Local architectural designers James Webster and Richard Bridges on the challenges of redeveloping your own home and why energy efficiency makes sense

Designing your own house is a dream for many of us. And if you happen to be an architectural designer, it’s the perfect opportunity to create that no-holds-barred Grand Designs home – a crazy ambitious palace of engineered timber and glass. That is, of course, unless you’re redeveloping your pad for sale, when the passion project takes a back seat to liveable architecture and knowledge of the local market.

James Owen Webster of East Dulwich-based Alexander Owen Architecture, a business he set up with his friend and fellow designer Richard Alexander Bridges two years ago, has managed to strike the balance between cutting-edge design and marketability when redeveloping his East Dulwich home.

The two-bedroom period flat in a conservation area has a spectacular open-plan kitchen diner that flows right out into the garden without any pesky interfering walls, thanks to some clever engineering. The kitchen extension swaps the rear and side walls for bi-folding doors which, when fully opened, give the impression of a floating roof. Now that’s how to bring the outdoors in.

A side return extension with skylights created a more spacious kitchen area with plenty of natural light, and while the ground floor kitchen/reception/dining room is all open plan, the exposure of a strip of brickwork from the original exterior wall creates a subtle division of spaces. James also left some of the new steelwork exposed – a rare feature in a period property – and added more insulation than building regulations require to keeping the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer. He also added underfloor heating in the open-plan living area and the bathroom.

You can have style and comfort while lowering your carbon footprint, but James admits that the extra design work, engineering and energy efficiency measures make the price point ‘punchy’. Still, at the time of going to press a buyer had made an offer on the place. So how do you find that balance between creating a spectacular home, marketing the property at the right price and return on investment?

How do you find that balance between creating a spectacular home and return on investment?

‘If you’re in a good area where property prices are going up you can afford to put a bit more money into the design to make it unique,’ says James. ‘You may narrow your market, but someone will walk in and fall in love with it. You’re elevating the wow factor. When you walk in and you see the doors wide open, all the lights are on on the patio and it’s got a great garden that’s not overlooked, you can’t really argue it. There aren’t really any two-bed flats in Dulwich that are like it.

‘We’re also the age of the likely buyer, so if we know what we like and what the market is doing, we’re designing it specifically for that market,’ he adds. ‘Exposing the steel and the brickwork was pushing it a bit, but knowing that people are moving here from Hoxton and Dalston, looking for something design-led, and that this two-bed flat could have a little family in it. It’s looking at the ceiling price in the area and knowing your market and sticking to that and pushing the boundaries a little.’

‘When you’re designing it and you own the property you can control everything from the first design stages right up until the build,’ adds Richard. ‘You can work closely with the builders to manage all the costs and work out which areas you’re going to put the money into.’

James has added some colour-pop furnishings and carefully placed artworks to add to the contemporary appeal of the property, but one assumes that, as architectural designers, interiors aren’t generally their remit?

‘It depends,’ says James. ‘Sometimes interior design can be architecture – it might be that we look at a particular flooring material or we may expose rafters, so a piece of the architecture becomes the interior.’

‘We always design with the interior in mind,’ adds Richard. ‘We ask what the client wants to get out of the property. How do they want to use the space? Do they want the roof light over the dining table in the kitchen? So the interior informs the exterior design.’

Alexander Owen Architecture is steadily building a reputation as an eco-practice

‘We consult with our clients all the way through so they always feel like they’ve had ownership of the project,’ says James. ‘It’s their home, we don’t prescribe or dictate space, it’s always an open conversation about how they will use it – do you want a galley kitchen, an island, a breakfast bar? How are you going to live in that space? That’s the key.’

Alexander Owen Architecture is steadily building a reputation as an eco-practice. A recent project in Peckham, an extension and eco-retrofit, is a great example of this. The home belongs to a director of Parity Projects, a domestic energy consultancy, who was looking to create a demonstration house for his company by creating a future-proof home with a low carbon footprint.

‘It’s a very very efficient house,’ says James of the project. It went from EPC Rating F to just under Rating A. The retrofit included internal and external wall insulation, upgraded windows and doors throughout, solar thermal panels to produce hot water and photovoltaic panels to produce electricity.’

The project won the Best Domestic Retrofit at the Greenbuild Awards 2014, and was also shortlisted for the Architecture Journal Retrofit Awards 2013 and the CIBSE Building Performance Awards 2014. James and Richard have also spoken about their work at RIBA seminars on retrofitting historic buildings and low-carbon building design.

If you’re going to build an extension you might as well make it energy efficient

‘You can feel that there’s something going on in the market,’ says James, when I ask why they’re making efforts as a company to promote low-carbon living. ‘But also it’s just a natural progression. If you’re going to build an extension you might as well make it energy efficient because it doesn’t have to cost a whole lot more. You just start with passive systems such as more insulation in the walls and making sure the windows are more energy efficient. Then, if it’s feasible, you can start to plug in active technologies like solar panels.’

James and Richard work with an energy consultant to analyse the carbon footprint of a house, producing a report with the costs of various eco-retrofit installations, what carbon it will save you and how long it will take to recoup those costs in energy savings. You can then use that information to decide how energy efficient you want your home to be.

‘Once we get that report back we can assess with the client what their goals are,’ says James, ‘whether it’s to make the house warmer in the winter or cooler in the summer, do they want to reduce their energy bills or do they want to invest in an actively low-carbon lifestyle?’

‘When you extend your kitchen, for example, you’re basically ripping apart most of your house,’ says Richard. ‘So you might as well go that extra step, adding insulation and that kind of thing, it’s just a lot more cost efficient.’

After all this talk of James’ home and ripping places apart, I ask Richard if he has any ‘grand’ designs on his home: ‘I’m living in a building site at the moment,’ he says.

And there you have it, the life of an architectural designer.

See aoarchitecture.co.uk