Dream of building your dream home from scratch? This couple built three.

Young architects Jessica and Robert Barker searched for years for the right London plot at the right price to build three stunning mews homes.
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Crunch down the long, pebbled drive lined by 20 young espaliered fruit trees towards architects Jessica and Robert Barker’s new home,and it sounds like being on a beach — but this is Forest Hill, off a peaceful street of Victorian cottages. Forest Hill is gentrifying at last, but knowing that doesn’t prepare you for the bold brick pillars bearing young climbing clematis, jasmine, grape and hop vines that greet you.

The long drive opens out to a group of three houses set round a sunny, triangular central yard. The yard is criss-crossed by 30cm-wide bands of grass, while the houses, clad in yellow brick interspersed with big, folding aluminium windows, are also criss-crossed, by bands of strong wire mesh up which plants rocket. Between the houses, tall pillars hold up flat entablatures to give a Roman feel.


But if Robert, 40, and Jessica, 35, hadn’t persevered for years to find a corner of London to build on, they would never have come across the neglected plot hidden down a long path reached by a rusty gate, and Forest Mews would not be here.

In 2008, they were living in Highbury and Islington, looking for somewhere to build. “We mainly looked at auction sites, and registered with a couple of agents.” They had lost hope, when an agent showed them a site in Forest Hill, Lewisham, a part of town they didn’t know. “It wasn’t for us, but we thought maybe we’d just buy a house here, and put an extension on the back,” says Jessica. Since they had come all that way, they walked around a bit. Prices were reasonable — yet they didn’t buy, and went back to work at their separate companies.


Same, but different: each house, with its own courtyard, is unique - yet all share a common theme
In autumn 2010, the Forest Hill agent sent them another advert. What they found at the end of the overgrown drive was a decaying one-bedroom Victorian building with rising damp, a “load of Victorian garages held up on Acrowbn props”, an ancient gas mains mounted on an external wall... and the still unknown promise of 32 party wall agreements. Robert’s eyes gleam. “We loved it. It had so much potential.”

They got the plot for less than the £500,000 asking price. From that second, they were busy designing. They had been thinking about it so long that ideas tumbled out. The site itself determined the basic design. “The inspiration came from ivy clambering over dead trees, which made beautiful patterns,” says Jessica. “We asked each other, can we turn that into buildings?” They did. They also wanted lots of light, privacy, and views. 

In February 2011 they got planning permission in just four weeks. But with all those party wall agreements, endless tenders, and the fact that both were working, building couldn’t start until August 2012. “We got married three days before our first site meeting,” says Jessica. “Immediately after we married, the builders demolished everything we owned.” Then, the 18-month build was complicated by a winter so cold and wet that antifreeze had to be added to the mortar. But once the foundations were done, things went faster.


Happy home: Robert and Jessica live in one of the three homes and will rent the other two out. Theirs is filled with bright and funky decor
Each three-bedroom, two-bathroom house is different, but on a common theme. Each is horseshoe-shaped, enclosing its own little courtyard, and pin-sharp-modern, with white walls, a “stone carpet” floor downstairs that flows outside, and poured resin upstairs. Crisp details are everywhere, from Häfele door handles to bright, lacquerlike back-painted glass in bathrooms. In Jessica and Robert’s own house, they splashed out on a “happy red” triangular bathroom with red Krion walls — similar to Corian — and designed a triangular bathtub. The soft grey kitchen was specially made in MDF and its whole back wall mirrored, bouncing light from the floor-to-ceiling living room windows. The couple’s contractor and joiner clearly rose to the challenge, lining cupboards with cedar wood, making pocket doors align perfectly across acute angles — even making tricky circular loo-roll pockets in the red Krion.

The couple moved in on Valentine’s Day. “We do this all the time for other people,” says Jessica, “but we didn’t appreciate the emotional involvement of doing your own building. We fell in love with the houses, and don’t want to give them up. It makes me understand our clients so much more.” Robert adds: “It’s the most exciting thing we’ve done together so far, and it’s very addictive.”

What the project cost
Plot in 2010: less than £500,000
Cost of entire build: just under £1 million (excluding architects’ fees)
Value now: not known, as the couple plan to rent, not sell, the other two homes

Jessica and Robert Barker’s little black book
Architects: Jessica and Robert Barker at www.forestmews.co.uk
Contractor and joiner: www.johnperkinsprojects.co.uk
Wire panels for plants: made by www.dyersmetalmesh.co.uk
Plants: mainly supplied by www.shannonsgardencentre.co.uk
Red Krion: made by www.porcelanosa.com
Undermount stainless steel kitchen sink: by www.franke.com
Resin-bound stone flooring downstairs and outside: by www.resinsolutions. co.uk
Yellow Dutch bricks: by www.weineberger.co.uk
Triple-glazed aluminium windows: by Olsen at www.olsenuk.com
Chair One: by Konstantin Grcic, in living room, from www.magisdesign.com
Spun chairs in courtyard: by www.magisdesign.com

Forest Mews featured in the Open House London weekend.


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