Lateral thinking: digging down in Crouch End
London is a crowded city, its suburbs spilling inexorably outwards into the countryside with many inhabitants crammed into homes that can barely contain them.
The idea of sourcing a spare piece of land large enough to build a perfect family house, and in a pricey postcode too, sounds fanciful to most hardened house hunters. But Miki and Miriam Lentin are living proof that if you have faith and are willing to put in the leg work, London will give up its secret spaces.
They were living in a "tiny" flat in Crouch End with their eldest daughter Arielle, now four, and had never entertained any grand design ambitions. "But as soon as we decided we wanted a second child we knew we couldn't stay where we were," said Miriam.
The couple began house hunting — a dispiriting experience because even with a budget of about £750,000 they could not afford a three-bedroom house in the area they had grown to love, let alone a four-bedroom property which would have set them back about £1 million.
During the hunt, they were introduced to architect Alan Crawford, who is the director of Crawford Partnership (crawfordpartnership.co.uk), by a local estate agent.
"He asked us whether we had thought about building and we started to think about it," said Miki, 38, who is head of communications at the British Library.
The couple looked at some of Crawford's previous builds and were caught up with his enthusiasm and vision, and then Miriam's sister mentioned that it was possible to check on the ownership of derelict houses and plots of land through the Land Registry's website (landregistry.gov.uk).
As the idea of a self-build began to take root they started walking the area searching for plots — slightly obsessively. "People said there wouldn't be any spare plots of land in Crouch End but in fact we found about eight," added Miriam, 38, who leads public consultation exercises into major developments and regeneration schemes.
The majority of the plots were garages, but they also found a couple of plots of land at the back of people's gardens or between houses, which were outside boundary fences and appeared derelict. They checked ownership details on the Land Registry before contacting the owners directly.
"We looked them up and wrote a really nice, really naive letter to all of the owners saying we were a young family and we wanted to build a house on their land." Seven of the letters went unanswered.
But one of the recipients, the owner of five semi-derelict lock-up garages on a street of fine Edwardian homes, got back to them. It took six months of haggling over price to persuade him to sell the 10 metre by 13 metre site, by which time Miriam was expecting a second daughter, Eden, now two.
They paid £325,000 for the plot, which already had planning consent for a bungalow to be built on it. So with their land in the bag they sold their flat, and in December 2010 moved in with Miriam's father and stepmother while their new house was built.
Building the bungalow already permitted on the site would have been useless. It was too small for their growing family — Eden was born the following January. And Haringey council was unwilling to allow them to build a two-storey building on the site. So Crawford suggested digging down, creating a three-bedroom house around an internal courtyard.
The plan — whilst more expensive than building above ground — meant they could squeeze 173 square metres of living space on to their modest site.
Planning consent was granted within eight weeks, with only one objection — perhaps because Miriam visited all the neighbours to discuss the proposals and believes the sight of a pregnant woman with toddler in tow probably helped win over hearts and minds.
The couple had assumed that work would start on their site in early 2011, but found that it took an "insanely" long time to go through the tendering process to find a builder.
They selected an outfit and work was finally scheduled to commence in May that year. Then, at the 11th hour, the firm added £40,000 to the quote. Not only did the couple not have the money but they were concerned that more cash could be added along the way. They reluctantly decided to cut their losses and start the process again.
They eventually hired a firm of builders on the recommendation of their quantity surveyors Leys Surveying (leyssurveyingltd.co.uk) and work began in September 2011 — by which time they had been living with their in-laws for 10 months.
Rocklawn Construction (020 8427 4035) was happily worth the wait, and brought the project in on budget — £400,000 — in seven and a half months with builder/client relations staying friendly to the end (and how many people can say that about their builders?). The house is built of traditional brick and block — and from the outside is an anonymous single-storey white block with a long narrow strip of window almost at roof level to maintain privacy. True, some passers-by have likened it to a dental surgery. But step inside and it becomes clear that building around an internal courtyard was a wise move. Not only does it provide outside space but it floods the ground-floor rooms — a large living area and kitchen, an en suite master bedroom and a study — with tons of light through large French windows.
The palette has been kept simple — white walls, tobacco stained wide oak floorboards, a sparkly white kitchen (set off with ochre tiles), and charcoal ceramic floor tiles in the atrium. Downstairs in the basement is the girls' domain, lit by a lightwell which also provides a second, smaller courtyard at basement level. The girls each have their own bedroom and share a large bathroom, and there is also a spacious utility room and understairs storage.
In purely financial terms the project, which cost a total of £725,000 has been a great success. Out of curiosity the couple had the house valued recently, at £1 million. "Not that it matters," said Miriam. "We are not going to sell it. We have got a house we have designed just for us."
Photographs by David Butler