Lockdown 2020 made interior designers of us all. We did not necessarily want an entirely new house, but small inconveniences became enormous daily irritants.
If only that home office were private, quiet and well organised, rather than a makeshift desk on a landing; if only we had soundproofed the walls; if only we could eat plump ripe fruit from the garden instead of queueing for hours to buy ropey produce; if only we had a plunge pool.
Whatever our desires, we wished we had got around to planning and designing them years ago, and we craved the moment when they could be commissioned. Now, as we — and architects, designers and builders — head cautiously back to work, the time is right to make a start.
We asked five experts to guide us through the principles of designing and commissioning medium-sized projects that will enhance your home and your life, whatever the future may hold.
An urban garden cabin with Maria Speake of Retrouvius
If working from home is to be the future of employment, garden office cabins are the obvious — and practical — projects to plan now. They offer the chance to concentrate in peace, near to but away from the domestic fray. Or perhaps a private room for exercise or creative endeavours, a welcoming retreat for winter months.
A seductive idea, particularly if you plan on kitting your cabin out with underfloor heating, a wood-burning stove and a generous vintage desk. But few end up used only for work, says Speake of architectural salvage company Retrouvius.
The House & Garden designer of the year has planned and installed several bespoke cabins: “They end up having deck chairs stored in them, so they must be prepared in such a way that those bits can be incorporated and stored. Otherwise it will turn into a junk shed.”
A cabin can be used as an office, a winter retreat or summer guest house; this one is by Retrouvius for a private client © Retrouvius/Debi Treloar
The best, she says, are well-insulated and designed with generous storage to allow them to be multifunctional — a guest bedroom one week, a yoga studio the next — and accommodate changing enthusiasms and creative projects.
Basic cabins are straightforward. “A good DIY-er could do a cabin project themselves,” says Speake. Others may want to commission architects and planners.
Some cabins may require planning permission, depending on size, location usage and the approach of local officers, among other things. In the UK, says Speake, planners tend to interpret the rules differently from authority to authority, considering factors such as height and whether the cabin is accessible from the house. Other structures may fall under permitted development rights. Check with local planning authorities before you begin building.
The ideal cabin size is at least 3m deep by 5m wide, with additional storage and planting space. External proportions, says Speake, matter less, particularly in a city garden.
“The ideal cabin length is the full width of the back of the garden to maximise the space.” Otherwise, she says, the gloomy passages between cabin and garden walls “end up as foxes’ dens, or a dumping ground, and you can’t plant there because it is dry and dark”. A full-width cabin is also preferable proportionally, she says, when viewed from the house.
“Make sure you can plant it up and that plants can climb. Your cabin may have a flat roof, but you don’t want to look down on that from an upstairs window, so use the roof as a planting space for wild grasses, meadow flowers or spring bulbs. That way, you will be looking down on something very special.”
An office can double as a private sanctuary Retrouvius © Debi Treloar
One option is to install a refurbished structure, such as a vintage railway carriage. Many in the UK, says Speake, were bought by householders to use as makeshift summer houses in the 1960s from railway companies after the government closed a third of British railway stations, a project known as the “Beeching cuts”.
Speake says these old models are easy to convert and may turn up on eBay or for sale in salvage yards. “Often they put another roof structure over the carriages. That is good, because it means the original carriage has been protected.”
Others may prefer a David Cameron-style reproduction shepherd’s hut, which can start from about £5,000. “Shepherd’s huts can take a lot of the hassle out of it, and they are great if you are not into DIY.” Most are straightforward to assemble from a flat pack, or could be commissioned ready-made and craned up and over a terraced house at a cost of about £2,000.
Security is important: Speake suggests sturdy, reclaimed vintage doors made from high-quality materials such as old mahogany or rosewood, upgraded with modern locks
Speake advocates yet more visual connection with your cabin’s garden setting. “The whole language of materials can be rougher and more raw in a cabin than in a house. For example, you can use old floorboards as cladding, and cedar shingle on the outside.”
