Building your own home:Londoners turn disused Hackney car park at the end of their garden into an ultra-modern eco home

Rob Harrison went to work and came home to find his girlfriend had bought the plot of land - used as a car park - at the end of their garden. 

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Down an easily missed narrow turning in Hackney, Susi Wilkinson and her husband, Rob Harrison, have built a fine three-bedroom, larch-clad house on what has got to be one of the most difficult plots around.

Big, light and bright, with soaring roof spaces and an enormous open-plan ground floor, this delightful home started life as an disused old car park space. Holding just four cars, the car park’s only virtue was that it was bang at the end of Susi’s garden.

In 2012, Susi, 42, a university lecturer in animation, and Rob, then her boyfriend, were living in a two-bedroom garden flat in a big old Victorian terrace house divided into four. When the car park’s owner had an application to build two three-storey houses on it rejected, Susi and her neighbours decided to buy the tiny bit of land between them, for an allotment.

But the price was too high for everyone for just growing veg, so Susi decided to buy it and build her own house, something she’d always dreamed of doing. After checking that her neighbours were okay with that, she made her offer.

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Wild about wood: this ecologically sound house is larch clad (Michelle Beatty)

CALCULATED RISK

The only indication she had that she might get planning consent was an email from the local planner saying a low-rise home, perhaps a storey and a half high, might be all right. This condition was to reduce overlooking, as the site is hemmed in by neighbours. So Susi took a risk, though it was a calculated one, because there are three other modest, timber-clad dwellings down the turning.

“Rob went to work that morning thinking we might buy a quarter of an allotment,” she says. “When he got home I’d bought the plot on behalf of both of us and I was busy designing our new home.” Rob, though, is unflappable. “I put the kettle on,” he says.

The couple, self-confessed TV house programme addicts and aficionados of Open House London architecture and design festival, knew what they wanted: a light, open, ecologically sound house using plenty of timber. They hired a freelance architect to draw up plans.

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From the bottom up: the parquet flooring went down first — “we based everything around that” — then the bespoke oak kitchen was installed. The stairway has storage beneath (Michelle Beatty)

THE PLAN

First, they explored digging a full basement, but it was cripplingly expensive, so they looked at only going down three feet or so, which was much cheaper. Then their architect got a full-time job, so they looked for another.

During Open House visits, they’d admired a house that belonged to architect Stephen Blowers. They made contact, and Blowers sent architect Mark Barnard round. “We got on instantly,” says Susi. “Mark is very patient, did lots of mood boards, and spent a lot of time going to and from the planners.”

There was plenty of discussion, which proved beneficial. One neighbour objected to a proposed roof line, so they pared it right back and substituted a long pane of glass. This sun-inducing feature is a vast improvement.

“And I drove Rob and Mark mad over the stairs,” Susi laughs. “Folded metal; open treads…” Eventually, they settled on a beautiful solid oak stair and handrail with storage beneath and Rob’s library built up one side. This is ideal. It’s well-built, easy on the eye and as a bonus, it softens noise.

It took eight months for the planners to agree everything, but eventually the couple broke ground in August 2014, and the build began the following January.

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Low rise: the house is a storey and a half, to satisfy planners (Michelle Beatty)

THE BUILD

After excavation and foundation work, a steel frame went up in June of that year, just as baby Spike was born. “We came back from hospital with Spike, and I wished it was finished,” Rob says. But they kept their old flat until December 2015, when they sold it, retaining some garden for the new house. They then rented.

The build took until May last year and the couple moved in during that month, when their house was still really something of a building site, with concrete floors and no kitchen. However, all the windows were in and there was a bedroom and bathroom.

Bit by bit, their new home took shape. In the huge open-plan ground floor, the parquet flooring went down, then a bespoke oak kitchen was installed. “We started with the parquet and based everything round that,” Susi says. Even though this huge living room is sunk down more than three feet, you just don’t realise it, and the house is really warm from underfloor heating that’s managed by an air-source heat pump.

Up the oak staircase are three bedrooms, one to be used as a study with a terrific view through glass along back gardens. Susi and Rob elected to leave all the roof pitches open to the eaves, so instead of a loft, there are wonderful soaring spaces.

To one side of the house there’s a studio with its own bathroom and kitchenette. Although not yet finished — for this house is still a work in progress — this space works for guests, or could be let.

This extensive, tricky build hit hold-ups and snags. Getting a specialist loan to build took longer than expected, as did planning consent. Baby Spike came along, and the windows were delivered late.

But stuff like that’s all par for the course, and the result shows how a gamble and bravery can turn a dismal scrap of Tarmac car park into a 1,450sq ft family home.

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Spike makes three: Susi, Rob and son at their home on an old Hackney car park (David Butler)

WHAT IT COST

Susi and Rob’s flat sold, 2015: £580k

Cost of car park plot: £85,000

Total spend: £500,000

House now worth: £1.4 million (estimate)

GET THE LOOK

 


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