I have been mentally terming this post as "the box on the back of the house", because when thinking about what exactly constitutes a typical Modern Australian house renovation, that is what springs to mind. The typical Australian house has evolved over the past 40 years to really embrace casual entertaining and outdoor living. I'm not sure that there is anywhere else in the world that has so wholeheartedly changed their style of living so comprehensively in such a short period of time. A key feature of a modern extension or house in Australia is the open plan Kitchen/ Living/ Dining, located at the rear of the house with easy access and view of the back garden, some sort of outdoor entertaining area (often now with a built in outdoor kitchen BBQ area), and if you're lucky, a pool, as shown in the image above. Conversely, this has meant that less and less emphasis is placed on the traditional Formal rooms that are located toward the front of a house. In many houses, this has been done away with altogether, with the rooms changed to bedrooms (such as in the case of a small inner city cottage), or reduced down to just a single formal room or study/ library. Most often the formal dining room is not felt as being necessary. Australians tend to entertain casually, and the modern extension is a definite reflection of this.


The modern extension has also evolved into a statement of slick modernity though, rather than a retrospective heritage style as in the past. In line with current Architectural Heritage theory, Australian Heritage advisors and planning officers prefer a clear distinction between old and new. If you have an old house, the last thing the Heritage Architect will want to see is a faithful rendition of your homes original features in your new extension. Preferably, they like it to be a very modern contrast.

Front of house via

Back of house via

If you've ever watched "Grand Designs" on TV, you'll see that Kevin McCloud spends a lot of time talking about this topic. The extension that we've done to our house is what is considered a complimentary extension - it references the old front of the house (keeping the pitched roof, veranda elements), but still remains distinct from the old by not using the same stone wall material or sash window style, and by stripping back the detailing (so no cast iron lace on the veranda for instance). It was interesting that when I had one of the (many) pre-development application meetings with my local Council's Heritage Advisor, she stated she would have liked it to be a lot more 'modern' than it is, such as those above and below, but that it was distinct enough that it was fine to go ahead.


So now that I've put all of that into context, I'm going to tackle the fact that many people end up with a box on the back of their house. Some are done very well, some are very high spec, beautifully detailed and quite stunning contrasts with an old house. Others are... well... lacklustre.

So if you're looking at doing a modern extension to an older house, here are some ways of making a basic box a little more interesting, tricks that Architects frequently employ to create interest and manipulate space.

Level Changes

The Sunken Lounge of the 60's and 70's is actually still a very good example of this. Split levels work to break up and designate space into its function. In our extension we have a level change to the children's playroom, and this works well in separating their domain from the living area (this level change was purely due to function, as Mr AV's study is underneath, so it gave extra ceiling height in there).




But a level change can be in both directions - the other way to manipulate space is to change the ceiling heigh in different areas. There is no reason why you can't lower a section of the ceiling at some point to change the emphasis on a space (this could easily accommodate services, such as ducted air conditioning and is shown well in the last image in this post). In the first image above, there is a creation of a kitchen zone by stepping down the kitchen floor. The dining table pushed against the step is therefore at kitchen bench height. This is a very small house, in Albert Park-  Melbourne, so a clever bit of spacial manipulation adds practical kitchen bench space, and breaks up the kitchen from the living area. The second image (from a different house) shows steps up to a small library space which separates it from the main open plan living area, creating a more intimate feel. In the house below, the double sided fireplace sits between the dining and living area acting as a focal anchor point, and also to divide up the functional aspects of the space. The steps down to the lounge area further emphasise this by creating a different spacial experience from the dining with the extra ceiling height this achieves.




Clear traffic pathways

Always have a furniture layout done before you start construction. Mentally walk through it thinking of the traffic paths - how people will walk to the back door (indeed, what will be your back door if you have a wall of glass french doors for instance), how people will use the living zone. You do not want a major traffic path to go through a seating area - it will always feel transitional. A living area with sofas should be an end point in the traffic pathways. Mentally take the rubbish out of the kitchen to where you will keep your bins outside. This sounds obvious, but if you place your living zone as the main thoroughfare through to the back door, it never feels restful. In the image below the traffic path has additionally been defined by the black slate path in the flooring.



