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Growing Gardens

While we were away on a 3.5 week holiday in America, our garden literally burst into life under the careful care of our neighbours.

You may remember that my Dad picked up one tiny strawberry plant from the historic Strawberry Hill House last year as a souvenir for us when we visited. We can’t believe how much it has grown since then! Every time the plant sprouted a tentacle we planted in in an adjacent pot, cutting the link once it had taken root. Our neighbours made sure it was watered regularly while we were away and the result was a bumper crop of strawberries!

Strawberries only produce fruit once a season, so if you want strawberries for the whole summer you need to plant early, mid, and late summer strawberries apparently. So for the rest of the summer we will enjoy the big leafy green it provides in our pots.

Our succulent also seemed to enjoy the warmest April in London since records began, and the warmest May since 1992 and decided to flower!

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Concrete Coping Stones

Our slate grey concrete coping stones arrived the other day, and here they are ready to be installed on the top of our party wall.

We considered topping the wall with a crisp aluminium flashing, which would have certainly looked more contemporary, however as walking along the top of the wall will be the only way to clean our rooflights and unblock any drains or gutters, we figured topping the wall in concrete stones would be a more robust, less slippery solution.

We opted for a dark slate grey colour for a number of reasons:

  • The dark grey picks up on the blue-grey iron spots in the yellow London stock brickwork that our house is built of
  • The dark grey will also match the lead flashing in the vicinity
  • When we do our extension we will replace the non-original brown cement roofing tiles on our lower roof (as they’ll all have to come up when we build it). My plan is to replace them with a roofing tile in a dark slate grey colour which will also match these coping stones.
  • I also think that the dark grey colour looks more considered and luxurious than standard plain light grey concrete. (As far as coping stones can be luxurious!)
  • We can’t afford real limestone coping stones, and finding a buff coloured concrete coping stones that looks like stone is risky (some are very yellow, and if you’re ordering online you don’t know what you’re getting!). Plus as a general rule I don’t like ‘faking’ a material. If you can’t afford something, don’t fake it, but find another nice or interesting material!

Some of the concrete coping stones out there taper to a very thin edge and can look a bit flimsy. The one’s I found are ‘twice weathered’ , (meaning they slope in both directions from a point in the middle), and go from 75mm thickness down to 50mm thickness at the edge.  It’s a little narrower than the height of a brick (68mm / 2-1/4″), but looks up to the task!

We bought our coping stones from The Roofing Superstore for £9 each. They are 600mm in length, and 350mm wide so that the drip edge projects 25mm on either side of the wall to minimise staining from water run off.

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Pretty Peonys

We have two peony plants in our garden and one of them has just burst into flower, so I thought I’d share a little colour with you all today. The previous owners planted these flowers, and I think they are my favourite in the garden…

They seem to grow very well, so we may invest in another one at some point… perhaps in a more delicate colour, once I’ve figured out a driving concept for our garden. At the moment we’ve just bought a few plants that we like to add to what was already there, without much thought.  As a result, although filled and fairly lush,  the garden is now a bit of a mismatch at the moment and needs a theme or concept to tie it all together. (I think the previous owner’s ‘theme’ was the colour pink as all flowering plants are pink, but now I’ve watered that down somewhat – no pun intended!)  We’ve got english roses, a mediterranean olive tree, a few herbs, some strawberries, and a pot with some desert succulents in it.

I don’t know what that big theme is at the moment, (I don’t know much about landscape design… yet!), but I’ve secretly been watching the BBC2 small urban garden show ‘Big Dreams Small Spaces’ on Netflix for inspiration… Getting rid of the small cedar trees earlier this year really helped to open things up as a first step. I have to report that Tree 2 never made the re-location, but we aren’t too sad about that as it was a bit weedy looking anyway.

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Under stairs WC Material Board

So, based on the concept of a ‘Coal Hole’… here is my inspiration material board for our under stair WC.

I’ve always felt that in small spaces you can afford to go bold with your colour choice and shouldn’t shy away from dark colours.  (Check out the cloakroom to my old flat on Camberwell Grove here and here which I painted dark grey) Painting a teeny tiny space white isn’t exactly fooling anyone – so go bold!

So here is the tentative product list:

  • Duravit Darling wall hung pan compact toilet with concealed Duo-frame Geberit Omega 120cm cistern (to match the one in our bathroom upstairs)
  • Black Duravit push flush button (same as upstairs, but in black)
  • Alape round sit on basin
  • Countertop in black laminate with a plywood edge (as I may have more plywood in my kitchen area so this would tie in, or maybe I’ll just have a plywood shelf treated so it’s water resistant to break up the black… not sure yet!)
  • Black wall mounted tap, pop-up waste and waste trap. These images are from Lusso Luxe, but there are quite a few other companies who do black taps these days.
  • Fire bucket for the bin from Garden Trading (or something like this that’s a bit smaller so it fits!)
  • Black rectangular Danse mosaic tiles in Carbone 03 from Domus for behind the toilet and basin splashback.
  • Canary artwork from Etsy store TinyKiwiPrints (or something like this to add a pop of colour)
  • Black bead board up to dado level to hide pipework and electrics and to provide a wipeable surface
  • Black painted brickwork of the party wall above dado level.  I may go for white here if its all a bit too much black… I’ll decide once its built and I can look at the space.
  • Poured concrete micro-top floor to match the rest of the extension (still debating on the flooring, but for now this is what I’m going with!)
  • This lighting pendant shown is the Glass bead light by Tom Dixon,  but I’ve just discovered that it doesn’t give out much light and is really only designed to add a bit of sparkle for decorative purposes. As the light will be higher than a 60cm zone around the basin, my understanding is that you don’t need an IP44 rated fitting.
  • I may also paint the inside of our door yellow like I did here in our front hallway  and here inside our charging station hall cupboard. (I know, I can’t help myself!)
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Under stair WC Concept

