Looking sharp: three young architects turn a rose-tangled patch of land into award-winning homes

Three young architects bought a triangular plot for their showpiece project. Working with the shape, they built award-winning homes that they loved too much to sell.
Visualise the story: around the millennium, three brilliant young women meet at Cambridge while studying architecture. Eight years later, fully qualified in their profession, they meet again in New York and decide to set up a London architecture practice. They call it vPPR, after their initials — Tatiana von Preussen, Catherine Pease and Jessica Reynolds.
 
It could be a film called The Three Architeers. But everyone in the audience would be given a set square, because the two houses the women built on an incredibly tight plot in Tufnell Park, north London, are a complex exercise in triangular geometry. The project, called Ott’s Yard, has won a RIBA London Regional award and two Ideal Homes Show Blue Ribbon awards, and is likely to win more.

INSIDE VIEW: TAKE A TOUR OF THE AWARD-WINNING HOMES 
 

Having set up vPPR in 2009 and built one residential project in a Marble Arch mews, the women, in their early thirties, were looking for a site to build a showpiece. The first plot they saw was difficult — triangular, completely enclosed by 23 houses, and accessed by a rotting gate and a long, overgrown path. It was owned by the widow of Max Ott, a furniture maker. There was a jumble of rickety little workrooms, and planning permission for a four-bedroom house. The rose-tangled, rather romantic patch of land went to auction.
 
“Planning permission was about to run out,” says Jessica. “It was August and everyone was on holiday. Catherine was in New York and Tatiana was bidding on the phone. Our limit was £333,000. We got it for £332,000.”
 
Next, they asked estate agents what locals liked, because they intended to sell whatever they built. With its Victorian terrace homes and good local shops, this part of north London is loved by couples and young families. The advice was to build two-bedroom homes with outside space, so that is what vPPR decided on. That meant going back to the planners with two homes, not one.
 
“The site, being so overlooked, was always going to be political,” says Tatiana, “so from the start we had the neighbours round for drinks and kept them informed at every step. It helped that we weren’t hard-nosed developers.”
 
They decided to respond to the site’s shape at every level, using a triangle motif not only for the floorplan of the houses, but also for the two gardens and central courtyard. Everything is a long, right-angled triangle. And that’s just for starters. The sedum roofs, deeper than normal so bulbs can be grown on them, have a rigorous triangular planting scheme by award-winning garden designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd, a family friend of Tatiana.
 
Inside the two triangular houses, which have layouts that mirror each other, the architects continued the triangle motif on the grey ceramic flooring downstairs, the engineered oak flooring of the generous mezzanines, the tiles in the kitchens and bathrooms, and the big rooflights that shift a dramatic, pointed patch of sun round the white walls like a sundial. A triangular folly, you might say — but a very desirable one: two modernist sandwiches slightly overlapping on a green plate.
 
They had looked at using prefabricated elements, but that meant getting 23 permissions for overflying. Their engineer suggested a timber structure clad in brick, which they went for, choosing a striking purplish brick, made in England, which they also used for the courtyard paving.
 
“We didn’t go over the top with finishes,” says Catherine. “It is all about space and light and geometry. But we did spend money on important things like the flooring and worktops.” When they found out how expensive it is to get triangular floor tiles, their contractor cut oblong ones in half, then the builders had a lot of headaches laying their complex pattern.
 
Upstairs, the oak boards, also in a triangular grid, took three weeks instead of the planned two days to lay. “They almost killed us,” Tatiana laughs. “Yet when it was all done, our builders were so proud of their beautiful work that they bought samosas, to celebrate.”
 
These houses are stunning — and that in itself created a new problem. As the homes neared completion, Catherine and Tatiana realised they wanted to keep them. But who would have which house? Each secretly conferred with Jessica, and each, in the end, got the one they wanted. Now they need to build another showcase and a house for Jessica, whose friends suggest she puts a triangular tarpaulin over the courtyard and moves in there.
 
The practice enjoys the challenge of tricky plots, particularly of infill sites such as this, which can be a perfect housing solution in London. They are keen to build more houses, and to become involved in more ambitious projects.
 
“We always fight about design,” Jessica adds, “and that always ends up in something better.”
 
GET THE LOOK
  • Contractor: Varbud at varbud.co.uk
  • Triangular ceramic tiles in kitchen and bathroom: from Focus Ceramics at focusceramics.com
  • Grey ceramic slate-look floor tiles (cut on the diagonal by contractor): from Focus Ceramics, as before
  • Garden designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd at arabellalennoxboyd.com
  • Furniture: from Viaduct at viaduct.co.uk
  • Engineered white oak floorboards: from Cathedral Flooring at cathedralflooring.co.uk
  • Bricks (dark facings with matching pavers): from Freshfield Lane at mbhplc.co.uk
  • Bathroom white goods: from Ideal Bathroom’s David Chipperfield range at ideal-standard.co.uk
 
What it cost: Ott’s Yard was bought for £332,000 in 2009.
Cost of works: £690,000.
Total project cost: £1.22 million.
Estimated value of each house now: £1 million-plus.
Visit vPPR architects: at vppr.co.uk
 
Photographs: David Butler

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