Open door, not open plan

A growing family needs space, but privacy can save your sanity. One architect couple on a tight budget achieved both

Forget open-plan. When Julia and Justin Nicholls set about reconfiguring their modest workers' cottage into a family-sized home, the watchword they worked to was "connectivity".

With two young children, Mae, five, and Joe, three, the last thing the couple wanted was to open out their living space into one cavernous room. Instead, they created a series of rooms – so that they could opt for family time or privacy simply by closing a door.

"We just don't think open-plan works when you've got a family, especially as the children get older," Julia says. "Noise carries too much. We have friends who have done it and now they regret it because they've nowhere to escape."

Their other priority was storage. The property is only about 1,600 sq ft – tight for a four-bedroom house. So they moved "virtually every wall" to resize the rooms, squeezing in a utility room downstairs and a wall of wardrobes upstairs.

Julia, 39, the head of public relations at Squire and Partners architects, and Justin, 41, an architect at Make (, bought their East Dulwich house in 2006 for £355,000, coming from a one-bedroom mansion-block flat in Clapham to which they added value by simply renovating.

They needed to move on because they were planning a family, so they bought their Victorian terrace. Downstairs it had a dark, poky kitchen at the back and a large, long living room at the front, created by knocking through the living and dining rooms. Upstairs were two double bedrooms, a box room and a bathroom.

"We wanted to create as much space, storage and light as we could," Julia says. "We also just really liked the feel of the area, which has a lot of parks and open spaces, and it also felt like a really friendly community."

Once they had moved in, they decided to reinstate three separate downstairs rooms, with a living room at the front, a study/family room in the middle, and a large kitchen with space for a dining table and sofas at the back. The doors between the living and family rooms can be closed, while the wall between the family room and kitchen has a cut-out section, leaving the two rooms feeling separate yet remaining connected. The central room is lined with shelves for toys and books, with a small built-in desk area – another space-saving innovation.

The couple also wanted to extend the kitchen into the side return and, when they discussed their plans with the neighbours, they found that they, too, wanted an extension. So they were able to agree to extend the party wall between the two properties, which both sides were then able to use. Planning permission wasn't needed, though acquiring the necessary permitted development paperwork took six months.

Extending the kitchen changed its odd shape to a regular rectangle. Julia and Justin installed a glass door and a large picture window to bring light through the house. They opted against fashionable floor-to-ceiling bifold doors to the garden, mainly because in a small house they needed the wall space. A sofa now sits along the back wall, with the picture window above it.

The door and window cost £1,800 – another good reason for installing them rather than a bifold, which would have cost three times as much. A section of the kitchen has been hived off to act as a utility room, and a high-hanging, pull-up clothes horse uses the space right up to the ceiling.

Under the stairs is a cloakroom space, with an ample storage area for bikes and shoes. Upstairs there are still three bedrooms. "But we reconfigured every wall just to make the rooms a better proportion," Justin says.

Mae has the middle bedroom, which has been made slightly smaller in order to win space for the wall of built-in wardrobes in Justin and Julia's room at the front of the house.

The third bedroom was originally very small, and the family bathroom was at the back of the house. The couple rearranged these two rooms, putting an enlarged bedroom at the back to benefit from views over the garden, while reducing the size of the disproportionately large bathroom. The upstairs ceilings had to be lowered a little so that the loft could be converted into a fourth, double bedroom, with large windows over the garden, a small shower room tucked under the eaves, and more built-in cupboards.

The whole house has been thoroughly insulated. Justin and Julia spent £2,000 on underfloor and external-wall insulation and believe the savings on winter fuel bills will see this investment paid back within five years.

They did as much of the work as possible themselves to save money, leaving only the structural work relating to the two extensions, the plastering and the tiling to the professionals. Their kitchen is an Ikea carcass dressed up with bespoke timber doors and the palette is neutral, with black painted floorboards – for which they chose a glossy finish in order to reflect light and not feel too gloomy – and white walls.

They used a customisable storage system from the Swedish firm Elfa ( throughout, partly to add continuity and also because they liked how easy it would be to reconfigure as their needs change. The work was carried out in two phases. They worked on the main house during 2008, and then did the loft extension shortly before Joe's birth. The total spend was in the region of £150,000.

Of course, they were able to save on architect's fees, but Justin believes that anyone undertaking a major restoration should commission one. "A construction project is likely to be the most expensive thing you ever undertake, after the purchase of your home. A good architect will work your cash hard by discussing the best place to spend it to maximum effect," he says. Fees, usually linked to the construction cost, start at about 5 per cent for small domestic projects.

Despite buying close to the peak of the market, the house is worth in the region of £700,000 after five years of recession, partly due to the work the couple have carried out and partly due to the fact that East Dulwich has gentrified, and is now fashionably full of independent cafés and boutiques. Turning a profit was not their main motivation, however. "We plan to stay here for a long, long time," Julia says.

In fact, they insist they do not envy friends who have upgraded to larger houses rather than make the most of what they already had.

"Moving just one click up the property ladder costs such a lot of money and it doesn't seem like there is really that much difference to be made in terms of space," Julia says.

"People are moving to houses that are slightly wider, slightly longer. We wanted to make the best of what we'd got."

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