Now that our party wall is up, I’ve been mulling over the interior design of our future extension which will include our kitchen, a pantry and laundry area, and a new WC underneath the staircase.

The previous owners of our house always referred to the area under the stairs at ‘The Coal Hole’, and even left us a little lump of coal under the stair (which I later learned here is for good luck!).  I therefore decided to use this as a starting point. First up, I did a little bit of research into the history of coal in Victorian times when our house was built for more inspiration.

Here are a few things I discovered:

  • In larger Victorian homes, coal would have been stored in a cellar beneath the front steps.  The cellar was filled by pouring the coal down a tube capped with a cast iron cover in the pavement.
  • In smaller houses without cellars, like ours, there would have either been a coal bunker in the back yard, or the owners would have made do with the space under the stairs. This space was indeed called a ‘coal hole’!
  • Coal was delivered in bags by horse drawn carriages as show in the photo above of a delivery in Lambeth in 1938 (which I found online in the Lambeth archives here)
  • Canaries were sent down coal mines in the 1800’s to test for carbon monoxide as they were more sensitive to the gas so could detect it early. (Yay! An excuse to use my favourite colour yellow!)
  • Canary resuscitation boxes were invented to stop this cruelty. Once they showed signs of carbon monoxide poisoning a door would be closed and a valve opened, allowing oxygen from a tank on top of the box to be released and revive the canary.  (This is shown in the image above from the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester)
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A Rendered Wall

We feel a little like we are living next to an enormous adobe mud hut at the moment (!), but here is the latest view of our party wall now that it has been rendered with sand-cement.

You can see the lines of the block work behind because the mortar is still drying out. We were going to have the wall painted white once it dries just to bounce the light around and so it looks a little more finished until we build our side extension, but I actually quite like the soft beige sand colour.  The colour actually works quite nicely with the London stock brickwork on our houses, so we’re going to leave it for now to see how it looks.

The slot that you can see in the wall is where our future steel column will go, and that will get filled up with insulation soon. We are still waiting for the coping stones to arrive, and then it will be done!

As we are paying for our half of the wall now, we decided to keep the re-instatement simple to keep costs down. The concrete pavers were re-laid even though a few got chipped in the process. Legally you don’t need to pay for a party wall until you use it, but as we are hoping to use it soon, and wanted a few adjustments to it to suit our future works, we decided it was better to pay now.

The image on the left is the eventual view we will have from within our extension looking up through our skylight.

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And up, up, up goes the wall!

Over the past three weeks our party wall has gone up, up and up!  Current planning regulations in the UK allow for a party wall to be 2.5m, which means you typically achieve head room of only 2.1m at the boundary internally if you have any solid, insulated roof. (This is why most people install a roof light down the whole gap).  If however you are on good terms with your neighbour, and you both have extensions planned, you can agree jointly to go taller than this so that you both benefit from taller interior spaces.  I know of one other pair of houses on our street who have built their extensions together and gone a little bit higher on the boundary. Our wall however will be almost 3.75m.  Eeek!

I have to admit, that even as an architect I lost quite a lot of sleep over how tall our wall was. It looked so small and insignificant on a little A3 sheet of paper at 1:100 scale.  I became just like one of my nervous clients and had to keep reminding myself (with a little help from my architect friends) that:

  • It seems much taller than it really is because we’ve been looking at a wide open space for 3 weeks while they sorted out the foundations (ie. we just aren’t used to it)
  • It will look fine once our extension is built and this becomes a soaring great interior space
  • The wall height matches the high point of the sloped roof one storey portion of our houses
  • We are only covering up a view of a big plain brick wall (not a view of the glorious countryside… or even our garden!)
  • The sun still reaches our interior spaces as we are oriented East-West so the sun shines down the gap (If your street runs East-West, and therefore your house faces north-south – this sort of thing may have more impact!)
  • For dramatic spaces you need to be brave

The wall build, which needs to perform thermally until we build our extension, and then acoustically once we are both living side by side,  is as follows:

  • The 100mm blocks that make each leaf are medium density standard grade blocks from Lignacite which are made with 48% recycled aggregate.
  • The 100mm of full-fill cavity insulation is Earthwool DriTherm Cavity Slabs by Knauff.