As anyone who has visited a family home knows, the old William Morris adage that a home should be beautiful and useful is easier said than done when accommodating young children. Urban design director Anna Mansfield and her husband, chief financial officer Ian Warren, faced this problem when they moved with their children to a five-bedroom fixer-upper in Hackney in 2018. The couple bought the Victorian terrace house in a London Fields conservation area for £1.3 million but the property felt worn out, with an old-fashioned layout and cramped feel.
By the time the pandemic hit, Mansfield was expecting the couple’s third child, and the strain of balancing home-schooling with working from home threw the house’s flaws into sharp relief. “We all felt very constrained. The house definitely didn’t work for modern family life,” remembers Mansfield, who had trained as an architect. “Loads of my friends are architects, so it made sense to go for someone we already knew.”
Without having to think about it too much, she and Warren settled on their good friends Camilla Parsons and Matthew Whittaker of award-winning practice Whittaker Parsons. “They place a big focus on collaboration and trust, which was very important to us,” explains Mansfield. The foursome were able to lay down some boundaries in advance. “We worked out some clear rules, like using email to talk about the house and keeping WhatsApp for all the friends’ stuff.”
While extending into the small back garden was the obvious thing to do, Mansfield didn’t want to lose too much valuable outdoor space. “We wanted to make the most of the house and the garden, so we made it part of the brief from the start,” she says.
£66,000 Structure and general building work
£37,000 Joinery and appliances
£25,500 Mechanical and electrical (including a new boiler)
£23,000 Decoration and internal linings (including ash ceiling and wall panels)
£8,000 Garden Landscaping (not including planting)
£6,000 Internal doors
£4,500 Sanitary Ware
The final design involves a modest 14 square metre L-shaped extension, consisting of a pair of interlocking forms, which nod to the proportions and angles of the pitched outriggers of this terrace, giving the project its name of ‘Interlocking House’. “We love the black cork render and the shape is so much more interesting than the ‘big block’ style of typical rear extensions,” says Mansfield.
Small changes, big difference
Inside, small changes have made a big difference to the flow of the space. Previously, doors opened off the hall into the living room and dining room, which were interconnected with double doors. The route to the kitchen led through the dining room. The extension now means there’s space for a dining area in the kitchen, freeing up the middle room to become a much-needed playroom. There’s a new entryway into the kitchen from the hall and both kitchen entrances can be left open or closed off, with sliding doors that have a blackboard/magnetic finish, for both family admin and doodling. With a wider door-free entrance from hall to playroom, the children can now chase each other in a loop. “It’s great for letting our toddler burn off energy,” smiles Mansfield.
Best of all, the new layout gives excellent sight lines. “I can work at the kitchen table and watch the kids in the garden, the playroom or the living room. And from the front door you can now see all the way through to the garden when you come home, which is lovely.” The architects also gave the family two back doors. One is an impressively tall glass panel “that stays open all day when the weather is nice and really fuses the house and garden”, says Mansfield. But Whittaker Parsons was pragmatic enough to provide a regular back door at a right angle to this one, “because no one wants to throw open a huge door on a cold winter day. Everything is really practical in this house, because it has been so carefully thought out”.
A large picture window at the end of the kitchen fronted by a cosy bench is a favourite spot for the children. “They like to read and chat to us while we’re cooking,” says Mansfield. The bench also hides storage for garden shoes. Whittaker adds: “We wanted to prevent that pile of shoes by the back door.”
In the kitchen, simple white cabinetry — a budget-saver from Howdens — has been customised for maximum storage space. The off-black Diespeker terrazzo worktop and splashback were chosen to reference the ground concrete floor that has been diamond-polished to reveal a cross-section of the aggregate within — adding a textural, Brutalist element to the space — which continues into the garden. Layering up the material palette, the ceiling, with its dynamic triangle skylight, has been lined in timber. Ash ply panels with Douglas fir beams create interest and a strong sense of warmth. Painted timber panelling was also used for the walls as a more resilient alternative to plasterboard. “We carefully researched all the materials on this project to ensure they were aesthetically beautiful, but also robust enough to withstand the typical wear and tear of family life,” says Whittaker.
