© All pictures by Ian Pierce
Most of us can only dream of building our own house — where do you start? For architect Oliver Jackson, the answer, surprisingly, was Foxtons' website. Four years ago the estate agent was selling a humble Crouch End garage for £80,000. The building sat alongside a pavement but there was no opening for pedestrian street access, no dropped kerb even for the car — and no permission to build.
Jackson and his partners in young architectural practice AAVA wanted to build a house to show what they could do and, of course, hoped to make some money to feed into their business. So when they spotted the garage, they leapt into action.
'Lots of clever ideas in this little house increase the sense of elegance and size'
With a tiny plot only 10 metres by five, you're not going to build a palace. But what they jigsawed on to it is a great example of compact housing, and a lesson to all of us who haven't the vision to see the potential in a very unprepossessing plot.
Beyond the show-stopping black mirrored-steel gate (which, incidentally, all the neighbours appear to love), the two-storey house, with its dramatic picture window at first-floor level, has a little courtyard, a tiny balcony, two bedrooms, and a swish bathroom with a curved timber wall and a concealed door.
A large living space takes up the whole top floor, with lots of light coming in not only from the floor-to-ceiling picture window, but from a skylight directly over the dining area, which creates a strong focal point and a nice place for breakfast. Plus there's storage built into every nook and cranny, and there are lots of other space-saving tricks besides. "You will make more profit if you invest in good design," Jackson says.
But before you can do any of that, you need to get planning permission. "We put a little pre-application together, just a few sketches," says Jackson. "It was nothing too special, and we did it while the sale was going through. All the time, there was a risk it could fail. But the planner was very supportive, and didn't ask for any changes."
He adds: "If you can't put in a pre-app before purchase, then buy the land subject to planning permission. You will pay a bit more but you'll get the extra security. You won't get a mortgage to buy the land, but you can for the build."
Once planning was through, the house was designed in detail. "We were determined to have this built exactly as we designed it," Jackson explains. "Well-designed and well-crafted from start to finish.
"For a designer, the constraints of the site — things such as not overlooking the neighbours, or things the client specifically wants — are great. Constraints are fantastic at focusing design, otherwise, what would you do?" The build, including putting in the foundation, took about 10 months, and the design team did a lot of the work themselves.
"We built it upside down, with the bedrooms downstairs, cradled within the perimeter walls. The first floor has a great view towards a mature garden across the road, so we built the living area to look at that, with a huge sliding door that goes out to a little flat roof."
Attention to detail means that the roof area, while not a balcony, is nicely timbered, and plants can be put on it. Similarly, services such as drainpipes are concealed so as not to spoil the look of the house outside.
"An important thing is a controlled palette, ideally of three," Jackson says. "We used ThermoWood [baked pine cladding], white — including white Dulux paint, white rubber Dalsouple floors, white sanitary ware and a white kitchen — and walnut."
Lots of clever ideas in this little house increase the sense of elegance and size. Downstairs, when you come in from the small walled courtyard, the bathroom pod is used to divide the space into two bedrooms. Its curved wooden wall with concealed door is easier on the eye than a hard angle, making a feature. Inside the bathroom, there's a posh Duravit bath but the other fittings are from Bathstore, to save money.
These tips for mixing and matching, and making the very best of the space, go on throughout the house. The banister is recessed up the wall to reduce clutter, yet with an elegant walnut rail, and there's also a rope light dropped into it that can be switched on at night. That comes from high street store Ryness.
Similarly, the smart kitchen is built from Ikea units but with a solid timber top, and strip lights from Ryness. "They cost about £25 each and look fantastic," Jackson says. Each bedroom has a fitted wardrobe — from Ikea.
"We got a lot of interest as we were doing it," adds Jackson. One celebrity DJ tried to buy it. In the end they sold it for £495,000 — but they had taken a considerable risk. A 20 per cent profit probably isn't worth doing," he says. "But if the margin is more like 50 per cent, you can afford to take a longer view.
"The advantage of doing something like this is that the design is bespoke. You can get something beyond your expectations."
Jackson’s top 10 space-saving tips
* No skirtings, just have a shadow-gap between wall and floor
* Clean lines throughout
* All doors and windows floor-to-ceiling
* Recess lighting
* Recess handrail on the stairs
* Introduce sliding pocket doors
* Avoid projections into the space
* Top lighting and well-placed skylighting
* Concealed storage
* Use a simple palette of three main items: here the trio is ThermoWood (baked pine), white — for floors, ceilings, walls and sanitary ware — and walnut
What it cost and where it came from
Cost of plot: £80,000
Cost of build: £165,000
Cost of architect (estimate): £18,000
Rubber floors: dalsouple.com
White goods: bathstore.com
* The AJ Small Projects awards are run annually by The Architects' Journal, with the aim of finding the best architecture built on a budget of £250,000 or less. For more information visit www.theaj.co.uk