are aware of the wall but not the structure," says Mrs Bhavan. "I wanted to be able to seat all 25 members of our family round the table and we can now do that. But I never expected to spend as much time there as I do. It is a wonderful place to work and, because it is sunk into the ground, I feel as though I am sitting in the garden."

This effect is heightened by the architectural pond, a reflecting pool of water that sits in front of the sliding windows. "The sunlight filtered through the horizontal screen makes the most incredible ripple patterns on the ceiling," she adds. Water from the pond irrigates the roof.

Sasha Bhavan and Simon Knox wanted to make a clear distinction between the old and the new, and in this they were fortunate in the support of the planners, who saw it as an imaginative way of enhancing the qualities of both buildings. "Too often you see barn-like buildings with pitched roofs that look like something you would see on a supermarket," says Sasha Bhavan. It was not that long ago that her mother had been asked to put up a "Tudor garage" in place of the old one.

While few people might have such a large undertaking in mind, there is a spin-off from building work that only an architect can spot. At Hodges Place the new extension meant new plumbing was needed, and all the old water tanks were removed from the attic to free up the space for a vast children's room.

Similarly, when Helen Carey, a stylist, planned an extension for her Victorian terrace house in Dulwich, south-east London, she employed an architect. "We didn't skimp on price because we felt that, unless it was going to improve the whole house, there was little point in spending money on half measures. The effect is stunning and makes the whole house feel light and airy."

If Architecture Week is the first time that some people have considered employing an architect, it is important that the right person is chosen for the job. Caroline Cole, who until recently ran Riba's clients advisory service, says it is important to look at an architect's portfolio - make sure you are not getting a minimalist vision when what you really want is Victorian detail, for instance.

But for those who feel that all architects are likely to be too grand for their humble dreams, Marco Goldschmied has a salutary tale. During the last architecture week one architect was greeted by the owners of a modest house with many apologies about its size and the unambitious plans they had in mind. As they showed him tentatively around their home, the architect was actually thinking of how much he would like the job, and how best to win the commission.

Architecture Week is from 9 - 18 June. Details from: 0906 888 1190.

Hodges Place, Church Road, Offham, Kent, will be open to the public on the afternoon of 10 June between 3pm and 5pm. Further information from Knox Bhavan Architects: 020-7701 3108