Staying within your comfort zone is all very well, but when it comes to architecture, courage can work wonders. When a London couple in their thirties decided to upgrade their garden flat in Hackney, it also won them an award.

Their one-bedroom ground-floor home in an early Victorian terrace had an original brick dog leg at the back, creating a fairly useless side return, while the garden was shared with the maisonette upstairs.

The dog leg space contained the couple’s cramped kitchen, at the end of which was a rubbish bathroom that hogged the south-facing best bit of the flat, with just a small window to the garden. What a waste all this was.

The upstairs owners decided to move, but wanted to sell with a separate, rather than a shared, garden. The owners of both flats agreed to build an external stair, and the garden was divided. The ground-floor flat got the side return and a small garden; the upper flat got a good-size private garden beyond that.

Main aim: a bathroom and kitchen makeover (Radu Palicic)

PLAYING WITH LIGHT TO MAXIMISE A SMALL SPACE

Now the couple downstairs could play with the space around their flat as well as the flat itself, but their main aim was still a bathroom and kitchen makeover. One architect had suggested they put a new bathroom in the centre of the flat, where their bedroom was. That was a perfectly sensible solution, but it didn’t make their hearts jump.

They had done lots of research and fancied a Japanese-style set-up. The Japanese generally shower themselves clean before relaxing in fresh hot water, in a tub much deeper than the usual British bath.

The couple had heard of young Irish architect Gary Tynan through his wife, and in summer 2015, asked him round. Tynan had just set up his own practice and was looking for exciting domestic projects.

“I liked the Japan thing,” he says, “I’d visited recently and been impressed by Japanese quality and finish.” During his visit he’d seen a museum that used beautiful slatted wooden screens, which create wonderful striped and moving light inside buildings. For Tynan, the key to London design is playing with space and levels and light, to get the best out of small areas.

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Special material: the sunken pool is cast in ultra-smooth microcement, with steps that double as a seat (Radu Palicic)

He went away and did drawings and 3D modelling, to get a realistic visualisation.

SCREENED FOR PRIVACY

Since the couple now had exclusive use of the side return, Tynan made the bold suggestion of punching out through the side wall to create a glass box. Hardly bigger or taller than the sort of big garden tool or bin cupboard you can buy — about 16sq ft all told and only five feet high — it would sink about five feet down into the ground. Three steps down would be a heated Japanese plunge pool specially cast in ultra-smooth “microcement”. The steps would double as a seat. Connecting with this glass pool room, but within the house itself, he planned an elegant shower and lavatory.

To protect the bather from entertaining the neighbours, there’d be a slatted larch screen above the pool’s glass top, and across the shower area window. Both these sections lift up to clean the glass beneath, and create not only privacy, but lovely light on walls and water. And the larch, which weathers to silver colour, would look great from outside.

The couple were impressed. Without hesitation, they pressed the button to submit plans to Hackney council. You might be surprised that such an innovative idea zipped straight through, but Tynan explains that it is small, low, unobtrusive and natural looking, so everyone was happy.

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Kitchen-living space: the big, bifold picture window to the garden (Radu Palicic)

During the build, the plumber and builder had to do technical things they’d never done before. The glass is all bespoke, double-glazed, with snazzy, immaculate black seams; the oiled larch is beautiful, and the micro-cement, which makes a seamless, silky tub and steps, has to be handled by a specialist.

Not only that, but for so much hot water on demand, you need a tank — plus an extractor system so the bather doesn’t end up in clouds of steam. “The builders gave me a few dark looks while we were doing it, but in the end they were proud of it,” says Tynan.

A COPPER KITCHEN’S IN THE MIX

Because of hiring specialists, works took 11 months. But not only did the couple get a really sensational bathing space, with the magical morning light moving around the slats, they also got an amazing kitchen-living space. This now runs all the way to the end of the dog leg to a big, bifold picture window.

An inset kitchen runs along the side, lined out in blow-torched larch slats — using another Japanese technique called Shou Sugi Ban, which doesn’t destroy the wood, but hardens it and turns it black — with a copper worktop and a copper splashback.

Tynan’s gung-ho clients loved the copper, though it isn’t everyone’s cup of sake, as it does stain. However, the colour, which would make anyone’s heart sing, is worth it.

The “Sunken Bath” house has just won top prize at New London Architecture’s annual Don’t Move, Improve! awards.

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