Meet the 'accidental self-builders' who transformed a Brockley junkyard: traditional-with-a-twist façade conceals an ultra-modern secret

Self-built on a bomb site, a period-style house with a contemporary secret sits beautifully in a Victorian street in SE4.

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Sherlock Holmes, paying a visit to the home of Rebecca and Richard Elliot, would instantly deduce that all is not what it seems. For a start there is the cornicing above the front door of the well-tended Victorian semi. The other houses on the street have a floral motif; the Elliots have a design featuring a white horse and a fern.

Then there is the stained glass in the door, depicting a surprisingly modern scene of the neighbourhood, Brockley, in south-east London, with the skyline of the City in the background.

Most telling of all is the year brick embedded into the front wall. While the rest of the street dates from about 1880, the date inscribed on the front of this couple’s home reads 2015.

This period-looking house is in fact a new build, and its traditional-with-a-twist façade conceals an entirely modern interior created by a pair of accidental self-builders, who decided to create their own home after failing to find a house they liked enough and could afford.

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Generous living room: big modern pendant chandeliers and a suspended bookcase work to divide the space and keep things cosy, not cavernous ( Simon Kennedy)

Richard found the site in 2013, when he and Rebecca, now both 36, had been dating only a few months. She was renting a flat in Earlsfield while he lived in Brockley, in his two-bedroom flat.

“I had been feeling that it was time to move on, and I started looking around for a house,” says Richard. “But I didn’t see anything very nice, and everything was overpriced, so I started to look at sites instead.” The small plot of land he eventually settled on was a bomb site — quite literally.

The first steps

It once held one half of a pair of Victorian semi-detached houses but was badly damaged during the Blitz. In the Fifties a small and rather ugly house had been built to replace it, and in 2008 a property developer drew up plans for something bigger. The developer went as far as getting planning permission and demolishing the Fifties house, but never got as far as rebuilding.

Which meant that by the time Richard paid £350,000 including stamp duty for the site in July 2013, it contained nothing more than 91 tyres, a broken television, and an awful lot of buddleia. To fund the build, Richard, who works for a City bank, sold his flat in 2014. He and Rebecca moved into a rented flat next door to the site so they could be on hand during construction.

The couple hired a local architectural practice, Gruff Ltd, to draw up their plans, with a brief that was less about how they wanted their house to look — more about how they wanted to live.

“They told us the design was their job,” says Rebecca. “What they wanted from us was to know how we lived. For example, the morning light wakes Richard so we wanted a west-facing bedroom, and we prefer showers to baths. And we enjoy cooking.”

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Blending in: a period-style façade fits well with the house’s Victorian neighbours ( Simon Kennedy)

The couple didn’t even specify how many bedrooms they wanted, although with just over 2,500sq ft to play with they ended up with five. At the point when they were discussing their design they were still just dating and the fact that the house could end up as their family home was the elephant in the room.

The decision to recreate a period façade came about partly because they felt a more modern edifice would look peculiar attached to its Victorian neighbour, and partly through expediency. “We didn’t want to have a massive battle with the planners,” says Rebecca, a Local Government Association policy expert.

Getting planning permission 

To try to ensure a smooth run for their planning application, they discussed their ideas with the local council before submitting it. They also invited representatives of the Brockley Society, along with the author of local blog BrockleyCentral and their neighbours, to Gruff’s offices to run through the plans.

These efforts worked. Planning permission was granted in March 2014. Richard and Rebecca got engaged that summer, and work on clearing the site began in the October. The couple hoped the build would take a year, but it quickly became clear they were being overly optimistic. The house ended up taking almost twice that, and the delays began right at the start of the project with the groundworks.

Their builders, Silverpoint Design & Construction had to dig down more than 8ft to find firm footings for the concrete foundations, and the house didn’t start coming out of the ground until March 2015. Richard and Rebecca married two months later.

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The surprise out back: the rear of the property has a wonderfully modern twist ( Simon Kennedy)

They finally moved into their house last summer, and work continued around them until September. “When we first moved in we just had an outside tap and one working toilet,” says Richard.

Given the scale of the house it is not particularly surprising that the budget was a hefty £800,000. Add to that the price of the site and the property cost the couple £1.15 million. But self-building does tend to create some uplift — the house is now valued at £1.7 million.

For the Elliots, the most fun part of their project was designing the personal flourishes alongside interior designer Laura Stephens. The cornicing over their door represents White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire, close to where Richard was brought up, and the fern is a symbol of New Zealand, in honour of Rebecca’s birthplace. The stained-glass scene of Brockley in the front door, which they commissioned from a local artist, features the church where they married.

Creating a statement staircase

The interior of the house is designed around the central oak staircase, which twists upward in an echoing triple-height void space. From the ground-floor entrance hall it is possible to look up right to the skylight in the roof.

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Main feature: from the ground floor you can see up three floors to the roof skylight (Simon Kennedy)

The palette is absolutely simple, with white walls and plenty of dark grey, from the internal doors to the poured resin kitchen floor. The staircase is very much the big design statement of the house. On one half landing there is a neat study area, a window seat occupies another, while the flight from ground to first floor is double width and conceals storage draws built into the treads.

The kitchen is by Scandinavian firm Svane, a high street name in Denmark and known for its excellent quality and value. The fact that it arrived with assembly instructions in Danish was a minor hitch, and the couple are delighted with the simple white gloss units and section of solid ash drawers.

To make the living room feel cosy rather than cavernous, the Elliots installed two huge and rather fabulous pendant lights, and Gruff designed a suspended bookcase which reaches from the ceiling to shoulder height and helps divide the room into two sections. 

Most Londoners complain about a lack of space but when it came to decorating this house, Rebecca found that the biggest challenge was filling large rooms. “I had only ever lived in flats and I had lots of stuff but none of it was on the right scale,” she says.


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