Client of the Month: How Owen Solved an Almost Impossible End-of-Mews Jigsaw
Legal professional and seasoned self-builder Owen and his wife wanted to create a unique family home after being away from London for two years. They found the perfect location, but needed our help to turn the most oddly-shaped site we had ever encountered into the home of their dreams.
What was it that attracted you to this unusual property?
The potential. It gave us an opportunity to develop a very knackered old building and make it new.
It was an 1880s mews house which was used as a garage until the 60s, when it was renovated into a modern structure in an utterly revolting style. The old owner hadn’t updated the house for over 40 years and it had been empty for two when we bought it. It was completely ruined.
We weren’t able to work on it ourselves for another two years after we bought it as I had to move to Hong Kong for a long case. In all it had been unoccupied for four years, which meant we saved on VAT, but you can imagine the state it was in.
So the house presented you a blank canvas for you to work on?
Pretty much. The condition of the house allowed us to knock down almost the whole thing, dig out a basement, and rebuild it with higher quality materials and with a new, contemporary open plan layout. We restored the frontage to a traditional Victorian-looking building to complement its surroundings.
Behind the Victorian-style facade is this bright and carefully sculpted open plan living space. The stairwell on the right, which extends uninterrupted from basement to loft, was the project’s biggest challenge.
Why did you feel that a self build was the right option for you rather than buying an existing property?
Largely because we couldn’t find anything within our budget that we wanted. A self build allowed us to have a home that we wanted at a price we could afford. It gave us a lot of space to create a family home in the style we wanted – there’s no way we would have found anything like it on the market.
Why did you choose Dyer Grimes Architecture for this project?
Their portfolio matched what I wanted to achieve with the house. I like the mix between keeping the old character of Victorian or Georgian buildings – which I find beautiful – but modernising the interior.
There were plenty of examples of homes like that on your website, and I thought you did them very well.
What were your design objectives?
Our essential goal was to create a very high-ceilinged, open plan living space with a kitchen just off it, and we’ve achieved that – it’s very big.
For our children, I wanted them to be able to enjoy a separate, dormitory-style space on the second floor, with two distinctly-styled bedrooms with their own bathrooms.
In the attic, we converted the entire space into a master suite, while the basement contains all our leisure spaces: media room, games room, cinema and spa.
While I’m not bad at figuring out the main structural aspects of a house, I’m rubbish at interiors, so my wife took over there. Michael Gwynn was very good at working with her to turn some very niche, challenging design ideas into something practical which could be achieved in our home.
One of Owen’s wife’s interior design ideas was this Italian-imported Murano glass “window” in the basement sauna, backlit to create the illusion of an exterior window.
Were there any challenges you faced during the project?
A huge element of this project is that there are very few parallel walls.
The site is essentially squeezed into a corner between the buildings on either side. On the left, the whole wall is at a 15 degree angle, while on the right, various protrusions jut in from the neighbouring building, meaning each floor was a different shape.
I like this aspect of the building, I find that it makes it more interesting than a square or rectangular house and gives it character. But it made it incredibly complicated for us to get our heads around how each space would fit in such an odd shape and still look cohesive.
It sounds like a situation where having constraints forced you to be more creative than you might have been otherwise.
I think that’s true, certainly in architectural terms. As clients, we get to say, “I want to do this and that” but it’s the architects and builders who had to figure out how achieve it – and they did.
For example, one wall of the kitchen is at a 15 degree angle, so the units were precisely cut in such a way that they created the illusion of a parallel wall. Unless you look closely, you don’t notice the odd shape of the room.
As for the roof, I have no idea how they did it. In the end, they were cutting the pieces of wood by eye. If it fit, then it went in; if it didn’t, they’d cut it down until it did. Everything had to be crafted specifically for our home.
The stairwell was the biggest challenge. Each floor was a slightly different shape and ceiling height, which created an immense planning and engineering challenge.
The kitchen units on the left had to be precisely cut to hide the 15 degree angle of the wall behind it.
What advice do you have for people reading this who are considering a self build?
I’ve built a few other houses, but I had never done it the way DGA works, where everything down to each nut, bolt and screw is agreed in a contract ahead of time.
Usually, I would complete one stage of the project, then figure out what I wanted to do next. I made decisions as I went along, which is easier than trying to visualise everything on a page and a stripped out site, but it meant I would often have to go back over work that had already been completed.
It’s easier in that sense, but it’s much, much more disruptive, time consuming and expensive. Having all the details and costs decided in advance was far cheaper and quicker.
DGA and Galower Builders delivered a very complicated project on time, within budget and with very few changes from our initial design. I thought it was an amazing achievement.
So if you were to do another self build, you would go down the same route again?
I definitely would, though I’m not sure I’ve got the energy to do another one!
Finally, what are you enjoying most about the house since you’ve moved in?
While the outside has a traditional feel, the inside is bright and calm, almost like an art gallery – especially once we started hanging up our art collection. Every week we’ve been adding something new, slowly developing it and letting the house grow around us.
We keep discovering new quirks to its character. For example, because no walls are parallel, when you hang a mirror it doesn’t reflect what you expect it to. You get this odd, almost four-dimensional space. It’s fun.
Overall, the house is warm, it’s comfortable, everything is brand new and works. It’s a real family home, which we didn’t have for a long time.