Focal Points

via Poliform

The worse thing you can do is to make a space and then think you'll sort out where everything goes once its built. That's how you end up with everyone on a sofa facing a wall looking at a big screen TV, with the view behind them. When I was designing our back room, I had what I thought of as a 'viewing point'. It was what you'd see as you walked from the hall into the new extension and looked left and right.


You need something to draw the eye to - in our case the end focal point is the fireplace in the living area, which is an obvious and time honoured design device (and in times past, a purely practical one). I have mentioned before that Architects and Interior Designers generally don't like a focal point to be a giant TV screen, and this is because when it is off it is a big, black void on a (usually) white wall. If you're not going to have a fireplace (and in some climates this is not remotely practical) an anchor point of a large and special piece of furniture (and you could conceal a TV in this if it is a high armoire with doors, or has a mechanical pop up mechanism for something lower), artwork, wall of bookcases or something similar will do the same trick.




Natural and Artificial Light


Ideally, you want natural light coming from multiple directions. As the sun moves through the day, if you have a single wall with all your windows on it, you'll miss out on a lot of the direct sunlight throughout the day. Light coming from two or more directions adds a lot to the experience of a room - you'll get a play of shadow and light that moves around through the space through the day. You can do this with clerestory (highlight) windows, or from skylights (the ones where you can see the actual sky) if you can't fit windows on another wall due to the constraints of your site. I think the most obvious temptation currently done in modern living areas is to have a wall of bifold or sliding/french doors. I suppose the rational is that you want to maximise the connection to the outdoors, and maximise light as well. But framing a view with a window can be much more visually interesting in a space, and can also help to delineate spaces within a standard rectangle. The window seat below is a good example of this.



Regarding artificial light, a feature pendant light/ chandelier is a great way of separating zones in an open plan living area. Dining tables are ideal for this treatment by having a large pendant light fitting of some sort. They should be hung lower than a normal light fitting to create a sense of intimacy - if the light fitting base is about 90- 120cm higher than the top of the table it should look about right. If you have incredibly high ceilings you may need to raise it higher than that. The image below shows a large pendant light fitting anchoring a seating area. Without it the seating area would be 'floating' in the middle of the room.

via Poliform


Playing with scale

Overscaling things can be a great way of creating visual interest in a space. To emphasise space, you need to create a feeling of height. Going taller than standard off the shelf glass doors or windows will give a much more interesting, less builder -spec feel than the standard sliding doors or windows will. The image below shows how they go almost to the top of the high ceilings, which looks a lot more dramatic than if they had a meter of wall above them. Similarly, I will always make overhead cupboards in a kitchen much taller than the "normal" height overhead cupboards. It just doesn't look good to have a very large gap between your kitchen overhead cupboard and ceiling, and this also holds true for bifold/ sliding/ french doors.


Articulating space

You of course do not need to do a rectangular or square box shape for an extension, but this does seem to be the default. A lot of time people think that it is better to have the largest space they can possibly fit, so rather than making an extension L shaped, for instance, they'll just make it a giant rectangle instead. But funnily enough this doesn't always make a room seem spacious. Dividing up an open plan area into different shaped zones will definitely give interest to a space, and help it to work better without having to resort to spectacular Architectural trickery to do the same thing. The house below shows a dining and kitchen area in the same plane, with the seating area coming off the kitchen. The kitchen has a lowered ceiling height to differentiate it from the adjacent spaces, and the focal point of a stone fireplace anchors the seating area.


There is a book that is recommended reading for all Architecture and Town Planning students at University, and it's called "A Pattern Language". It was written in the 60's and is essentially a study of what makes a room/ a house/ a street/ a suburb and a city a good place to live. It's fascinating how accurate all of it is, if you reflect on the different places you've lived or rooms you've experienced in your life and consider that what has made them feel "special" or what has worked functionally it's usually exactly as described in the book . If you're looking to buy or build a new house from scratch, reading this will give you a lot of ideas about how to make a home seem welcoming, function well, and ultimately a wonderful place to live in, regardless of your budget. In the end throwing money at a house, or building something to be the biggest you can with your budget does not necessarily mean that it is successful or special or a great place to live in. It's about manipulating space, light and functional aspects to create something special.