Security matters, too, particularly when storing expensive computer equipment in home offices. Speake suggests sturdy, reclaimed vintage doors made from high-quality materials such as old mahogany or rosewood, and upgraded with modern locks. She recently designed a cabin with reclaimed copperlight windows: “A sweet, homely feeling at night.”
A path from house to cabin is important, even if it is no more than a couple of flag stepping stones. “People always say they want the grassy lawn right up to the cabin door, but in winter when it’s rainy and muddy and full of worm casts, they soon change their minds.”
A kitchen garden with Butter Wakefield
The best thing about designing kitchen gardens, says Wakefield, is that they are just as suited to urban yards as they are to grand country houses. “You don’t need a lot of space — but you do need absolute top-quality soil.”
The London-based designer specialises in overhauling compact city plots. Her “Ribbon Wheel” garden for a Bayswater townhouse, with its romantic, blowsy planting fringing cobbled pathways, won the small residential and hardscape categories in this year’s Society of Garden Designers’ awards.
Butter Wakefield’s Ribbon Wheel garden for a Bayswater, London, townhouse © Eleanor Walpole
Kitchen gardens, she says, are satisfying projects for new gardeners because when planted correctly, they can be productive within weeks. Follow a few basic principles, and you will be gracing the table with wholesome, homegrown bounty by summer’s end.
First, the structures. South-facing beds are best, so plants can be sun-drenched most of the day. Wakefield suggests building beds to a maximum width of 1.2m to allow easy tending. “Then you can make them as long as you like.” She favours low-cost timber-edged raised beds. Line them with landscape fabric, then enhance their appearance by adding woven willow surrounds with hazelwood poles.
“They slot into place — four pieces tie together like a picture frame. Because they are natural they will not last for ever but they are charming and elegant.”
Waist or thigh-height beds are best, says Wakefield: “Easily controlled, watered and your produce won’t get clobbered by slugs and snails.”
Raised beds with woven willow surrounds are charming and elegant, says Wakefield © Mishcha Haller
Depth and quality of soil are then the top priorities. Nourish with soil-enhancing fertilisers, such as Carbon Gold Biochar, seaweed and spent mushroom. “Spend money on soil and fertiliser — as much as possible, and it should be organic.”
Next: water. Produce beds need a lot, either from a hose or sprinkler, or with an irrigation system. Wakefield likes leaky pipes, such as those made by HydroSure, which sit below the surface of the soil. There is little evaporation, and the pipes can be run at night so plants will not dry out on hot days. “It’s not foolproof, but it does mean minimum hand-watering,” says Wakefield.
Once elegant beds are in a sunny position, what does she recommend for crops? Tomatoes are bounteous by August and tumble along with cane support, so long as the soil is of high quality. Remember to pinch them out. Salad and radish plants, too, germinate quickly and are productive all summer. Strawberries scramble happily in sunny soil, but use cages to shield them from birds.
“Stagger seed plantings and seedlings,” advises Wakefield. “If you put them all out at once you will get a glut — then nothing in three weeks.” New gardeners who lack confidence can buy ready-prepared bundles. Harrod Horticultural offers a package of plants, including a complete large, year-round vegetable patch for £299 and a gourmet vegetable patch for just under £50. “And don’t forget stakes and supports.”
Butter Wakefield’s suppliers
- Sarah Raven for seeds and plants: “She is my go-to person.”
- Bourne Amenity sells premium topsoil and compost.
- Jay Davey bespoke willow supplies: “Jay weaves off-the-peg sizes,” says Wakefield.
A playroom with Tess Newall
Circus nursery painted by Tess Newall for Georgina and Tom Peacock, with interior design by Rosanna Bossom
Reimagining a room for a child does not have to be complicated or expensive, and Newall specialises in homely charm. The interior designer’s hand-painted murals for walls, ceilings and furniture embellishments have a deceptively naive quality, reminiscent of the Arts & Crafts-era rooms by Vanessa Bell at Charleston in East Sussex.
