We built our house in south London for just £370,000

A strict budget inspired this couple to turn three garages into their stylish new home.
Two years ago, if anyone had said they could build a modernist house with two courtyards, fully furnished, for less than £400,000 including the land in London, you would have laughed. But architect Stephen Blowers and his Swedish wife, Cecilia, did exactly that.

“I became an architect almost by accident,” says Stephen, 44. “I started out doing electrical engineering, but I hated it. But unlike so many architects, I’d never had this thing about building my own house.”
In 2008 Stephen was an associate director at the big architecture practice, Dyer, in the capital. One Monday, while he was taking a day off for his birthday, Cecilia joined the company. She didn’t enjoy her first day and vowed to leave the next morning. On Tuesday Stephen came back - and their lives changed.
Stephen was living in a bachelor flat, saving money but not sure what to do with it. While visiting a relative who lived near him in Dulwich, he had already spotted - and gone on to buy - a small, hemmed-in plot with three garages, a bit of garden and consent for a house. He paid £140,000, and prepared sketches of a mini-villa.
“I went round in circles,” he says.  “I had lots of dramatic ideas. Then suddenly I realised I wanted the house to be invisible from the street - as much like a garden wall as possible.”
The design fell into place from there. Imagine a one-storey, square, brick building. Slice it down the middle, then slide the two rectangles halfway along each other. Then place that shape inside a rectangle, making a walled courtyard at each end. This simple geometric idea is ingenious. Both courtyards are accessed by glass doors from the house, so that all the rooms are light and fresh.
The planners were wary because the site was sensitive with the neighbours, but when they saw Stephen’s unobtrusive, flat-roofed design, which doesn’t overlook anybody, they waved it through.
Next, the couple raised funding with a mix of savings, remortgaging Stephen’s flat, and a self-build mortgage. Their total budget was £230,000 - with no room for manoeuvre.
In 2011 Stephen set up his own practice, Design Cubed, with fellow architect Mark Barnard, and married Cecilia. The couple got their first tender for the Dulwich property while waiting at Dover for the ferry, at the start of their honeymoon.
Cecilia wanted Stephen’s design to be a bit more practical. “I wanted a separate entrance hall,” she says - she didn’t get one. “And I wanted a separate utility area, which a house in Sweden will always have.” She did get that. Also, because she was worried that the kitchen and hall areas would merge, she suggested running a rooflight along what is now the hall, which cleverly suggests a different area in the open-plan space.
This little house of just over 1,200 square feet feels much bigger because every inch is put to work. There are two bedrooms, and two bathrooms kitted out in soft donkey-grey porcelain tiles with Duravit white goods. There is a big sitting area, separated from the kitchen-diner by a half-height wall, a sweet little office with its own glass door to the courtyard, and a lot of storage.
Everywhere, savings have been made. “Our main supplier was eBay,” Cecilia laughs. For the oak flooring throughout, Stephen went to Junckers and bought all its offcuts. The couple used them intelligently, putting the varnished bits in the high-traffic kitchen. Constraint really can lead to improvement.
Their biggest success began as a failure. They lost their contractor to bankruptcy. Facing calamity, Stephen got in a builder, Keith Elliot, and project-managed himself. He cannot speak highly enough of Keith, who rose to many challenges, including knocking up the expensive-looking kitchen island from studwork and MDF. He built the roof, too. Working together like this, Stephen was able to modify ideas as he and Keith went along.
Among other smart ideas, all the interior doors were made in Cecilia’s home village, Kungsäter, in Sweden: “Some of my classmates still work there,” she says. Next, the local café took pity on the couple and gave them an old fridge, but when the door fell off once too often they went on eBay and got a spanking new one for half price. All the kitchen cupboards and low-level sitting room cupboards are from Ikea with nice tops put on them - some made from leftover flooring.
Just to throw in a few extra tricks, this gorgeous, stylish house that you scarcely notice from the street has a heat-exchange pump, whole-house ventilation with heat recovery and excellent insulation, so total energy bills are about £850 a year. 
Stephen and Cecilia are rightly proud of their achievement. “What I really enjoy,” Stephen says, “is that people come in and can’t believe we built the whole thing on such a tight budget.” Outdoors-loving Cecilia, meanwhile, loves opening all the courtyard doors and feeling she’s left the city far behind.
Land (bought 2006): £140,000
Building and furnishings: £230,000
Value now: estimated at £1 million-plus
  • Architect Stephen Blowers and interior designer Cecilia Blowers: design-cubed.co.uk
  • Builder Keith Elliot: 07881 595750
  • Internal doors: Dooria Doors, Sweden (dooria.se)
  • Bifold door: expressbifoldingdoors.co.uk
  • Sustainable hardwood decking: Roundwood of Mayfield (roundwood.com)
  • Internal oak flooring: junckers.com
  • Porcelain floor and wall tiles: domustiles.co.uk
  • Sanitaryware: cphart.co.uk and duravit.co.uk
  • Pendant lights over kitchen island: Original BTC (originalbtc.com)
Photographs: Simon Maxwell

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