THAT CAUGHT OUR EYE
Client of the Month: Kylie’s Mirror Image Miracle in a Kingston Conservation Area
Kylie and Neil’s house is remarkable: a new build that’s an exact mirror image of the Victorian house it’s attached to. The illusion is so perfect, it just won an award from the Kingston Society, which you can read about here. We thought this was the perfect time to catch up with Kylie and share her story.
The original house on the site was a cramped Georgian cottage attached to a much larger Victorian house. How did you come to own this property?
My husband and I had been living in Kingston for about eight or nine years, and we had no intention of leaving the area, but with two young kids we needed a home with more internal space and a bigger garden, which just didn’t exist in the area within our budget.
Our only option was to find a house that was smaller than what we wanted and then extend it, and when I found the little white cottage that was originally on this site it seemed like the perfect candidate. There was a large garden that we could extend into, and though the house was long and thin, I thought that with a bit of rearranging of the interior it could become more spacious.
Luckily, we got the house, and because of the state it was in – almost falling down around us and full of damp – we thought we wouldn’t have much issue refurbishing and extending it. It was a pretty little house, but it didn’t have much architectural merit besides its age.
I went to discuss our ideas with the Kingston planning department and asked how much chance I had of being able to extend the house. They just looked at me and laughed and said, “Do you realise it’s in a conservation area? You’re not going to be able to do half the extension you want to do, you’d have more luck applying to knock it down and build a new house.”
Which I’m sure they said tongue-in-cheek, but my ears perked up and I asked how much of a chance. They told me around 50%, and I thought, that’s a gamble I’m willing to take.
I went looking for architects, and the first one came around to the house and shared their ideas, but as soon as I mentioned wanting to knock it down they made it very clear they wouldn’t be comfortable doing that as the house was not only in a conservation area, it was also the oldest on the road.
That’s when I realised I needed someone with a bit more fight in them, someone who had a history of winning difficult planning battles – and that’s when John’s name came up.
What was your experience working with John?
He was brilliant. Our initial idea was to build a detached house that matched some of the simple Georgian houses up the road, but John noticed that there was a pattern on the road for houses to be built in semi-detached pairs, with each pair having a different style. He suggested that our best chance was for the new build to be an exact mirror image of the Victorian property that it was attached to.
The adjoining house was a slightly more gothic looking and ornate than we wanted at the time, but John convinced us that – though the project would be incredibly difficult – it was our best shot of getting planning approval. And I’m glad he did, because we’re in love with the house now.
Once we agreed with his plan, he put together the documents incredibly quickly – I think our application was sent off within a month of us meeting him.
The original property, though its age was remarkable, had little else going for it.
How did the planning department take to the idea?
We were turned down. The Kingston Archaeological Society said that they didn’t want us to knock down one of the oldest houses on the street. There was also a neighbour who had a personal attachment to the house who objected. The planning officer overseeing the case wasn’t sure of the decision and referred it to a planning committee.
John expected this would happen, and was fully prepared for the committee process. On the day, John came and sat with us ready to fight, but I was so unbelievably nervous. It was well into the evening by the time the panel saw us so that John could present our case. It ultimately came down to a hung vote.
There was a hard split between those who thought the project would improve the street, and those who thought whatever we would build would be a pastiche that would never match the house next door.
To our relief, the planning committee ultimately decided in our favour, and about 18 months later, we moved in.
After you were awarded planning permission, what challenges did you encounter when building the house?
The only other project I had been involved with before was a loft and rear extension, so a new build was new territory for me – let alone a complete period recreation.
Luckily, our main contractor was an incredible craftsman who would cut each brick four, five or six times then throw it away and start again if it wasn’t perfect. That eye for detail was essential when trying to perfectly match a building that stood right next door.
It was half home-building and half archaeology. We had to source manufacturers who still made materials in the traditional, artisanal style. For example, the red brick work on the front was supplied by a company who was still using kilns from the 1600s and provide the chimneys at Hampton Court Palace.
The biggest challenge was that although were were building a house that would look indistinguishable from a Victorian house, it had to comply with modern day onerous sustainability standards – Code for Sustainable Homes level four – in order to get planning approval.
Trying to squeeze in insulation without thickening the walls, make everything airtight and install modern mechanical and electrical services was incredibly frustrating. We also had to make sure the house had disabled access, and even had to install solar panels on the rear. It was a lot of ticking boxes, each of which came with a hefty price tag.
However, all these challenges have been more than worth the effort. Neil and I have ended up with a wonderful house that looks like it’s always been there, but is economical to run, is sustainable and environmentally friendly. It’s the best of both worlds.
This view of the rear shows the dramatic transformation of the new development.
It’s clear all that hard work paid off because the house is a tremendous success. How many times have people not realised that it’s actually a new build?
It happens all the time. The first one I remember is when we had to get our new build certificate. The NHBC inspector who had been visiting the project through development was replaced by a new inspector who hadn’t seen it before. I was running a bit late and he called me and said, “I’ve got a problem, I’m outside the address but this is an old house, there’s no new build here.”
I laughed and said I would be there soon. He couldn’t believe it wasn’t original, and it was his job to inspect homes!
In fact, just recently the adjoining house has had some renovation work to convert the flats there back into one home, during which the bricks were acid washed. Now their house looks newer than ours does, even though theirs was built in the mid-1800s.
What does it mean to you for your home to have won a Tony Leitch Townscape Award from the Kingston Society?
It’s just that final recognition that what we did was done well. It was a huge undertaking, when you build a home it completely takes over your life – two years, for us. Everywhere I look in the house I see all our decisions for what cornice to use and what colour to paint the wall, all those hours spent working on it. When you build your own home, the whole thing is yours, and that’s very satisfying.
It’s also vindicating. It makes us think back to the planner who objected to the project, who insisted that the house would be a pastiche. We’ve proved him completely wrong, which makes all the work feel even more worth it.