Geometric genius: from £90k builder's yard to £550,000-bachelor pad in East London

Tom Gildon spotted an advert for an East End scrapyard for sale for £90,000 and transformed it into a contemporary courtyard house with four gardens - now worth £550,000.
Take one builder’s yard heaving with 20 skipfuls of rusting fridges, old gas canisters and a dead fox. Buy the builder’s yard without planning permission, add visionary young architecture practice Dallas Pierce Quintero (DPQ) and Bob’s your uncle.
 
Two years later, you’ve got a light, slightly Scandinavian-style modern house with four courtyard gardens, just five minutes’ walk from the Overground in the rapidly gentrifying, yet still affordable, borough of Newham, E7.
 
The good news is that many backlands or brownfield developments such as this will soon qualify for automatic planning for homes, under proposed new regulations.
 

Tom Gildon, who works in the photography industry, was living in possibly Britain’s most famous council block — the brutalist Trellick Tower in Ladbroke Grove, west London, designed by Ernö Goldfinger. But Gildon wanted to build his own home.
 
So he started his search, stumbled across the advert for the builder’s yard in E7 and went along with his architects to see what it looked like. What they saw was a narrow, deep sliver of land hemmed in tight by seven neighbours. It had once been part of the builder’s garden. At the back, where it widened out a bit, there was a shed with a high-pitch roof, full of more rubbish.
 
Getting the go-ahead
While it’s a good idea to have preliminary chats with the planners, it won’t guarantee that you’ll get permission. Nevertheless, the architects were pretty sure they could get the go-ahead, and made some quick sketches that convinced Gildon to buy the plot for £90,000 in February 2013.
 
Once the site was cleared and the shed demolished, the long, thin triangle looked more promising. And, because the boundary on both sides had high walls, Gildon could build right up to them, but he wanted some outdoor space, too.
 
“In fact,” says David Pierce of DPQ, “Tom produced a five-page document of what he wanted, with a Pinterest board of 400 images, showing furniture styles as well. It was really useful.”
 
Based on this, the architects created lots of sketches of an open-plan L-shaped home, with a bespoke run of Douglas fir stairs at the far end, a bedroom and a little en suite bathroom. After months of preparation, they went to the planners. Despite one objection, the application went through.
 
Being neighbourly was important to Gildon, so when work started in June last year, the builders went round and said hello to everyone, and all the neighbours were soon on good terms.
 
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Space-saving: the architects dispensed with hallways and corridors to create an L-shaped home with bespoke Douglas fir stairs
 
The thoughtful design uses this long plot brilliantly. To reduce the sense of length, the space comes in sections — there’s a tiny front yard, then a small studio, then a garden, then the main house, which has a further two little courtyards off it. It is geometric genius, and the neighbours now have an attractive, gentle, modern house to look at, rather than a grotty yard and shed. Everyone wins.
 
From the moment you walk through the front gates into the yard, the experience is magical. Facing you is a blank wall of stylish black bricks, undulating cement board and some more, angled, black bricks that create an unusual geometric surface with a gate at the side that leads to Gildon’s studio, with a library and desk for working at home.
 
This looks on to the big surprise — the main courtyard garden, a herb-filled, paved sanctuary, flanked by the high walls to the left and right. Beyond this quiet and fragrant retreat is the glass door to the main house.
 
Four outside spaces
The architects dispensed with all the things that waste space — halls and corridors. So you walk straight into the kitchen area. There’s a long central unit and a side-sweep of kitchen, all from Ikea, but with bespoke surfaces.
 
The whole space has grey poured resin floors. The deep ceiling joists have been left exposed, oiled pale white. Immaculately done, they make an attractive pattern that, along with huge square windows, white walls and mid-century furniture, reinforces the Scandinavian look.
 
There is a small bathroom, a space that can be curtained off as a spare bedroom, and even cupboards under the stairs. What you are not prepared for is that the living area has not one, but two further courtyards off it. One is a small triangle, viewed through a picture window, with a specimen olive tree. The other, at the back, features a paved courtyard for dining or barbecues, reached through French doors.
 
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Great work: architect David Pierce at work in the house he designed

By deciding not to build right up to the boundary walls, Gildon has the incalculable benefit of four very different outside spaces — and lots of light. He has also gained a fantastic house of about 1,200sq ft that many of us would fight over.
 
You may need vision, luck, pluck and some cash up front to transform a scrapyard, but for those who take such a plunge, it’s a rewarding journey.
 
What it cost
Land without planning consent: £90,000 in 2013
Costs, including architects’ fees: £320,000
Value now: £550,000
 
Awards
The Courtyard House has won the RIBA London regional award 2015, and New London Awards’ housing award 2015.
 

Get the look
  • Architects: Jon Dallas, David Pierce and Juliet Quintero of DPQ
  • Builder: Brookes Contracting
  • Grey resin floor by Creation Flooring
  • Hexagonal tiles in bathroom in Chorus SP C77 Matt by Strata
  • Profiled black cement board by Cembrit
  • Staffordshire blue bricks, both regular and shaped (Umbra Sawtooth), by Ibstock
  • Kitchen units by Ikea with laminated plywood worktops by Baldwin Plastic Laminates
  • Douglas fir staircase by builder (see above)
  • Timber joists finished in Osmo Wood Wax Finish Creativ: 3172 Silk
  • Krusin lounge chairs from Knoll
  • LED lights in Spotnic 2 3033 from Delta Light
  • Windows by Velfac
  • Bathware from Duravit
  • Steelwood bar stool by Magis

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