The Art of the Side Return Extension

This classic way of improving a terraced and semi-detached home – usually for a new kitchen – is a recipe for disaster if not designed properly. Charlie Luxton advises.

The side return extension is one of the most common domestic building projects. The millions of terraced houses that define so much of our urban landscape are ripe for this addition, but side return extensions need to be thought through properly. Get it wrong and this ‘improvement’ is not just disappointing, but can damage the light, flow and quality of your existing space rather than improve it.

The terraced and semi-detached home is in many ways a fantastic piece of design that provided good-quality, well-lit living space with sublime efficiency. However, the basic design is over 200 years old and in many ways reflects a bygone social structure with smaller separate rooms and perhaps, most problematically with today’s living habits, separate kitchens usually stuck out in the rear outrigger away from the main living space. The side return extension is the answer — and here’s how to get it right.

Design Style

One of the big questions with a side return extension is whether to complement or contrast with the existing house. Both work well and while there are no hard and fast rules, the best approach is to think about the kind of new space you want from your extension. If you are trying to radically alter your interior space, knocking down walls and making big openings for inside/outside living, then clearly this is very different from the existing space in an old terrace. If you are doing this then I think you should contrast the design, expressing a new stage in the building’s life. If however you are proposing smaller French doors and maintaining (but subtly altering) the existing layout, then a more sympathetic ‘in keeping’ design can work. I just get disappointed when I see massive bi-fold doors rammed into a traditional-looking house — it looks incongruous, unsubtle and usually wrong.

Natural Light

Doing away with the separate kitchen by infilling the narrow strip of the garden adjacent to the house and squaring off the floorplan to create a larger kitchen dining room makes a lot of sense. It is often the only possible way of extending the house, but in doing so you can create new space at the expense of daylight penetrating the middle of the house. A large part of the genius of the terraced house design is that the only area that doesn’t usually get good daylight is the stairs. Putting on a side return extension can plunge one of the main rooms into darkness, making it far less usable — you will need to be creative with rooflights, ceiling levels and artificial light to keep the quality of space. One option is to embrace the dark and create an intimate internal room for the evenings that is the Ying to the bright kitchen diner’s Yang, or an alternative is to move toilets and utilities – rooms that do not need so much natural light – to the centre of the house.

Ceiling Heights

A side return extension nearly always requires walls to be knocked down and there is always a temptation to take the easy route when doing this and simply put a steel beam under the joists of the existing floor above to support the rest of the building. This structure is then boxed in to create what the trade calls a ‘downstand’ — learn the name and learn to avoid it at all costs. This is because even though the wall has gone, the residual downstand has a big impact on creating the feeling of a new large single room. It divides the room, stops space flowing and makes the ceiling feel low and heavy. If you have very high ceilings you can design your way around a downstand. But for nearly all situations, go to the extra expense of pushing the new structure into the depth of the floor above and losing it. If you have to cut back on the cost of the kitchen and fit out, do so, as this can be easily improved at a later date — fiddling with the structure can’t.

To increase the sense of space in your new side return extension, try and create taller and/or vaulted ceiling heights in the new area that contrast with the old. This will draw the eye upwards and make even a small increase in space feel much larger.

Get the Pipes Right

Often the rear courtyard of the terrace has, over the years of retrofit and upgrading, become something of a spaghetti junction of services and plumbing. There are often manholes, waste downpipes, rainwater downpipes, etc. One of the first jobs in designing your scheme is to get a handle on how you are going to adapt the plumbing to allow for your new extension to shine. The alternative is boxed-in downpipes squeezing already narrow spaces, big ugly removable manhole covers smack bang in the middle of a new floor, and ugly waste pipes snaking around the roof of your pride and joy — I have seen it all.

The Right Approach

A well-designed, well-built side return extension can give a home a new lease of life, bringing it perfectly up to date for contemporary living. Like everything in building it needs to be properly thought through — so make sure you get the fundamentals right before you get carried away with the finishing touches.

  • 11/06/2019Impossible Builds Impossible Builds is back on our screens starting tonight on More4, 9pm.
  • 10/06/2019Oxford Green Week This week is Oxford Green Week . A city-wide festival which uses culture, creativity and community to inspire local people to take action against climate change. Charlie is joining with Transition by Design, an architecture and design co-operative to talk about sustainable architecture
  • 04/06/2019Timber Frame Following several months of coordination with the timber frame manufacturer, this new-build project is finally bursting into life. The prefabricated elements are hoisted in to place with a telehandler; a process that produces a weather tight shell in a mere
  • 23/05/2019Garden Room Extension This new garden room extension will provide much needed extra living space to the existing cottage and greater connection to the garden. Connected by a linking walkway the garden building will compliment the cottage with a sensitive use of materials
  • 15/04/2019Gone to Planning We have just submitted a planning application for a replacement dwelling in Buckinghamshire. The original house dated back to the 1850s and had been extended a number of times and this piecemeal approach had left little evidence of the original
  • 08/04/2019Ground preparations A reduced level dig is underway at this site in Buckinghamshire to prepare the way for the installation of the timber frame, our client’s chosen construction method. Once the insulating slab has been cast the core structure of the frame
  • 26/03/2019Bricks! Our first project on the Graven Hill self build development has shrugged off it’s layer of scaffolding to reveal all its brickwork glory. Windows to follow shortly!
  • 18/03/2019Small but perfectly formed We’ve been working on a small extension project to an old school house and the extension building is finally going up. It replaces a previous extension and attempts to create a more sympathetic addition as well as improve the flow
  • 04/03/2019Plunkett Foundation It was recently announced that Charlie has been appointed as Plunkett Foundation’s Centenary Ambassador. The Plunkett Foundation has been supporting and empowering local community groups for the last one hundred years by providing practical advice, support and training to help local communities
  • 12/02/2019Feasibility We’re busy with Feasibility Studies for clients at the moment. This one near Burford in Oxfordshire shows two possible options for a steeply sloping long site where the client would like to build at the bottom of their garden.
|