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Jane Hughes Writer, editor, yoga teacher

Hidden houses

Mail on Sunday, November 2005

Houses can't always be judged by what you see on the outside. Particularly when all that is visible from the street is a discreet front door, a stretch of featureless wall or a glimpse of sunken rooftop. London is peppered with homes that are hidden away on forgotten plots of land or designed to have a profile low enough not to upset planners, or interfere with the existing streetscape.

"Often these houses have come into being thanks to quirks and accidents of history, says Richard Brindley of the Royal Institute for British Architects. "There are nooks and crannies of land that have been left vacant all over London after streets and squares have been laid out."

The potential of such sites, says Brindley, may have been ignored for years because they are not straightforward to develop. "It may be impossible to put an ordinary house on one of these plots but when somebody does take up the challenge of building, the result can be a real architectural gem."

Take the magnificent modern corner house tucked away behind what appears to be a ‘surplus' door in the early Victorian Lonsdale Square in central Islington. For more than 100 years, the door and two windows above it were indeed nothing more than an illusory facade, built to complete the terraced look of the square but with only an empty plot of land beyond. Today, however, the facade conceals a highly contemporary six bedroom, three bathroom home, characterised by dramatic expanses of light filled space.

The story of the house begins in the Sixties, when the large, south west facing square site was acquired by theatrical impresario Bob Swash. He employed architects Peter Foggo and David Thomas - whose work later gained international renown - to build a block of three flats for himself and members of his family.

In 2000, Swash sold the flats to business publisher, Rod Sparks, who, together with his wife, tax lawyer Caroline Barkham, spent 18 months converting them into a five storey home for themselves and their three children. "You'd never get planning permission to build Swash's flats in a conservation area like this today, but before Islington was gentrified nobody cared," says Sparks. "After our first conversion plans were turned down, we managed to persuade David Thomas to come back and create a design that worked as an evolution of the original building."

What had been the flats' exterior stairwell behind the main door became an internal lobby, with a steel and walnut staircase and new rooms overlooking the square through the original windows. The couple also opened up two floors of living space by knocking through the small Sixties rooms, installing huge picture windows and extending the ground floor with two conservatories. Although they are now moving to west London, Sparks says it will be hard to find somewhere as quiet and with such a degree of privacy.

With a guide price of £.3.5 million, the house is valued at nearly twice as much as a traditional property on the square. But then, says Robert McLean of selling agents, Savills, it's nearly twice as big, with 6,000 square feet of accommodation. "There are few precedents for a property like this but people have been very taken with the quality of space and light it offers in such a prime location," he says.

There are few precendents too for the three bedroom house that local developer Barrie Clutterbuck has shoehorned into an angular plot on the eastern side of Islington. Planners insisted that anything built on the site - at the corner of two early Victorian terraces - should have minimum impact on the Arlington Conservation Area and avoid any sense of overlooking.

Clutterbuck and his architect took up the challenge by designing what his wife, Janice, calls an "invisible house". While the upper floor of the property is only a couple of steps down from the street, it stretches back in such a way that only the entrance door and an arch of green glazed roof can be seen.

Open plan living spaces on this floor and at basement level are lit both from above and from a partly glazed rear wall, with a terraced sunken garden beyond. "The target market is young City couples so the standard of finish is very high - and very high tech," says Barry's wife Janice.

But even facades that are visible can sometimes conceal tardis-like surprises. Noone would expect anything out of the ordinary to lie behind the red brick walls of Emelie and Matthew Ramsay's three bedroom house in Battersea. Yet once inside the former council property, you're transported into an airy, Eastern style environment where the rooms flow into one another through wide arched doorways.

Emelie, a 26-year-old events manager, and Matthew, a chef, gutted the house before refurbishing it in a style that, says Emelie, was inspired by the luxury Thai hotels they had visited on holiday. "I used a lot of wood and natural finishes and we created more space by opening up the rooms and adding a conservatory," she says. As a result, it's now on the market for £380,000 - around £80,000 more than similar properties in the street.