There’s plenty more storage in the new playroom, too, with cabinets designed around a vintage Japanese piano (from Markson Pianos) for their musical eldest child. “We’ve three children under eight, so it gets messy every day. But now, thanks to all the well-planned storage, it’s quick and easy to tidy up again.” There’s further storage in the living room but the real improvement here is that this room now stays tidy as there’s plenty of space for the children and their things elsewhere. “Once it was a toy dump, now it’s a much calmer space,” says Mansfield.
Spend money to save money
The house is ranged over four floors, with a work-from-home space at loft level and four bedrooms and two bathrooms on the floors in between. The family added their daughters’ room to the brief as well as a total remodelling of the family bathroom, with a cheerful yellow rubber floor, heaps of storage and an opaque glass window and door bouncing light into the stairwell and hall below.
“Because of my background, I’ve always felt strongly about using an architect for home renovations, but since doing this project I’ve become absolutely evangelical about it,” says Mansfield. “When you’re doing it by yourself you’re lucky if you’re thinking one step ahead, but Whittaker Parsons seemed to stay five steps ahead and anticipate any problems in advance, managing all the Covid-related supply chain issues.
“They didn’t cost money because they saved us so much money, and they had so many clever ideas to make the space work for us as a family.”
Architect: Whittaker Parsons; whittakerparsons.com
Kitchen: Howdens; howdens.com
Worktop: Diespeker; diespeker.co.uk
Windows and rooflights: Maxlight; maxlight.co.uk
Concrete floor: The Concrete Flooring Contractors; theconcreteflooring.com
Engineered oak floor: The Solid Wood Flooring Company; thesolidwoodflooringcompany.com
Cork render: Ecological Building Systems; ecologicalbuildingsystems.com
Bathroom tiles: British Ceramic Tile; britishceramictile.com
Rubber floor: The Colour Flooring Company; colourflooring.co.uk
Insulation: Ecological Building Systems; ecologicalbuildingsystems.com
Crucial to Whittaker Parsons’ approach is to develop a clear picture of how owners use their homes. “We spent a lot of time talking about a typical day in the life of each member of the family to ensure that we created a space that will work for everyone,” says Whittaker. Whittaker Parsons began by presenting a lot of possible versions of the design. “It really helps the client to pin down exactly what they want,” explains Whittaker.
The house is now a light-washed and incredibly warm space, but Whittaker won’t take credit for that. “We provide the backdrop but we don’t want it to stop the client from inhabiting the space in a way that’s personal to them. We’re always aware that the client brings a lot to the project after we’re finished. The family’s things, whether it’s children’s drawings or their vintage Ercol dining table, are what completes the picture.”
How to create a stylish, functional family home
Serious storage is the key to a well-run family home. Ikea has a great range of kids’ wardrobes that double as storage for craft supplies and toys. Simple but easy to customise, they can be filled with shelves and drawers and personalised with colourful panels and handles (Småstad wardrobe, from £146.50).
Choose robust materials that are resilient enough to cope with the demands put on them by young children. Think cork, concrete, terrazzo and rubber.
Versatile furniture is a big help for family life. Here, an old Ikea step stool functions as an extra seat and an easy way to reach the highest cupboards. Hay’s Butler stool taps into the warm woods vibe in this house (from £210).
Include playful elements that will please the whole family, from the custom-coloured Eight-Fifty light in the playroom, by Claire Norcross (poa) to the coral-pink dining chairs from Twentytwentyone (now £267) to the Springfield yellow rubber floor in the family bathroom (£63 per metre squared).
Invest in the family’s well-being with natural, sustainable materials. Whittaker Parsons used wood fibre (a by-product of the lumber process) and jute (from recycled coffee bean sacks) to insulate the house.
Build in some fun for the kids with magnetic (£33.16 for 500ml at Brewers) or blackboard paint (£7.24 for 125ml on Amazon). Whittaker Parsons used both to transform the kitchen’s sliding doors into a creative hotspot.
A comfy, ‘all pile on’ sofa is an essential for happy families, Mansfield and Warren chose an Oscar sofa by Matthew Hilton, (currently £4,788 from SCP).