A futuristic extension of a Georgian villa in North London – known as The Lens, as much for its light-focusing qualities as for its photographer owners – is a snapshot of British residential innovation

The unique result of this innovative project has seen it named as one of six UK residences to be shortlisted for the Royal Institute of British Architects’ prestigious Manser Medal.

The owners, who are involved in photography and design, approached ABA in 2005. They invited the architects to be adventurous, with a simple objective to restore the derelict villa and extend it to create a family home and office space.

“The brief to the architects was wide open,” says the homeowner. “We gave them a volume and budget: replace a two-storey rear bay extension and add an impressive side extension. The biggest challenges were the position of a 150-year-old walnut tree with a Tree Preservation Order, and a Victorian sewer running through the back garden.”

An open-plan kitchen/dining space features sliding glass doors at garden level. A double-height bay window focuses on the walnut tree like a picture frame, and the design also pulls light from above into the living room through a segment of its roof.


“This project was a fantastic opportunity to take a highly sculptural approach,” says Alison Brooks, ABA’s founding director. “In addition to a full structural renovation, opening up the semi-basement and creating a double-height living/kitchen space, the extensions were designed to draw in light from the sky and embrace the garden.”

ABA extended the house via two tapered volumes that project into the garden and foster relationships between the interior spaces, and the garden and sky.

“The first volume, created from space excavated from the sloped side of the garden, is an office and shopfront for the client’s photography business,” says Alison. “The second connected volume spatially expands and draws light into the first-floor living room.”

Alison Brooks Architects re-imagined the derelict four-storey abode with a conversion that sees a variety of open-plan and double-height living, dining, and working spaces retrofitted into the interior.  


It’s these extensions that eventually led to the home being dubbed the ‘Lens House’, a homage to the design as well as to the clients’ business.

“The extension was designed as a series of apertures framed and connected by trapezoidal planes. The openings capture light, draw the garden into the house, and frame precise views of a walnut tree.”

The two-storey rear extension acts as a contemporary reinterpretation of a bay window in the living room, and opens the dining area up to a garden terrace.

“Beneath the bay window, a new wall of glass slides open to link the dining room with a small patio outside,” says Alison. “From here a concealed door creates a second entrance to the office.”

A roof terrace cuts in, generating a light-reflecting plane and heightening the sense of suspended surfaces. The home features angular projections of dynamic shapes, planes and interiors that connect and fold over each other like architectural origami.

The specification for the cladding of these extensions was originally for zinc, but at the request of the client this was switched to Corian. It’s a material increasingly used to create distinctive, high-performance and ventilated facades, and in this case its application as an external cladding material further emphasises the crystalline, other-worldly appearance of the extensions.

“Zinc rain-screen cladding is vulnerable if knocked – the cladding is predominantly at ground level, so I felt there was a strong likelihood of it getting accidentally damaged,” says the client. “As soon as I saw the Seeko’o Hotel in Bordeaux on the Corian website, I knew this solid material would suit the strong geometry and structure of the design.”

I saw the Seeko’o Hotel in Bordeaux on the Corian website, I knew this solid material would suit the strong geometry and structure of the design.”

Inside, the upper and lower ground floors are transformed to include a kitchen and dining area on the lower floor and living area on the upper. A new double-height volume draws the southern light in deep.

The client, a photographer, uses the side extension of the home as a place of business. It has its own entrance from a stepped-down patio at the front of the house.


“Like a ‘great hall’, it creates a powerful visual connection between the original upper ground floor entrance and kitchen/dining space,” says Alison. “The folded geometries of the extensions continue into the house to become surfaces punctuated by steel fireplaces, a cantilevered kitchen and other ‘inhabited walls’; a variety of framed settings for modern family life.”

The spaces are integrated, with the addition of a new courtyard at ground level and a roof terrace at upper ground floor level, extending from the living room.

The architects have transformed this crumbling Victorian house into a modern and unique place to marry life and work.

“Alison Brooks Architects did an amazing job researching and developing the design,” says the client. “I couldn’t be happier with the end result… bold, strong lines and a sleek, solid appearance.”  

A cantilevered expansion of the living space above the kitchen and dining space opens to a terrace, which partially rests over the spacious new garden-level home office. The conversion includes the insertion of two bespoke iron fireplaces, fair-faced concrete and black lacquered joinery walls.



Alison Brooks Architects Ltd London alisonbrooksarchitects.com (architect)
Corian by Dupont dupont.com (cladding) 
EBCO The Building Company Steve Epstein, ebcobuild.co.uk (builder) 
Hutton & Rostron handr.co.uk (conservation consultant)
Orla Kelly mbok.co.uk (structural engineer).



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