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Walford Road by Russian for Fish. Photography by Pete Landers.
27th July 2017

Russian For Fish: Q&A with Pereen d’Avoine

An expert in simplicity and detail, award-winning architectural practice Russian For Fish creates clever spaces that feel effortless. Its latest project – a ground-floor extension of a Victorian terrace on Stoke Newington’s Walford Road – is no different. Not only is the house peppered with smart details, a lack of rear access meant that every single building material had to fit through the front door. Quite the feat. 

Victorians did a lot of things right – inventing ice cream and curing cholera to name just two – but open-plan houses weren't really one of their strong suits. When a London couple wanted to ready their gorgeous but just slightly too small Stoke Newington mid-terrace for starting a new family, they called on Russian For Fish to mastermind a design that really made the most of all the available space.

The practice’s architects Pereen d’Avoine and Nilesh Shah proposed an open-plan kitchen/dining room that would open up into the couple’s courtyard garden with an impressive floor-to-ceiling bi-folding door. Not phased by a tricky set of planning regulations or the fact that all the building materials had to be lugged through the front door, Russian For Fish created a family-friendly home with a whole host of tailor-made details, from a kitchen to accommodate a 6’ 4” chef to a sunlit window seat for probably the luckiest cat in Stoke Newington. Materials-wise, Russian For Fish opted for a palette of oak and concrete to complement the exposed brickwork and slick new skylights, and injected a bit of flavour with bespoke peppermint doors and draws to fit off-the-shelf cabinets. 

But like the old adage of a swan frantically helicoptering their legs every which way while above deck they’re the epitome of elegance and poise, crafting such relaxed, intuitive spaces takes a whole lot of behind-the-scene brainpower. Following the project’s completion, we were keen to quiz Russian For Fish’s Pereen d’Avoine about the process behind making complex builds look so simple. 

Walford Road by Russian for Fish. Photography by Pete Landers.
How did the client find you, and why did they choose Russian For Fish?

The client is the sister of an architect friend of mine. We were really touched that he recommended us to a member of the family… you can’t get a better endorsement than that!

What was your initial brief for the project?

The clients had just purchased the house when we got involved. It was their first home, bought with a view to starting and growing a young family. They’d had minor works carried out on their previous home, but this time they wanted to refurbish the whole house. While the client felt confident overseeing the less onerous refurbishment works, they appointed us to design a rear extension to create an open plan kitchen/dining room directly connected to a small courtyard garden to the rear. We also worked on the upstairs bathroom and generally advised on the rest of the build where we could.

What were the main constraints you were working with?

As with most mid-terraced houses there was no access from the rear, so whatever needed to be demolished, excavated or installed had to pass through the house and out of the front door. This is a small opening, so care had to be taken to ensure beams and such could be bought to the site individually and that the frame could be built in situ.

There was an existing rear lean-to that need to be demolished, and the existing outrigger needed to be supported from the first floor up, while the ground floor walls were removed providing a full-width kitchen/dining room to the rear. There were also planning restrictions in regard to the height we could build up to on the boundary line, so we had to ensure the room did not feel compromised in any way.

Walford Road by Russian for Fish. Photography by Pete Landers.
What materials did you use?

A primary palette of concrete and oak was selected: the picture window was lined in oiled oak and the same oak was used to form the kitchen worktops. We used concrete tiles for the floor, as well as concrete garden pavers. The kitchen carcasses were off the shelf, but we created bespoke sprayed MDF doors fabricated in a beautiful peppermint green. The doors, window and skylight are aluminium-framed.

How does the initial planning process work for a project like this?

We tend to develop spaces holistically, so the plans, section and elevations develop simultaneously. We present several options for plans and elevations in early meetings as a way of starting the conversation and exploring the brief.  Usually the scheme that emerges is a hybrid of several of the schemes.  

We work a lot ‘in model’, so it is not unusual for us to use working models to illustrate ideas to the client. We also produce simple renders or visualisations and collate visual references together to discuss with clients. These can range from examples of similar projects or colours and material to picture that give the impression of an ambience or the spirit of a space.
Walford Road by Russian for Fish. Photography by Pete Landers.
Is there anything you think makes this project quintessentially Russian for Fish?

A simple material palette and lots of contemporary and minimal detailing. For example, take the shadow gaps that junction between the walls and floor and around the picture window. There’s also a strong connection to the garden with plenty of light and colour.

How did you help the client understand the scope and sequence of the project?

We always work closely with the client during the detail design stage, so they’re always aware of the evolving scope. At the start of the project the contractor produces a programme of works and throughout the construction, we meet with the client on site, review works and review the programme. If works move faster or slower than the programme planned for, it is updated accordingly.

Walford Road by Russian for Fish. Photography by Pete Landers.
How many projects do you normally work on at once?

We have several live projects at anyone time, but all at different work stages: from concept, planning, detail design to on-site. Nilesh and I run a maximum of two jobs each on-site, although we usually try to only have two in total on-site at any one time.

How does it feel to complete a project like this? Do you get emotionally attached? Are you sad to leave a space you’ve created?

We are usually really thrilled to complete a project, especially when it has fulfilled the brief and the clients are happy! Although we form strong bonds with the client and invest a lot in it emotionally, our end goal is always that the project becomes our client’s home. We have been entrusted with it and it needs to be perfect when we hand it back. We miss chatting to our clients though… its not all work chat!

Has your relationship with the client continued after completion? Do you know how they’re getting on in their new space?

We are still in touch with Clementine and Leo, although we don’t see them as often as we would like… That’s where social media comes in; we get snapshots of what they are up to. Since the project finished they have had a baby, who we’ve met and been busy in their garden. They have such green fingers. What’s really fantastic is they have recommended us to people!

For more information about Walford Road and Russian For Fish, visit www.russianforfish.com.
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De Beauvoir Block
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