Young architects build brilliant little house on tight budget in Camden

Young architects David and Sophie were so broke they had to count every brick they bought. Formerly a tiny derelict plot with planning refusals, now it's a beautiful home worth three times the investment...

Young and broke, award-winning architects David Liddicoat and Sophie Goldhill had to count the number of bricks they could afford before they built their first home on a derelict plot in a street at the back of King’s Cross station.
 
“Sophie was the hod carrier — I just walked around with a clipboard,” says David, one half of the married architectural partnership, Liddicoat and Goldhill, about building their first home, a small and boxy black-brick house in Camden.
 

 
Although just friends at college, Sophie “roped David in” to build her parents’ conservatory in 2005. So began both partnership and marriage.
 
At just 35, these rising stars have worked hard to get where they are. When they met in 2003 at the Royal College of Art, doing an MA in architectural design, they were penniless but determined to complete the long training programme and then find a plot to build on.

Then, while they were working for big architectural practices, Sophie inherited £75,000, which lit the touchpaper to finding a building plot. “We were obsessive,” says David, “but in reality it was still so little money that we had to find something no one else wanted.”
 
A keen cyclist, he scoured London, looking over walls and checking the land registry. “We drove around with a big A-Z full of biro marks,” says Sophie.
 
At last, in a street behind King’s Cross station, they saw a dilapidated double gateway and, peering over it, a rotting single garage. They tracked down the owner, and found that two planning applications to build a house had been rejected, because the planners considered the site too small.
 
But that was a red rag to Sophie and David, who made an offer and bought the plot using all of Sophie’s inheritance at the end of 2006.
 
Although Sophie was sitting her final exams at the time, the couple spent every available minute doing drawings of what to build. “It was both exciting and scary,” Sophie says candidly. “Everything we had was in this horrible little plot with planning refusals on it.”
 
However, a neighbour offered them a tiny extra piece of land at the back of the plot for £20,000 — just enough to make a difference. They came up with a plan to build a semi-basement, plus an upper floor, in a boxy, flat-roofed house that was modest in height and sat well in the space.
 
Their budget was so tight that the house would be made entirely out of brick and timber, but with unusual detailing in marble and granite, to show the planners that they intended to make it high- quality and in keeping with the nearby houses, with plenty of glass.
 
“The planners liked the fact that we wanted to do something special — but we had so little money that we calculated the number of bricks,” says David. “We worked out how we could complete the build using just one truckload — 30,000 bricks — because we couldn’t afford two truckloads.”
 
Once they got planning permission, they started at the end of 2009. Then calamity struck: it was so cold that the bricklayer couldn’t lay bricks. The team restarted in April, and got the whole job done by winter.
 

1400-the-shadow-house-exterior.-credit-tom-gildon.jpg
Monochrome style: black bricks contrast with white and grey marble to give this north London home a modern and distinctive look. Image Tom Gildon

 
The house is fairly straightforward: a double skin of black, glazed Dutch bricks, with insulation inside. The lower floor holds one big main room with a fabulous picture window at the end and another window on the side. Its ceiling is of exposed, deep joists that enhance the sense of height.
 
All the floors are polished poured concrete with underfloor heating. Because the walls are exposed brick, the electrics are surface-mounted for an industrial look, which continues in the simple kitchen — made on-site by the joiner — which has light bulbs hanging down over the counter.
 
There’s a lavatory under the stairs, with the washing machine tucked in a cupboard behind it. The main bathroom, upstairs, has a small Japanese soak bath, and a striking ribbed glass wall. Light floods in from a wide band of glass that spans the roof. It’s a lovely, bold touch. More light comes from a big picture window in the master bedroom.
 
To decorate the front of the house, the couple used an exotically veined slab of white-and-grey marble, which was split and box-matched. It was a costly, bravura purchase, but every scrap was used for lining the windows, a little caddy for the loo roll, and even a chopping board. And the artistic gesture adds tremendous luxe.
 
Having done much of the work themselves and fallen in love with their new home, the couple, expecting their first child, knew they would have to sell up to create funds for their next step. But building this brilliant little house had taught them what you can do with ingenuity, guts and dedication — even when the planners think you can’t.

 
What it cost
Plot (+ extra bit) in 2006-7: £95,000
Build costs (no fees for architects or their labour): £210,000
Value now: £850,000-£930,000
 
Get the look

Photographs: Francesco Guidicini, Tom Gildon and Keith Collie
 


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