Finding your comfort zone in architect's space odyssey
Soft furnishings help create character and make glass-box extensions feel more like home
One winter evening, many years ago, I went to visit an award-winning extension, a large glass box stuck on the back end of a respectable Victorian townhouse. The owners of the house, who felt that they needed more space, had extended their kitchen into an open-plan living and dining area.
They'd hired a skilled architect, spent a lot of money, and sacrificed a good whack of the garden to make this happen. But they hadn't thought it through.
Their extension was an architects' dream, but not theirs it turned out. The floor was mouse-grey travertine with underfloor heating, the kitchen concealed behind sleek minimal cabinets, and a glorious light fitting pirouetted over a neat kitchen island. But the rest of the space was up for grabs. Amid all the fuss and flurry of getting the work done, the owners had forgotten to plan how they were going to live in it.
It struck me, then, that too much ill-conceived space is just as much of a problem as too little. At theirs, a lonely sofa huddled against one wall and a dining table stood hesitantly in the corner like an uninvited guest. And then there were the soft furnishings. Or the lack of them. Their architect didn't like curtains and, with nothing to absorb the sound, our voices echoed off the hard surfaces. The room seemed cold, even though it wasn't, and rain lashed against the dark expanse of glass. Outdoor lighting would have helped, but there wasn't a lot of it around at the time. Without it, we might as well have been on a container ship.
Elaine Verdon, interior designer and stylist, has seen it all before. "People think too much about the build and not enough about the finish," she says. "If you're using an interior designer, bring them in before you've even broken ground. Don't leave it to the last minute!" Her other recommendation is to set aside a contingency fund. Don't let anyone know that it exists and, if they find out, defend it with your life. "If you don't, you may end up with a very small pot of money to make your extension liveable."
Extensions have different purposes, but the majority are built to accommodate an open-plan living area that includes a kitchen, a dining table, and a sofa. Of these, the kitchen is pivotal. Utilities and installation being what they are, you won't be able to move it around like you can move a sofa. "Start with the kitchen and work your way out from there," says Verdon, suggesting that you think about the placement of other large pieces of furniture every bit as carefully.
The first thing to think about is furniture.
"Make sure that the furniture doesn't block the exit," she says. Seems obvious? I once saw a large sofa placed just in front of a patio doors that led to the garden. The adults had to walk around it but the kids just went over it, after playing football in the flowerbeds. That didn't do anything for the longevity of the sofa. Verdon also points out that people who build extensions tend to underestimate the size of the space.
"Consider where the furniture is going to go, and then make sure that it is the right size for the room," she says. "Otherwise you can end up with a dining table that looks like a coffee table."
Once you've worked out the placement, the next thing to consider is zoning. "Most people want a seating area where they can watch TV," Verdon says. She's found that clients who say that they don't watch much TV are almost always lying. "Then you want a food preparation area, and a dining area." These areas aren't separate - if you're on the sofa you can talk to the person who's chopping vegetables - but there is clear delineation between them.
Now comes the tricky part. When delineating the spaces, you also need to consider flow. Open shelving, for example, is a great way of creating a semi-permeable membrane between the seating area and the rest of the extension. But is it going to get in the way? Does it block the line of sight between one part of the room and the other? Will the children use it as a climbing frame? Rugs are really useful way of zoning a space. Use one to define the seating area and another - once your family are past the age of splattering food around them - under the dining table. But rugs can go wrong too. In her book, Mad About the House, Kate Watson-Smyth recommends that you buy the biggest rug you can afford, aiming to have all the furniture - or at least the front legs of the furniture - on it. "What you want to avoid is a rug island in the middle of the room with all the furniture standing respectfully around the edge. A rug island with a coffee table marooned on top doesn't work either."
If you're putting a rug under the dining table, it's crucial that its big enough so that the chairs can be pulled out and remain on the rug. "Otherwise, when people pull their chairs in the rug gets caught and rucks up underneath, and people trip," Watson-Smyth writes. "Especially if there is wine involved." That sounds like the voice of experience!
Soft furnishings will make the room cosier, reduce noise, and add texture. They're also a low-risk way to create character. "Everyone is going for cotton velvet but how about adding some linen and wool. Or, instead of choosing all block colours, throw in some pattern as well," Verdon says. The main thing is to enjoy the space. And stop pushing the furniture back against the walls. That's a hangover from living in small rooms. "Years ago the good room was almost wrapped in cellophane to keep it looking nice," Verdon explains. "All the furniture was pushed back against the walls because there was nowhere else for it." In larger spaces, you can make the most of the middle of the room.
You'll find Elaine Verdon's interior design and styling studio Leo + Cici, on Instagram and elsewhere (it's named for her grandparents, Leopold and Cecelia). Mad About the House (2018) by Kate Watson-Smyth is published by Pavilion and costs around €20