How do you rework a Georgian property in a contemporary way? Architect James Grayley explains his firm’s design approach to a Lansdown Hill property whose design was influenced by Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio

Duncan Cottage is a Grade II listed Georgian house on the northern slopes of Lansdown Hill. Dating from the late 18th century, the house had subsequently undergone a number of ill-conceived extensions and reworkings of the interior during the 19th and 20th centuries that had compromised its original character and qualities. In 2002 the property was purchased by Hilary Alexander who wanted to reorganise and refurbish the property to create a home for her family.

Hilary approached our practice James Grayley Architects, after we had recently completed a radical contemporary re-working of her neighbour’s property, Prospect House on Sion Hill, and together we devised a brief to create a contemporary light-filled house that understood and respected its historic significance, yet was ambitious and rigorous in its own right.

The back garden of the property and the two contemporary extensions

It was important for us to study and understand the existing building and everything that had happened to it during its life, in order that we could then make informed proposals on how we might set about repairing the damage caused by previous extensions and adaptations. We needed to get under the skin of the existing building, quite literally in places, to understand how and why the building was built in the way it was, to gain an understanding of the original architects’ intentions and allow this understanding to influence how we might approach working with the building in the 21st century.

On visiting the property for the first time, it was immediately apparent that parts of the house had been designed to very specific proportions and carefully considered geometries and we came away with a sense of excitement and anticipation of what we would discover. We were lucky in that Hilary allowed us the time to carry out research into the house and the first months of our appointment were spent searching archives for documents that might help us piece together the history of the property. Unusually for Bath, we turned up very little, until several weeks in, the Bath Record Office found documentation that revealed the house had a former name, Duncan Cottage. With this new information a wealth of original drawings and documents were discovered that allowed us to piece together the history of the house, from its very first construction in the late 18th century to its last major extension and reworking in the late 1980s.

The original facade of Duncan House, with the new extension to the right

Of great significance was the discovery that the house had originally been designed by John Palmer, a prominent architect in Bath in the Georgian period, and this discovery began to make sense of our initial observations that the house had been constructed to a carefully considered ruling geometry and series of proportions. Through further work, we established that the house was heavily indebted to the work of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whom we know Palmer studied intensely, with the proportions of the front elevation being an almost identical translation of significant Palladio designed villas in the Veneto Region of Italy.

Although built with grand intentions, Duncan Cottage was modest in scale for a Georgian villa, with a series of small rooms on the ground and first floors. A significant element of Hilary’s brief was to create living space that would be large enough for her entire family to gather comfortably in one room, something that was not possible with the house in its then current configuration. We knew that it was unlikely that we would be able to propose and justify internal alterations to the historic structure of the original house and neither did we think it was the correct approach for this listed building. We were therefore faced with prospect of having to significantly extend the house in order to create this space, something that, on the face of it, is contrary to the best practice of working with historic buildings, and we were aware that any such proposal would quite rightly be extensively scrutinised and resisted without rigorous and compelling justification.

Bespoke windows and doors frame views of the garden beyond

We discovered drawings that suggested that Palmer had intended the house to have a loggia structure to the east elevation. A loggia is a covered space that is open to the elements, often constructed with a series of columns and arches. A space that is both indoor and outdoor, it breaks the transition from the interior of the house to the garden beyond. It was the unearthing of this drawing that unlocked the entire project.
A dilapidated 1980s conservatory stood in the location of this previously planned loggia and the drawing allowed us to make informed proposals for its replacement.

The contrasting detail of the extensions re-reveals the character and qualities of the original dwelling and brings them back to the fore

The research study allowed us to understand the philosophies embedded in the house by John Palmer and we, in turn, re-employed these philosophies for a second time to make informed proposals to extend the building yet respect the importance and character of the original historic house.

The new structure creates extended living accommodation that opens out on to the main garden in the form of a colonnaded loggia. The new extension reconnects the original living room, dining room and study along the east elevation, providing a series of interconnected living spaces for family life. The threshold between interior and garden is set under a covered roof to create a sheltered external space that can be comfortably used all year round.

The new extensions are constructed from Bath ashlar stone, yet designed as a contemporary counterpoint to the original house

A separate studio building complements the living room structure and the careful positioning of the two creates a captured garden between the two structures in the wider garden landscape.

The Georgian architect’s philosophical approach has been re-employed to create the new structures and the limited palette of materials of the original house – stone, timber and glass are used in the new areas of work, yet are purposefully assembled and detailed in a contrasting, carefully considered contemporary way. Doing so has created extensions that are born of the existing house, subservient to it but architecturally rigorous in their own right. Rather than impose or consume the original house, their contrasting detail re-reveals the character and qualities of the original dwelling, previously lost, and brings them back to the fore.

The new living room is designed to capture sunlight all year round

Further work involved the restoration and refurbishment of the property and the removal and reconfiguring of a series of Victorian-era bathroom extensions to reopen the kitchen courtyard to the rear of the house.

The approach taken by James Grayley Architects has been recognised locally and nationally as a model for working sensitively but ambitiously with historic buildings. The project has recently won a Royal Institute of British Architects Award, The South West Small Project of the Year Award and was a finalist in RIBA House of the Year 2018.

James Grayley Architects: jamesgrayley.com; Emerys of Bath (contractor): emery.co.uk

Featured image: The new structure creates extended living accommodation that opens out on to the main garden in the form of a colonnaded loggia