35 comments:

  1. You're right the house reno means different things to different countries in fact. The classic reno here would be buy a period home and restore it, in Korea it would mean bulldozing and building a whole new house. I do think it interesting that like you said there is such a huge shift I wonder what the present will be referred to in future. You know I adore the pattern language and think it should be taught in schools. You have reapplied some of its principles so clearly for the Australian climate that perhaps you should think about writing a book yourself! xx

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    1. I think in the UK generally the houses are big enough (or in the case of London, space constrained) that you don't need to actually extend it as we do here… it's more a case of reorganising the existing space, and in a lot of cases just redecorating it. I always remember when I lived in London being so surprised that people thought it bizarre that we had open plan living with the kitchen next to a sitting area, as at that time it was just absolutely not done over there.
      Not sure I've got a book in me! But I seem to think that Conran might have done something similar in the UK? xx

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    2. Agree with Naomi, you shoulf think about a book vovering the issues and options you've raised here. So interesting and informative. Wd love to do something like but we tend to spend our money on travel not on our house.
      Now in Paris witk comatose laptop. Flew in yesterday and weather has welcomed us with sunshine and storms interchanging. Lots of good exhibitons on, everything from Josephine to Augustus Caesar to Dries van Noten and van Gogh. St Remy was wonderful as usual - specially our superb travel guide, the fab Cecile Beillieu who took us to the loveliest places incl R's Uzes. Vicki Archer's lovely LPB was slso wonderful. Pammie xxx

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    3. If not a book - a regular magazine column. So much of what I read in magazines is just regurgitated seasonal advice that we all know (except maybe those House Rules contestants, sorry but really torture to watch). Your thoughts are so interesting. I'm sitting here gazing around at my L-shaped extension (which was done in the 80s and is totally matched to our Edwardian front) and plotting a stone fireplace wall and adjusted ceiling heights!

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  2. So interesting! Are the majority of houses in Australia so modern? So different than Canada, although we are crazy about our outdoor living, even if it only last for 4 months of the year...

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    1. That's pretty much the go here now Wendy- the back of a house will have a modern extension (although some modern extensions will be like the one we used to have on the back of ours, and date from the 60's and not be so nice!). New houses all orientate the living to the back of the house as well, and it's mostly common to find a lot of glass, so will look modern in style. Of course there are varying degrees of success with it… the examples I've featured are all good ones!

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  3. Very interesting Heidi! As I've mentioned we've been considering an addition to our house, the cost estimate just came in and it is enormous. We are also concerned about the look of the addition on the back of our 100 year old house, I can see the appeal of a very modern addition as it is very difficult to build one that meshes nicely with the home.
    For now we are looking for a bigger house in our neighbourhood, the process is causing me a good deal of anxiety for some reason. Probably because I hate moving and the thought of getting our house ready to sell fills me with dread!

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    1. Renovating is not cheap - at all. I just heard the on the news that Canada, Belgium and Australia have the highest house prices in the world (to income), so I suspect that you find, like us, that buying a house, or renovating a house are not cheap - no matter how modest or grand your expectations may be. I know what you mean about moving and selling - I never want to do that again!! Although the last time we sold, I was pregnant and had terrible morning sickness, a husband that was travelling to Hong Kong for work every week and a half, and an overactive 18 month old, 3.5 year old and dog. It was one of the more difficult periods in my life….! Good luck with your decision making Dani. xx

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  4. Very interesting subject Heidi. I am very unfashionably in favour of extensions which retain rooflines, ceiling heights, external finishes etc in sympathy with a period or heritage house, with the fit out of the interiors (kitchens, bathrooms, colour schemes, artwork etc) to be as cutting-edge modern or as period-sympathetic as the owner's tastes require.

    Interiors are always transient additions to the external structure of a house and move with fashion to a degree, but the external fabric of a house could, and should, last for much longer.

