Tall, Victorian terrace houses are notoriously dark. But step inside Colin and Karen Currie’s home in north-west London and you are transported into an exotic space, where light streams in from multiple sources, and where a huge palm fern reaches for the sky from an internal courtyard.
So successful is this recent transformation that it is one of the 20 properties that have made it on to the coveted longlist for this year’s RIBA House of the Year award.
Karen and Colin had been living on the upper two floors of the four-storey house, while the lower levels were let as offices. The ground floor had once been a shop, but the store front was bricked up, leaving only small windows.
When the office floors became vacant they decided to make use of the whole house, talking to architects about the possibilities for the space.
“It started off as quite a modest project. We just wanted to get rid of the wall between the hall and the ground floor front room, and get some light in,” says Karen.
Most of the architects they consulted suggested turning it back into a Victorian house with the top two floors as bedrooms. “But there’s only the two of us, so we don’t need a lot of bedrooms,” adds Karen.
They wanted to keep the first floor as a kitchen and living space, and have the ground floor as a sitting room and entertaining area, with the basement serving as an office for Colin, an IT programmer working from home.
The architect they ended up choosing, Anthony Boulanger of AY Architects, had less traditional ideas that better fit with the couple’s plans. “The main issue was getting light into the two lower floors, so we suggested an internal courtyard, and a vertical void linking all floors with a new staircase,” says Boulanger.
The building had been extended into the garden on the ground floor, providing a further office and storage space.
The entire extension has now been remodelled to create the central courtyard, reached through full-width glass doors from the new living space, with a guest bedroom and bathroom on the other side.
The wall between courtyard and bedroom is also glazed, allowing as much light as possible into the room, with a mahogany folding screen for privacy.
A quirk to the guest bathroom is the roof light above the full length of the bath, set in a corner of the first-floor terrace; presumably none of the guests are shy.
The wall in the hall has been taken out, opening up the ground floor. So too has the ceiling; the void extends up through the floors, making space for a spectacular steel and mahogany staircase that curves to the top.
The void allows light into all floors apart from the basement, which is lit from above by a long skylight in the floor of the courtyard.
Only the top floor, with two bedrooms and a large bathroom, has remained unchanged apart from the new staircase.
The first-floor kitchen/dining room is full of light, with glass doors on to the large terrace over the guest bedroom, big enough for parties. This level has lost floor space to the void, but there’s plenty of room for the couple’s unusually shaped dining table, made from a single horizontal slice of tree trunk.
The ground floor is now the living and entertainment space that Karen and Colin wanted. The bricked-up exterior wall has been altered to look more like the original shop front, with smoked glass allowing light in while still maintaining privacy.
Colin is a part-time DJ and his decks and record collection take pride of place. Part of the shelving for the records was handmade in mahogany, the same wood used for the stairs, balustrades and new door frames.
Why all the mahogany? Karen, who runs a vinyl pressing and packaging company, is an inveterate traveller, and owns a small eco-hotel in Nicaragua. “We originally wanted oak for all the wood, but the price quoted seemed expensive,” she says.
“I know people in the timber business in Nicaragua, and it turned out we could get mahogany for the same price including shipping.”
They took a risk ordering so much wood from so far away, and they had to hire a shipping container in Wood Green to store it. The stairs were also made in Nicaragua, which worried Boulanger, who was project managing the renovation.
“The house had settled over the years… so everything is slightly out of alignment,” he says. “It was a stressful moment when the stairs were being put in; thank God we could make them fit.”
It’s a testament to the light in the house that they could use so much dark mahogany. “I love it because it reminds me of Nicaragua,” says Karen. “I’ve always wanted a spiral staircase and this is the nearest thing.”
The build took 10 months, a few weeks longer than planned, and was finished in September 2016. The owners prefer not to reveal the project costs, but have no regrets.
“I couldn’t visualise it or see an end to it at one point,” says Karen. “But now we love living here, the space and light is wonderful. The stairs are the first thing you see when you come in, which always makes people’s jaws drop.”
Grand Designs: House of the Year is on Channel 4 on Wednesday at 9pm