“A playroom should be a place to retreat, to spark play — the decor is important for dreaming and imaginings,” says Newall. Aim for magical and theatrical rather than cutesy.
A cluttered playroom is inevitable, but children’s rooms should not be overwhelmed with decoration and detail, she suggests. “You don’t want constant stimulation. Sometimes plain and simple is better for the imagination.”
Newall suggests plain walls and a ceiling mural, which is effective in smaller spaces: “That will give you the greatest impact.” One of her most requested is a circus-tent ceiling, an optical illusion with an immersive effect that she says is simple to achieve in an afternoon with the help of masking tape, string and a tall friend (see step-by-step guide in box). “It’s more subtle than a big mural.”
How to: Tess Newall’s painted circus-tent ceiling
- Measure and divide total wall space equally. Pencil-mark each point where ceiling meets wall.
- Measure and mark the central point of the ceiling.
- Pull a length of string taut from a pin in the central ceiling point to one wall point. Follow string line with masking tape to mark each stripe, placing the tape within the stripe that will remain the colour of base layer. Repeat around the room.
- Use a narrow paint roller to fill in stripes, allowing drying time between coats.
- Once dry, remove masking tape gently to ensure no base colour is lifted. Use a small paintbrush for touch-ups.
Another foolproof ceiling theme for the cack-of-hand is a starry night sky. A ceiling painted inky-blue can be block-printed or stencilled with sponge and gold paint. “I like differently shaped stars, some can be wonky, others can be Florentine and eight-pointed,” says Newall. “You will end up with a sore neck, but your ceiling will have impact.”
What about storage? Cubed open shelving bought off-the-peg can be painted, block-printed or stencilled by hand. But Newall prefers neat rattan boxes and baskets to enormous toyboxes. “Small children can chuck toys into them easily when it’s time to tidy up, which gives them a sense of independence.” Similarly, a diminutive table and chair for creative projects bestows a sense of ownership.
Newall suggests avoiding permanent fixtures such as decorated fitted furniture, which may be right for a five-year-old but is likely to be mortifying by the time they reach 10. “My personal taste is a vintage look, which ages well even if it gets bashed about, and will never feel tacky.”
Harsh lighting can be unsettling for young children. Newall recommends night-lights for security and comfort. Otherwise, her clients’ playrooms are technology-free, at least on the surface. She often works with joiners to hide TVs and computer screens.
Tess Newall’s suppliers
A swimming pool with Guncast
Infinity pool by Guncast at a home in Surrey, UK
With public pools closed, a private place to stretch and steam an aching body is a captivating idea, especially after a hard day’s work in the garden cabin.
According to Andy Carr, design and commercial director of the West Sussex-based company, even before lockdown his clients were pondering not only conventional pools but accoutrements such as hot tubs, steam rooms and showers. That nebulous “wellness” concept now includes full-on facilities in the back garden.
Guncast, which specialises in high-end pools, works with architects and designers on the technical side of home-spa projects. Carr has just completed a basement home spa in a house in Cheltenham, complete with plunge pool, sauna, steam room and shower, at a cost of about £300,000. He has worked on larger projects up to a cost of £1m.
Maintenance is expensive because it involves checking equipment such as pumps and filters, ensuring chemical levels are safe and cleaning. Fortnightly specialist services can be booked for about £120 a time to keep pools pristine, but many of Carr’s clients do the work themselves. He recommends changing filters every two weeks.
A swimming pool and patio in East Sussex that overlooks the English Channel, complementing a contemporary glass-structured house
“From a spa, you want a thermal journey — hot followed by cold, always,” he says. That may mean a sauna is built with a plunge pool, a shower or even just an ice machine to cool the water.