    I really really like what you have done with your home, which respects the original structure without being held to ransom by the heritage features.

    For me personally, I would love an extension where I cannot tell where the old house ended and the new part begins and would happily go to extremes to obtain appropriate salvaged floorboards, windows, hardware etc to exactly match the original home. I know that is definitely against the current thinking of councils, heritage/planning officers and most architects. I guess my real passion is for heritage and period homes, and they are my preferred environment in which to live, so it only makes sense that I would prefer to continue that feel and look in any extension. Authenticity is the key but can be very hard to accomplish, I think.

    I love some of the modern architecture you have shown in this post (although my favourite picture is that gorgeous window seat which is pretty much my ideal style), but would just prefer them to be attached to a modern building, if that makes sense.

    The modern box extensions which are so fashionable right now remind me vividly of the flat roof box extensions prevalent in the '50s, '60s and '70s which are now invariably pulled down, only to often be replaced with the modern version of the same thing. It will be very interesting to see if the current version of the box type extension holds up to scrutiny in another 20 or 30 years or will they all be pulled down again?

    Sorry to post as anonymous - my daughter has highjacked my google account for her own purposes and I don't know how to get it back!

    Cheers Tammy Macpherson

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    1. I know what you mean about the 70's and 80's extensions on the old houses, and yes… they haven't stood the test of time that well. Some of the extensions done on old houses now are much more Modernist in style with their pavilion style Architecture. These may still look good in the future - the original modernist architecture they're modelled on was first built in the 20's and 30's, so actually not so modern at all (even if they still look it). But I do agree with you that a lot of it will not stand the test of time. But to some extent I think this is cost related - it's much cheaper to build a flat roofed simple box structure than something with pitches and articulated room shapes, so for a lot of people they just do what they can afford. The more Heritage style extension was popular in the 80's and 90's, but Architectural fashions change and you would not be allowed to build like that in some council areas in Adelaide now. xx

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    2. Only just came across your article today, as I'm researching buying an older property. Do you know why councils and heritage advisors are not in favour of heritage style extensions any more? It seems such a conflict to me, to have a heritage front and a boxy back.

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    3. Essentially it relates to a change in thinking over the past 30 years Karen - they like a clear delineation between old and new, so that you can see the layers of a building and the additions made over the years. They don't like an extension that mimics the original as it is in effect pretending to be original when it's not and in the future it can be difficult to work out what was the original part of the building and what was later. The change in thinking was from a National Heritage conference called in the 1980's (I think it was 1984?) called the Moonta Convention, at which these principles were laid out… but it took a lot longer for that to trickle down to local councils/ to be taught in Universities etc. I'd check what the council actually require for approval as a starting point. If you're keen to do a heritage style extension then you may well be able to, although they might state they don't like it, it will depend entirely on the heritage classification (if there is one) and the development rules for whatever state/ area you're planning to buy into. My council, for instance, said that our extension was not as modern as they would like, but it was a clear differentiation from the original so it was ok… but another house down the street has recently completed a heritage style addition, and they've obviously passed it - they're not actually able to stop you building what you like design wise if it conforms with other design guidelines (size/ height/ setbacks etc).

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    4. Thanks very much for that quick reply, Heidi. It's what I thought the reason might be. Will keep your advice in mind when I get around to getting a place! Thanks again :)

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    1. Pleasure - I'll watch your house plans with interest Cilla! x

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  6. Really interesting article...I love a striking difference between old and new and have seen it work in several commercial buildings in Sydney

    my only real definite is .I have to have some sort of hall/entry I dont like walking straight into the living room

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    1. I think a hall/ entry is paramount too. The book I mentioned talks about this a lot - you need a transition between the street and the home, and a lot of the modern design for townhouses and apartments miss this. When we rented an apartment (years ago when we first moved to Melbourne) I used to hate that I'd open the door to the hall and you'd just see straight into the kitchen. It just didn't seem right!

