Victorian Side Return Extensions: Small Spaces, Big Results

Victorian side returns: they may sound like a Dickensian side hustle, but they’re actually one of the most popular ways to increase space in your home with an extension.


01 Jun 2022


Simon McAuliffe

victorian side return example

When designed well, Victorian side return extensions can bring light and space into otherwise dark and narrow rooms, while minimising the loss of precious garden space. Cantifix have designed and installed glazing for a wide variety of these extensions, so we’re taking a look at what makes the Victorian side return extension so popular.

What is a Victorian side return extension?

Making up nearly 30% of houses in the UK, the Victorian terrace is a popular choice for home renovators.  A big part of the renovation appeal lies in the small slither of land that leads down the side of the property – either in the form of an alleyway running the length of the building, or an empty bit of garden that sits to the side of the back-projected kitchen or bathroom, known as a side return. 

These small spaces should not be underestimated; they can be utilised to maximum effect while maintaining precious garden space (a drawback of traditional rear extensions), and if the past few years have taught us anything, it is how important good outdoor space can be.

Victorian side return extensions tend to be single storey, due to the lack of need for planning permission, but also so that the walls and ceiling can be made largely of glass, to allow a maximum amount of natural light to filter in -as well as helping to seamlessly connect the inside with the outside world.

The most popular form of Victorian side return extension involves the entire back wall being removed and replaced with large double-width glass doorways and/or windows.  By doing this, the need to have other opening windows or rooflights for fresh air is reduced, as you are essentially opening up the whole rear of the property to the garden. 

This can be used to either break the expanded rear section of the property into sections (such as a kitchen and dining area), or to create a larger room that opens to the outside world. Combined with strategic use of indoor glazing, this can really carry natural light throughout the entire ground floor of the property.

Alternatively, homeowners can simply add a glass box extension to the side of the room that currently extends out from the back of the house. This is sometimes called a side infill, and can add a new lease of life to a property.

The extension itself is usually made up of glass, metal, or brick, with the use of reclaimed materials growing in popularity in recent years. The style choices tend to fall into two categories: either to fit in with the feel of the original building or to completely contrast it. For example, single pitch roofs are a popular choice as they can complement the lean-to architecture of the original building, whereas oriel window seats that jutt out of the wall create an entirely modern feel when juxtaposed with 150 year old brickwork.

There’s so much scope for use of side returns, from modest kitchen expansions to elaborate redefinitions of space, especially if the building has a basement, or if you want to develop upwards as well. An interesting example of a project Cantifix have worked on within older buildings is the Victorian Remix, which included a swimming pool and a glass box standing at over 6m tall!

The use of glass roofing and large glass sliding doors are a key feature of these types of extension; as you are widening the room, it can help to have a glass roof to fill in the side that does not already have a ceiling, negating the need for much electric lighting for most of the day.

Considerations for Victorian side return extensions

When planning a Victorian side return extension it is important to consider the legal requirements for your project. Whilst most architects can help you with this, it can be useful to know what sort of restrictions there may be before approaching them. 

First of all you need to think about how your extension may impact any party walls, for which there are different rules for different parts of the country, and indeed different types of housing. A good starting point is to talk to any neighbours who already have an extension – particularly if their properties are in your terrace, and similar in design – to learn from their previous experiences (and to keep them on your side when it comes to signing waivers and legal documents!).

As with any build there is also planning permission to consider, although luckily very few Victorian terrace houses are listed, meaning the process can be fairly straightforward, and will conform to the standard rules and regulations for your location and property design. 

The rules around planning permission are varied and ever changing, so speak to professionals when it comes to understanding any legal requirements. In general, if you are building a single storey side return extension which is no taller than 4metres high and no wider than half the width of the original house, then you may not require planning permission as it could fall under permitted development

You will, however, still have to comply with building regulations and should talk to your local council planning office for any information before beginning your build.

Any extension is going to take time and careful planning to build, but luckily Victorian side return extensions can be fairly unobtrusive to family life, taking over mainly the back of the house and most likely the kitchen, making them a good option for updating your home without having to vacate it for an extended period of time. Whilst each project can differ wildly -depending on the design variables- in general, extensions of this nature take 19 weeks in planning and 10-16 weeks to build and finish.

Designing a Victorian side return extension

When it comes to actually designing your Victorian side return extension there are a few things to take into account. As well as the physical walls, windows and roof it can really help if you know how you want the finished room to layout.

Do you have a large dining table that you want to place along one side? Then you may need to consider doorways that don’t interfere with the seating; Sky-Frame sliding doors are a great example of a solution. Do you want an island or kitchen peninsula but also a long row of shelving? This may influence your choice of wall material, or what kind of lighting you will need from the roof of your choice. 

Remember as well that you may  be relocating the entrance to the garden, or even the doorway into the rest of your house, all of which will need to be thought through before deciding where and what type of walls, doors or windows you want your extension to feature.

The benefits of using glass for your Victorian side return extension

While brickwork continues to be popular for extensions, there are a lot of benefits to making your Victorian side return extension largely out of glass. With innovations in structural glass, both in aesthetic and practical applications, (such as self-cleaning glass and films applied between panes to prevent heat loss) there is good reason to consider glazing not just as the finishing touches of a project, but rather the main building material.

As well as creating a stunning contemporary addition to your home, by making your side return extension largely glass-based, you will be maximising the amount of natural light entering the room, and blurring the boundaries between the interior and exterior spaces.  

There are options for vertical as well as horizontal glass in any number of configurations, and by choosing to use minimal framing you can create large uninterrupted expanses of glass, making the room feel bigger regardless of the small amount of extra space you have actually created.

For privacy concerns there are options including switchable smart glass, which can change from translucent to opaque at the flick of a switch or even via your phone, something that can be useful due to the built-up nature of terraced housing.

When it comes to building onto your current property it is important to consider all options, especially when it comes to budget and planning permissions, as well as accessibility for work.  A Victorian side return extension can have a huge impact on space use in your home, while at the same time making only a small impact on both your garden space and current square footage. 

With clever use of structural glazing you can really bring the outdoors into your home, gaining all the health benefits of natural light, adding value to your property and providing an aesthetically-pleasing solution to that weird little space round the side of your kitchen that until now was home only to the bins.

Fancy a chat about your Victorian side return extension? Cantifix are here to bring decades of expertise and the latest technology to help you create the build of your dreams.