Fire House in Highbury

The upside of a house fire (devastating only to the house, thankfully) was pretty much a blank canvas for this Islington family to redesign their ground floor. They wanted a more open kitchen - dining area, with a stronger connection to the garden. Edwards Rensen Architects gave them all that and more.
photo Adelina Iliev

photo Adelina Iliev

Project Notes:

  • Project time: 7 months including 3 months of construction.
  • Location: Calabria Road, Highbury, Islington, north London.
  • Architect: Edwards Rensen Architects (ERA)

House fire:

2015 was only a few hours old when the fire alarms went off in Dan and Helen’s house in Highbury. Dan stumbled sleepily downstairs and found flames roaring from a built in cupboard in the kitchen. He raced back upstairs and shouted to his wife, children and their party guests to get out of the house now, quick, immediately. Once he had shepherded them all safely out onto the pavement, he went back into the house to find his phone to ring 999. He found the phone, turned around and couldn’t see the way back out, the smoke was already so thick. He felt his way along the walls, got outside and within minutes the fire brigade had been phoned, had arrived and had put out the fire.

The fire had not spread far, nobody was hurt, but smoke damage made the whole house uninhabitable. The fire was caused by the wrong light being left on. Tidying up on New Year’s Eve before their guests arrived, Dan had put a basket of dried laundry on the top shelf of a built in cupboard, inches below a halogen downlighter. A few hours later, after dinner, drinks, auld lang syne and champagne, one of the party guests turned the cupboard light on, thinking she was turning the loo light off. The halogen got hot, the heat couldn’t escape and the laundry ignited burning the sheets, melting the washing basket and sending flames along the ceiling. The fire door on the cupboard did its job and the fire was contained. The fire alarms did their job and the family with children and party guests were all saved. The smoke and fumes from the burning material and melting plastic sent hideous smells and grey marks through every room of the house. Dan and Helen had to throw out most of their things – curtains, duvets, carpets, toys, even kitchen appliances.

The up side was a chance to redesign the house.  Dan and Helen wanted architects in Highbury and asked us (Edwards Rensen Architects – ERA, a practice in Islington, specialising in bespoke residential projects) to redesign their ground floor and to project manage the whole process through to completion.

Brief for a fresh start

Dan and Helen wanted a more open kitchen-dining area, with more sociable space and stronger connections to their garden. We drew the layout Dan and Helen asked for, and also drew an alternative layout that could do what was wanted and work even better. The alternative layout would create more logical movement through the house, give a view through to the garden from the front hall and make a more efficient cloakroom. There would also be views connecting the playroom upstairs with the dining space and the garden. Dan and Helen were really pleased with the alternative layout and gave us the go-ahead to work it up in more detail.

The design process

Dan and Helen wanted to dig out their garden to bring it down to be level with their kitchen-dining room. We suggested leaving the level at the end of the garden as existing so there would still be a seat in the afternoon sun and so that expensive and time consuming underpinning and party wall agreements would not be needed with the two neighbours beyond the back wall. The side walls in the garden did need underpinning and the party wall agreements were quickly sorted by Ian Martin Associates Surveyors.

Dan and Helen wanted flooring which could be the same throughout, which is beautiful and also hard wearing, easy to clean and not slippery. We sourced samples and prices of various tiles and a large format tile from Italy was chosen (Rocking, supplied by Solus Ceramics). It was the same process for the kitchen units (supplied by Benchmarx) and the bi-fold garden doors (supplied by SKG).

The external envelope of the building was not being changed dramatically and no street facing elevations were affected, so planning permission was not required, so the project progressed really quickly.

Secret structure

The two tricky things in the project were structure and drainage. Dan and Helen wanted no columns interrupting the space but the line of structure and the main drains ran through the middle of the main space. We suggested cranked beams and worked with Conisbee engineers to design a structure that would be almost invisible. We found alternative routes for the pipes, by having a built in cupboard rebuilt and boxing out a column.


When everything had been chosen, drawn and described in detail in a schedule of works, we tendered the project to four good, north London builders. Each building firm was experienced in this type of work and were either a firm we had worked with before, or one that came highly recommended and who we had checked several references for. They were all also builders who could start quickly and expected they could complete the work before the end of July, when Dan and Helen had to leave their temporary accommodation.

The build

When the prices came back there was a difference of £24,000 between the lowest and the highest tenders. All the builders we had tendered to were good, so the lowest was given the go-ahead. As we are architects in Highbury it was very easy for us to visit site every few days. We kept a keen eye on the project throughout construction and it was finished on time, within budget and Dan and Helen (and their children and party guests) are really pleased with finished house.