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    2. Have you seen the new Renzo Piano Pathe building in Paris? love to hear your thoughts

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    3. Do you mean the new Law Courts building that is the competition he won and is still to be completed? If so, I wasn't too enamoured with it… he does quite elegant work as a rule, but the block-ish nature of the design didn't really seem very Paris to me.... But maybe it will work once it's built? Sometimes things don't seem so exciting in plan, but if the ground level relates well with the street scape it could be a lot better in reality?

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    4. http://www.rpbw.com/project/81/pathe-foundation/

      this is the building I meant

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  7. Great and comprehensive article. I agree with so much you have said. I always think planning your extension around the furniture you will need and have for the long term is so important.

    As you say I think the greatest challenge with a big rectangle is how it doesn't dictate a flow or a place for different tasks. They also echo so horribly compared to other layout versions you have highlighted.

    I do think sadly in Australia it is dictated by costs and the need to meet minimum room size for it to be worth it such as 4 x 4 metres...also costs can mean an average draftsmen, an uninspiring building company, cheap (standard) fittings and fixtures is used because an architect or even bonus features such as full height things and ceilings, lighting, kitchens quickly add up to outside your budget.

    Most people just don't even know what to ask for or have costed up so articles and professionals like yourself are so important!

    Very sad and really infuriating especially when it happens in multimillion dollar houses in Melbourne let alone all the sub million houses and even new builds of the outer outer suburbs.

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    1. Well, you've touched on a few topics Rohan - we have a building culture in Australia for one. There is very much the idea that you Do It Yourself over here. So it is definitely not the norm to engage an Architect or designer of any sort in designing a home. A lot of people think it will take away from their budget without adding enough value. So then you see that people do a bit of reconnaissance with Project Homes to get ideas, or through magazines, or advice from their builder (which can be good and can be very bad). I do notice with interest that in Melbourne and Sydney certain Architects are seen as prestigious to have attached to a project, so there is a growing expectation in certain areas that a renovation must have an Architect attached to the project (a bit like saying the kitchen is Miele or whatever). But this is far from the norm. I think though, that the day people realise that Architects do give value to a project - that it can be a reasonably 'budget' project and still have a designer involved, and that sometimes building something smaller and well designed will give you a better result overall.

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    2. Hi Heidi, just stumbled on your blog and what a wonderful post. We didn't even think of using a designer or architect when we built our home 14 years ago. I do wish we'd 'known better.' I still love our house dearly but even reading this one post I can see how a designer would have made a generational difference to the home, long after we are no longer here. Thanks for the book link, I'm very keen to look it up.

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    3. Hi Fiona, Thanks for your comment! I think you've hit the nail on the head - a designer gives more than just what the latest kitchen trends are, or paint colours… they're the more permanent /sort of quality of life things that are a little bit intangible to people when they go into a house. You know it feels good and you like it, but you're not necessarily going to be able to put your finger on what it is. This is actually the permanent design… so much of what we concentrate on is the pretty window dressing, which is what dates and you replace over time. I think a lot of Pinterest/ blogs/ instagram concentrate so much on the vignette and the up close detail, when it can be the bigger things that actually make a difference to the room or space.

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  8. Love this post Heidi! We are thinking of L shaped extension to our Queen Anne villa just to add interest. I've decided I don't like the giant rectangle box at the back anymore. It's starting to look ordinary and too many people are doing bad versions. Had an interesting chat to a real estate agent recently who said "don't renovate unless you are planning to do it properly!!" He said houses that are not renovated are fetching more at auction than anything with a cheaply done bad extension. I think people think they can renovate and always make a profit??!!! An architect is essential!!!

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  9. I'm also wondering who you would recommend in Adelaide ? ( an architect ) I can see your gorgeous pics of houses in Adelaide are Williams burton , but there must be other great architects too?

