With most architect-designed homes, the program originates from the kitchen and main living area, but for Londoners Brad Smith and Brian Brennan it was very much what was not to be on show—specifically, their Brompton brand fold-up bicycles—that dictated the renovation of their 648-square-foot former coach house. The couple, who both work on the tech side of finance, bike to work each day, and they didn’t want to suffer the cycle-cluttering-the-hallway scenario that many city dwellers endure. Nor did they want to chance leaving the bikes outdoors; no matter how hefty the lock, a bike left on the London streets overnight will not likely be there in the morning.
Smith bought the property, which is tucked away in a mews just a minute’s walk from the busy main streets of London’s Islington neighborhood, five years ago, when he was single. He had never expected that the tiny space would ever be large enough for he and Brennan to cohabitate. “We looked at moving,” says Smith. “But we couldn’t find the right combination of things for us, and we didn’t want to sacrifice location, so we came back to the idea of redeveloping this place. Brian was born just down the road and we have lots of friends in this area and wanted to stay here.”
The home would have to be completely overhauled to facilitate their moving in together. Essentially an 18-foot cube (if you ignore the vaulted roof space), the living area was carved from what is thought to have been a 19th-century coach house that would have served a nearby timber yard. A previous conversion left the space cramped and upside down, with a dark bedroom at ground level and a living room on the second floor. Sketching floor plans on napkins with friends was all very well and good, but it soon became clear that the couple was going to need some professional help to reorganize their space. A friend recommended they check out Scape Architects. “We saw their website, and it was a marriage of their concept and style that we saw working here,” says Smith. “They just think in a different way. Apart from knowing the style of the architect from their previous work, we didn’t have too much preconception of what this was going to look like.”
Once Scape took a look at the property, it was clear that it was not just the bicycle storage that was an issue. Brennan’s moving in meant twice as many possessions in a space barely large enough for a single person. Fortunately, the firm had plenty of experience working with limitations. “Our first major project was for a couple who had been living in Japan for 13 years,” explains Chris Godfrey, principal architect at Scape. “They moved to London to retire and we got their inventory from the storage company, which listed everything that they owned. We looked at the space they had bought and used the list as a brief. That has been the way we have worked ever since, to display or hide as needed.”
“We try carefully to make creative spaces, with things like personalized storage,” continues Godfrey. “Brad and Brian were doubling the occupancy and hence the number of objects, but obviously without any increase in space. We responded to how they lived previously and what needed to be done to make it a two-person home. We had to create more space and effectively house more stuff.”
The need to hide possessions drove the design, with coats, audio-visual gear, and kitchen equipment all neatly concealed in the central staircase. The original conversion placed the stairs up one wall, but bringing them to the center of the house provided a hub for storage as well as for lighting, cables, and networking equipment. Scape dubbed the project the Front to Back House because it divides the house into long, narrow strips, creating a feeling of spaciousness that would not exist in a more traditional layout. Starting at the front, you enter into a lounge/dining area, which is separated from a galley-style kitchen by the distinct black dividing line of the stairs. The stairs are covered in a heavy-duty rubber, the same material used to make tires for semis. The kitchen wall storage forms a final back layer to the property, with the white and burnt-oak cupboards softening the starker design elements.
This model is mirrored upstairs, where a large bedroom is joined to the functional space containing wardrobes, wet room, and vanity unit. These are accessed from either end of the bedroom via the landing at the top of the stairs and a glass bridge, which allows light into the downstairs space.
Additional light enters through huge windows cut out of the front of the building and a skylight running the length of the roof—though guests may be somewhat perturbed by the lavatory being part of the open-plan wet room.
“As we can both be working different hours, we need the ability to be separate,” says Smith. “The bedroom can be separated from the rest of the house so you are not disturbed.” Bathroom aside, there is also a good degree of privacy, with Scape having shunned the more obvious galleried open-plan design, which is popular in many small spaces of this kind. As a concession, “there is a guest toilet hidden beneath the stairs,” Smith reveals.
Indeed, it is amazing what Scape has packed into this stairwell. The main lights are concealed behind the acrylic balustrade, which acts as a diffuser. This creates a warm glow at the center of the house at night. The cupboard doors all open with a gentle push, negating the need for handles. Similarly, the oven and fridge are hidden behind cleverly designed doors, which swing out and then stow away.
The odd newspaper and coffee cup aside, this camouflaging gives the house a showroomlike fastidiousness, which means the couple resists buying unnecessary things. Their minimalist method of living was honed sharing Brennan’s tiny one-bedroom apartment during the yearlong build. They are settled enough now to not panic over every mislaid object, and they do admit to being spoiled by their home’s neat functionality. “When we go away to a hotel now, which may be really plush, we still think it is not as good as home,” says Brennan.
At about $400,000, the remodeling project was not cheap, running about the price of a small apartment in the outer reaches of London. But it is the clever design rooted in the neighborhood they love that matters to the couple, not what value the work adds to the nearly $600,000 Smith originally paid for the property.
“If we were doing it up for the money, we would have made two bedrooms,” says Brennan. “But it would have been very small up there. We did it for us, for the long term.” The use of light and the judicious division of space makes this 648-square-foot home seem larger than an apartment of similar proportions, and despite its efficient and tidy appearance, it really does feel like a home.
“The thought of living anywhere else now would be strange, a real letdown,” says Smith. “I am so glad we did this with an architect. They just think in a different way.”
It is easy to see how Smith would come to such a conclusion about this super-functional house. Scape considered every detail, giving this tiny space a homey glow while keeping it free of the congesting clutter that so many of us accumulate. Pack rats should consider giving them a call. After all, there’s little to lose except maybe a Happy Days lunch box and some mismatched cutlery.
Author, journalist and Dwell contributor. London, England.