The Times

May 20 2000

Splitting your home in two may seem like a good idea for divorcing couples but it has drawbacks, says Jane Hughes

Jacqueline de Gier and her ex-husband divided their house after they got divorced but found the arrangement stressful and ultimately unworkable
Photograph: GILL ALLEN

Behind this wall is my ex-husband

by Jane Hughes
The Times

They are architects by trade, but their particular speciality has an ominous ring to it. Deborah Saunt and David Hills are experts in "negotiating divisions", both metaphorically and literally.

They concern themselves with a host of new dilemmas thrown up by today's changing lifestyles: how to incorporate two households into one, how to create zones for teenagers and elderly relatives, and how to accommodate the blurring of work and home life.

But when Saunt and Hills were called in to divide a house in South London for divorcing parents, their efforts proved to be unworkable.

The architects knew they were venturing into sensitive territory as writer Jacqueline de Gier and her ex-husband Christopher Steele-Perkins divided their marital home. But they also jumped at the opportunity to design a prototype "divorced house".

Saunt and Hills were hoping for a workable solution, not just in this case, but for the increasing number of divorced couples who are now deciding to stay in the same property rather than buy two new ones.

They decided to cut a vertical slice through the house, which allowed the children, aged seven and nine, to move between their parents' back doors via the garden. But the arrangement was fraught with unforeseen difficulties.

Indeed, the set-up collapsed after a year. Steele-Perkins, a photographer, moved out to a house in Dulwich, selling his side of the property to the people next door, who wanted to expand into the extra space.

De Gier, meanwhile, stayed on in the former school building they had bought together in 1991. According to her, problems with the "divorced house" began to emerge almost immediately.

"We thought splitting the house would be the least disruptive option for the kids and we had the space to do it," she says. "But they didn't understand why we needed to close off the space and were always saying they wanted to 'knock down that stupid wall'."

De Gier and her former husband paid £5,000 for the basic partition work on their property. This included bricking up the connecting doorway between the large kitchen and living areas on the ground floor as well as blocking off the upstairs rooms - built on a gallery above the kitchen. The architects did this by extending the edge of the gallery up to the ceiling.

De Gier and Steele-Perkins, who had been married for 15 years, took on separate leaseholds and constructed a lobby area so they each had a front door. Steele-Perkins then had a kitchen and bathroom installed on his side. This additional work cost them around £20,000.

Still sharing a home: the Duke and Duchess of York
Photograph: PA

The scale of the former couple's home, with its huge windows, whitewashed bricks and wooden floors, meant neither individual felt they had given up the space and light of the shared home.

Although the children's bedrooms were in De Gier's part of the property, there was plenty of space for them to bed down at their father's home.

In practice, however, the children were unwilling to adapt to the bizarre boundaries their parents had devised. The confusion of having mummy and daddy in the same house but not interacting as a family, was taking its toll.

"We had arranged to care for the children during different blocks of time but they didn't take much notice of this, often coming round to eat with me when they were staying with their father," says de Gier.

"Everything had to be carted backwards and forwards in crates and we spent hours tracking down toys and bits of Lego which got lost."

There were other upsets too. The sound-proof partition upstairs could never be sound-proof enough to block out an unwanted ex-lover. De Gier found it impossible to enjoy a quiet bath because she was sure she could hear Steele Perkins playing his Bob Dylan records next door.

"I tried meditation but I was too stressed to concentrate," she recalls, admitting that she and her ex-husband were still dealing with unresolved tensions from their 15-year marriage. "You have to be fantastically grown-up and have an enormous ability to compromise to make this sort of thing work."

With the divorced population projected to double between 1991 and 2016, it is no surprise that the search is on for new housing solutions. Saunt and Hills view their concept as a radical blueprint for future living.

"Our work is about process rather than product," says Saunt. "It's about making sure all the people involved feel they've been offered a choice."

The architects are designing a multi-faith chapel for a London hospice. They have created "zones" for teenage children within family homes and adapted a house to accommodate two sets of children from different relationships whose parents now live together.

Saunt admits the job "can be quite demanding as it's impossible to give everybody what they want. When things get tough, the best thing to do is to stand back and help people through that emotional situation so that they can see the bigger picture."

According to Vanessa Lloyd-Platt, a divorce lawyer, a growing number of separating couples are seeing co-habitation as a way of minimising disruption for the children.

"Older properties that lend themselves to conversion are being split into flats while some people have simply erected a dividing wall and blocked off a couple of doors," she says.

For many, it is the only option in the face of astronomical house prices. Around 60,000 people are forced out of home-ownership each year following divorce, according to the latest Government figures.

Where divorced people do buy new properties, they tend to downsize by moving to cheaper and more cramped accommodation, while lone parents who stay in the family home face bigger bills

There are even instances where the parents have taken it in turns to hole up in the annexed granny flat, while their former spouse does a stint with the children in the main house.

Experts support the view that the "divorced house" can work, at least in the short term, while a number of high profile couples have been putting it into practice.

The Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn and his wife Claudia Bracchitta put their children first when they divided their North London home. On a somewhat larger scale, the Duchess of York moved back into Sunninghill Park, the home she shared with Prince Andrew, but kept separate sleeping quarters.

But what the strategists may not be examining are the experiences of people like de Gier. Her family's experiment shows that emotional structures, unlike physical ones, are not so flexible, nor so simple to carve up.

  • Saunt and Hills' architectural firm can be contacted on 020-7501 9299

    Domestic law and order

    The Court House at Maidencombe in Devon incorporates two holiday flats

    FOR THOSE bent on cohabitation, the Court House might be the very thing to keep the peace.

    A Grade II listed house built in the late 16th century, it has two attached holiday flats - ideal for housing the ex-husband, mother-in-law, petulant teenager or rent-paying tourists.

    But in the event of a break down in relations, there is also a former cell with barred window inside the house - a reminder of its days as a court of law. The Court House is in Maidencombe, a pretty coastal village overlooking Babbacombe Bay in Devon. This family home, on the market for £300,000, is just 300 metres from the beach and has six bedrooms, two bathrooms, three reception rooms and workshop.

    Each holiday flat has three bedrooms and the property is set in just under half an acre of grounds.

  • Agents: Strutt & Parker (01392 215631)

    Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.