It’s one thing undertaking a renovation project on a Victorian semi, but when the client happens to be the director of an architects’ practice – and a perfectionist at that – there is the potential for serious headaches. Yet builder Laimonas Plenta and client Gareth Pywell not only maintained good relations during the transformation of Gareth’s south-west London home, they now cheerfully recommend each other’s services.
After a decade of living in his sub-divided Balham home, Gareth had decided the time was right to expand. The two-storey, two-bedroom configuration (someone else lives in the converted ground-floor flat) was restricting, and denied access to the garden.
Gareth, of POW Architects, drew up some innovative plans, then got a tip-off from a former employee about a reliable builder. “He said he’d never normally recommend a builder, especially to his boss, but said that this guy was very good,” says Gareth.
Laimonas Plenta of Plenta Effect rose to the challenge, but admitted to nervousness. “He’s an architect, and his attention to detail is high, so we were kind of under pressure to manage the client’s expectations,” he says.
The brief was to blend Victorian with modern, using bold zinc sheet cladding on an extension which reversed the roof pitch to maximise space. By using different shades and widths, the contemporary rooftop box – often a grim carbuncle in similar extensions – became a feature, seemingly morphing into the existing Victorian structure.
The redesigned upper floor added a third bedroom, shower and additional glass-walled cinema room, while a dramatic staircase from the first-floor kitchen finally provided a usable route to the garden.
“Bringing the garden back into use was the biggest coup for me,” says Gareth. “Juxtaposing old and new, if done sensibly, can be very successful. Zinc is relatively straightforward to work with, although it’s not as malleable as lead. As long as the work is done in the summer, it’s fine; in winter it becomes very brittle.” Switching the direction of the rear-return roof pitch gave fully usable headroom across the width of the rear, an area usually compromised by lower eaves.
Extra space was ‘bought’ in the kitchen by shifting a bathroom to the upper floor, creating a breakfast area, while attention was paid to improving natural light. Underfloor heating was installed throughout, with speakers in every ceiling and LED lighting. “The result is exactly as it was designed,” says Gareth.
Not that there weren’t issues to be resolved along the way. Working above residents in the self-contained ground-floor flat always had the potential for trouble, and when one of the builders put his foot through the ceiling of the bedroom below, showering the bed in plaster, it was a tricky moment. “They were very reasonable,” says Gareth. “Laimonas redecorated and painted it at his own cost, bought a new duvet and arranged all the dry-cleaning. It’s very unusual to find, but Laimonas’ calmness steadied many a stormy meeting.”
“It was not only a loft conversion with a whole flat renovation, but a reconstruction of all upper floors,” says Laimonas. “He [Gareth] wanted to achieve something unusual. The project was very challenging, but I wanted it for my portfolio. We have proved to ourselves that taking on big challenges can benefit everyone.”
The five-month job entailed a site-tidy every day at 6pm, a site closedown at lunchtimes to allow the neighbours’ children to sleep, and work restricted to limited hours on Saturdays to minimise disruption.