Walking into the main living area of Ed Reeve’s house invites a sharp intake of breath. The clean, white space is dominated by a window that runs along the whole of one side of the room, looking out to the greenery of neighbouring gardens of De Beauvoir Town and letting in huge amounts of light. The leaves of an oak tree sway gently near the glass. It's an impressive sight and one with which none of the surrounding Victorian houses could compete.
Reeve’s home, a wooden cube on three levels, is a completely different proposition to the average London residence. Large single-pane windows provide light, while sealable hatches open to provide fresh air and temperature control; the ground floor kitchen opens onto a compact, sun-filled backyard; and both living and storage space are plentiful. Reeve, a photogpraher, conceived and developed the structure himself (in collaboration with architect David Adjaye), making him one of a growing number of Londoners building their own bespoke-designed homes.
For a city that boasts so many adventurous public and large-scale commercial buildings, it is surprising that London’s residential architecture lags way behind other northern European cities. Architecturally conceived houses are a rare sight. It wasn’t always this way. Matt Gibberd is a director of The Modern House, an estate agency that solely deals with modern architecture. “If you go back to the early days of the modern movement in the mid-1930s, Hampstead and Highgate acted as a canvas for the best architects of the day,” he tells Londonist.
Today's equivalent movement is smaller and patchier. There are, says Gibberd, pockets of residential architecture projects around town. For example, at the lower end of the market, “there are lots of young architects developing small residential schemes in areas of South-East London, like Forest Hill and East Dulwich, because land values are lower, and there’s a bit more space to build.” In those areas, individuals from a variety of backgrounds — builders and creative professionals as well as architects — are doing what developers don’t seem to want to: making the most of small spaces with good quality design and construction.
As this blog documents, there are more 'modern' houses in London than you might think, often hidden in mews or situated in quieter areas of town. But new and interesting residential architecture is still rare. It would be easy to assume that planning restrictions and NIMBY-ism are the root causes of this but that isn’t necessarily the case. “There’s no doubt that the planning system is difficult and people do come up against varying amounts of local opposition,” says Matt Gibberd. But when the design is good and the neighbours are handled sensitively, planning permission can come through quickly. “The council [Hackney] was very supportive because they need people to build new homes – we got planning permission in eight weeks,” says Ed Reeve. “All the neighbours were very supportive too. They knew something would get built here at some point and I think they were relieved to see something interesting rather than cheap flats.”
The planning environment varies from borough to borough. Sophie Goldhill runs an architectural practice with partner David Liddicoat. RIBA award-winning success with their home in King’s Cross, The Shadow House (pictured above), led to a focus on designing small homes. They currently have four projects on the go in London, and, says Goldhill: “We have to approach each project individually – we can’t just roll out the same design. Different boroughs want different things. The house we’re designing in Kensington has to be a lot more conservative than something in Camden or Islington.”
Like Ed Reeve, Goldhill didn’t have particular problems with the neighbours with The Shadow House. Her advice is to involve local people as soon as possible. “We build physical models, which people relate to well,” she says. “We often build them so our clients can take them to meetings with neighbours prior to planning. It’s for them to see that it’s not a scary thing. If they’re involved in the process, and they see what’s coming, they’re often really enthusiastic.”
The key is to build a house that operates sympathetically with its surroundings. Neither Reeve’s nor Goldhill’s home towers over the surrounding buildings. Both maximise space internally. “What we really try to do for our clients for small-scale houses is to be clever with small spaces,” says Goldhill. “We play with levels so the space feels a lot bigger than it really is.” Ultimately, she continues, “people are prepared to forgo square-foot area for a better quality of space.”
Why can’t property developers build like this?
Of the two main barriers to self-build projects – finding land to buy and the cost of building – one is more solvable than the other. The financial rewards for self-building make the investment (if it can be managed) worthwhile. “You can maximise the value with an architecturally-designed building, because they’re so unique,” says Sophie Goldhill. Ed Reeve agrees. He estimates that the total cost of building his home came to about half of what it is now worth. “I could never have afforded a house this size otherwise,” he says.
There are ways to limit risks and escalating project costs too. “I would advise prefabricating as much as possible,” says Reeve. Adjaye's design for his house was constructed in a factory and assembled on-site in just two days (completely fitting out the house took a little longer — six to nine months). With the superstructure constructed off-site, he says, “you can have a weather-sealed house in weeks if not days,” meaning bad weather doesn’t get in the way. For self-builders working on a tight budget and with little contingency, this can make a difference.
The availability of land, or rather the lack of it, is another matter entirely. “The sad thing is, because of the way it's all set up, the land only really become available to large developers and they’re only really looking to create a quick return," says Reeve, which leads to poor quality design sold at a high mark-up. The mayor's office has looked at this issue, producing a London housing design guide in 2009 and issuing minimum internal space standards that cover publicly funded construction. “Excellence in design and sustainability should not be seen as extra costs but as a shrewd investment,” the mayor has said, but none of the measures thus far helps small-scale house builders.
Whether it’s making the most of small spaces like Liddicoat & Goldhill or employing quick, innovative building methods like Ed Reeve, politicans and developers could learn a lot from London’s self-builders, a group that’s growing in number. “The public’s appreciation for this is only going one way,” says Matt Gibberd of The Modern House. “We’ve seen a massive increase in the number of people with sites and planning permission asking us for help with values. And they’re usually building for themselves.” Hopefully London's modern houses won't remain hidden for too much longer.