For a straightforward outdoor pool for laps, the starting price is about £120,000. Finding the right plot is the first step in planning. In the UK, a conventional pool does not usually require planning permission, unless it is being dug on a private estate or within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
But one potential problem is trees, says Carr: “You can’t damage them, because of tree protection orders. If you are undermining them when digging, that can scupper the project.”
Nearby trees are fine, but be prepared to spend time and money fishing debris from your pool. One solution is to install a moving floor at a cost of roughly £200,000, which seals off the pool in winter. “It raises up and down, so that it can double as garden space,” says Carr. “Although the cost often puts people off.”
Carr advises a shallow and deep end. “Families need a pool in which younger children can learn to swim and older ones can learn to dive,” he says. “If your pool doesn’t have at least one area that is 1m deep, you will eliminate a whole category of users.”
He recommends a maximum deep end of 1.8m. “You can go deeper — some people go to 3m — but if you imagine a pool with a 25-year life, are you going to use the deepest parts more than a handful of times?”
“If you can’t stand up, you won’t be comfortable.”
A media room with Lucy Barlow of Barlow and Barlow
‘There is nothing more austere than a large black screen just staring at you,’ says Barlow, who advises disguising technology such as screens and speakers
Home cinemas, television dens, gaming and media rooms — however they are billed, a private space to watch and play is all the more tempting while theatres and cinemas remain closed. Householders often convert basements into media rooms: “An excellent use,” says Lucy Barlow, creative director of Barlow and Barlow, a London-based interiors studio.
“They lend themselves because a lack of natural light is an advantage. And the shape is often just right. A rectangular basement, with the screen at one short end, works better than a screen in a square room.”
But solid, thick basement walls are a disadvantage. “That’s really bad for acoustics,” says Barlow. “The audio bounces off solid brick and creates a tinny sound.” She gets around audio problems by panelling media rooms with fabric stretched over timber frames, and lays carpet or engineered wood flooring with generous rugs.
Alternatively, Barlow suggests asking a builder to install timber or MDF panels to disguise specialist noise-cancelling fabric, or hanging decorative fabric backed by deep wadding. Both will help to keep noise from leaking through walls and floors.
Then there is the technology itself. Screens are not the most relaxing objects to have around. “There is nothing more austere than a large black screen just staring at you,” says Barlow.
Like outdoor cabins, media rooms often double as second reception rooms, libraries and more, which is why she advises clients to disguise technology, often with projectors that glide up and down from ceilings, or with televisions that display digital images of classical paintings when switched off (“not as naff as they sound,” says Barlow).
She also prefers hidden speakers, often within joinery such as bookcases, or hanging from rear walls where they are unlikely to be noticed. Lighting should ideally be planned in three tiers, with top layer ceiling spots; lights within joinery and with mid-height table lights.
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Pay attention to soft furnishings. “You need to take this seriously,” says Barlow. “We work with clients on the perfect depth for your height. Pay attention to the height of the back of the sofa. Do you want your head to be supported when viewing? If so, the higher the better. Take the pressure out of the middle of the back.” Foam-core upholstery with feather wrap are her favoured materials.
But she suggests veering away from cinema-themed murals (“bit clichéd”) or attempting to dress a media room like a replica Roxy, complete with cod Art-Deco upholstery. “If it’s too fit-for-purpose, it can look self-conscious,” she says. If you must include cinema memorabilia, choose original film posters and have them framed.
Lucy Barlow’s suppliers
- Lamont for speakers and technology: “A specialist that cares about the aesthetics as well as the geeky side — they work with architects and designers on making sure speakers are hidden.”
- George Smith sofas with a range of height and depth options.
- Dudgeon sofas: “They can make sofas to fit you perfectly.”
- Limelight Movie Art in London’s Chelsea for original film posters.
- Sotheby’s auctions for film memorabilia with provenance.
Helen Barrett is editor of House & Home
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