Online | Architecture

Urban Calm

London, UK

Winnie Tam of architecture and design studio Fourteen a.m. wants to bring mindfulness to construction projects, with her own London flat being the perfect example of the restful city spaces she wants to create

“Our practice ethos is about creating homes that are a sanctuary for people who live in the city,” says Winnie Tam of design and architecture practice Fourteen a.m. “I grew up in Hong Kong, I studied architecture in London and I worked for a couple of years in Tokyo. So, my whole living existence has been these super-stressful cities. I want to create spaces that are calm and closer to nature.” Tam has clearly spelled out her recipe for combatting the stress of urban living within her highly considered home, a two-storey flat in London’s Islington.

Before, this was a typical converted Edwardian terrace, with living space above and bedrooms and a bathroom in the basement. It came with all the problems you would expect from a typical terrace, too, including narrow, claustrophobic hallways, a damp downstairs and a difficult layout that saw the bathroom placed at the rear of the ground floor, blocking light and access to the garden. A series of changes have transformed the flat into Tam’s calling card for her practice, where the space flows beautifully, views to nature are prioritised and a small palette of natural materials lends a sense of both unity and serenity.

“My main aim was to open up the hallway, both upstairs and downstairs – people really need an entrance space where they can put their shoes and coat on,” says Tam. “And downstairs it was about making it not feel like a basement, bringing in the light and getting rid of the toilet that was blocking the outside space.” Now, the bathroom has been moved towards the centre of the layout and a single-storey extension (just seven square metres) has created a new guest room/tea room/relaxation space, alongside a study and a further master bedroom with ensuite.

The two storeys are connected by a new staircase with a louvred iroko balustrade, and open treads at the top to help filter the light down to the basement; daylight also now floods the two garden-level rooms at the back of the house. “I wanted to show people how a visual connection to nature is just very important, and helps us to anchor ourselves, says Tam.”

Once the layout was working properly and the basement was properly damp-proofed, it was time for Tam to turn her attention to materials. Clayworks’ clay plaster in a soft warm neutral has been applied to walls and ceilings, while the framed openings between rooms, as well as the skirting and staircase, are made from iroko, chosen for its natural variation in colour to create subtle visual interest.

“I was strict that all of the details need to be in timber – apart from the light switches, there isn’t any metal,” says Tam. There’s jute carpet downstairs and new stained pine flooring upstairs, while the master bathroom features pleasingly rustic handmade terracotta tiles on the floor and tadelakt walls, continuing the same earthy theme that began with the clay walls elsewhere. “The whole house is about warmth and natural materials, because I believe that’s what creates that calming feeling for a city sanctuary,” continues Tam.

The flat is also full of beautiful details that help to streamline the look and/or make everything more practical, from the iroko low shelving that wraps around the wall from the living area into the hallway, to the under-stairs coat cupboard that is rendered invisible thanks to the louvred doors that are a vertical continuation of the stair balustrade.

There are places to display art and objects, but they are clearly defined: a shallow recess in the dining room neatly fits an abstract painting by Rikki Turner, while in the guestroom/tea room, a niche lined with iroko has become a display area for vessels by David Carqueijeiro and ceramic tea-sets (it’s also a reminder of where the old house ends and the new one begins, since it marks where the original window used to be). Tam has also designed a full-moon-like light to hang in the stairwell, made from a backlit disc of travertine, which glows invitingly as you make your way down the stairs.

As well as creating a satisfying place to live, Tam also wants to make designing a new home an enjoyable experience for her clients. “I wanted to take on the challenge of making the process of construction stress-free, where we plan everything and it can be used as more of a journey of self-discovery,” she says. “Instead of looking at the architectural process as a solid, concrete thing, I’m trying to do it in a more mindful and organic way, where we are more aware of our decisions. Then, when things might get a bit wobbly along the way, there is some flexibility and understanding behind everything.”

She likens her mindful design process to growing a plant, and her methods clearly identify (and try to head off) all the usual stressful pinch points, from allowing clients plenty of opportunity to offer feedback to the importance of a good tender package and regular site reports. It all sounds like a journey that anyone would like to go on, with Tam as the assured hand that guides the way – and a calm space for harassed city-dwellers the enviable result.