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    1. I think the real estate agent was spot on - I've noticed over the past 15 years that it is the completely unrenovated and the really well renovated places that get the premium. The places a bit in the middle don't, particularly if they've had an expensive looking and bad renovation - people walk in and don't want to rip out the brand new but ugly kitchen… it seems like a waste.
      Good luck with your project, it sounds wonderful! Such a lovely period with the details you have in the Queen Anne homes. I'd suggest looking at The Royal Institute of Architects website which has a "find an architect" feature as a good starting point http://www.findanarchitect.com.au You can also use Archicentre (an offshoot of RAIA, so reputable) to match up an Architect with you http://www.archicentre.com.au/design-services/design-report
      As far as good firms in Adelaide, Williams Burton do great design, and I used their images because I remembered those two houses from being sold in the past year or so as being good examples of what I was talking about... but there are a lot of others that do great design! Dimitty Anderson, Max Pritchard, Pauline Hurron (quite traditional), Swanbury Penglase, Flightpath…. so many! It really depends on what style you're looking for, and interviewing a few firms to find a good fit for you and your project. Many of the 'big name' national design firms will also do residential (especially in Adelaide) - so Woods Bagot, Hassell and Brown Falconer would be interested. A good place to start is the list of the SA Architecture Awards, and you can see who won/ what the designs were like http://wp.architecture.com.au/voice/2013-winners/
      Hope that helps!

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  10. How informative. I'm sorry to comment so late - busy week. It is really interesting to me that the planners prefer the modern look. I have the impression (it might be a mistaken one) that in England they are mainly stuck in their ways are prefer extensions to look like they have always been there. Perhaps this is just for listed houses. I would like to do a kitchen extension on our (hopefully) new house (if we EVER exchange), but the style I think I would go for is that or marston & langinger. Their orangeries are just beautiful.
    x

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    1. That's interesting re the English planners - certainly the way Kevin Mc Cloud talks about it, plus a few other shows (like those Sarah Beeney ones) it seemed to me that the planners were thinking along the same lines as the Australian ones regarding old and new. Your conservatory style plan sounds absolutely lovely, and very place appropriate! Unfortunately doing a glass ceiling in Australia is not a great idea due to the heat and glare. I always loved the Marston & Langinger orangeries and conservatories, I think they had a shop on Pimlico Rd back when I lived there… hope you exchange and sort out the issues soon - completely tortuous the whole buying/ selling process in the UK!! xx

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  11. Since we extended our home two years ago we have been enjoying our open plan space where we can cook, dine, relax, entertain. With floor to ceiling windows and a glass roof in one area it feels like we are sitting in the garden and is filled with light even on the greyest of days (quite important with our climate as there are too many days when it's impossible to sit outside comfortably!) It's changed the way we use our home and our formal dining room is rarely used. This was an informative post particularly helpful to anyone considering an extension. I enjoyed your selection of rooms but I was especially drawn to those with huge windows. The first and last really caught my attention. Of course an outdoor pool in the north of England would not be sensible at all!

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    1. Open plan living at the back of a house is definitely the way to go if you can't afford Staff (and so live in a grander manner at the front of the house with people to bring you things when you ring a bell!!). I love to cook, but hate being shut in a room doing it away from conversation and chat. Noooo, can't imagine you'll find a lot of use with an outdoor pool pretty much anywhere in the UK!! I personally only like to swim when it's over 28C, but I imagine you'd never do it if you lived by my rule where you are! xx

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  12. Loving this post and I'm going to bookmark it and read it again for reference. The funniest thing is in London everyone was doing the bland light box a the back of the house, but at least some of the walls were coming down. Now where we are living in California in the US, people for tradition and having separate dining rooms. It's all opposite to what you would think would happen. I love your ideas of the different roof levels and the sunken spaces. i see too many homes sent to me to write about that are just one room after another without thinking about light from all sources and how the furniture fitted in.

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    1. I've noticed through blogs and design mags that the US still loves a formal room, which I find really interesting. Interesting to hear your confirmation of it too...All their new build homes still have formal Dining room, and they might have a "great room", but generally people still do an eat in kitchen without a sofa area. So different to us here!

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  13. Your extension looks fantastic - I like how you have explained easily the importance of integrating with, but remaining distinct from, the original build. Much food for thought :-)

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  14. Amazing houses! I must admit I love watching the Grand Designs shows ans seeing these incredible (and some very strange) homes come to life in their own special journey.

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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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