Building a house round a huge, protected pear tree planted in 1885, before the Boer War, when Gladstone was prime minister, on land heaped with six feet of rubbish and bought with no planning permission, is not for the faint-hearted. Particularly when that land, once a Victorian market garden, is contaminated with arsenic — an ingredient of weedkiller during that era.
But architect Jake Edgley, 44, and his wife Katherine, relish a challenge, and Jake says that difficulty creates the best design. However, while building their award-winning 4,500sq ft concrete-and-timber house near Peckham, they sometimes wondered if they gone mad, particularly when Jake was living in a caravan, albeit briefly, and when the money ran out. “Sometimes,” Katherine says drily, “I thought, it must be easier just to buy a house.”
Those natural stresses fell away in 2015 when they settled in, two and a half years after starting works. On a north-south axis, the long house is composed of a pair of two-storey volumes, almost two little houses, connected by a bridge courtyard, which has a wide, glazed cloister running down one side.
Magnificent in the courtyard spreads the 130-year-old tree, its ancient roots happy, since the courtyard slabs curve above ground-level, and rain filters easily between them, while squirrels frolic beneath its branches.
Each of the two living volumes is made of cast concrete below with timber above, and each has a wide wood-and-glass stair, with a bespoke brass handrail.
In the southern house, the vast kitchen-living room leads out to the long garden. An opening glass wall allows wonderful views to the garden of wavy-edged lawn spurting with red-hot pokers, agapanthus, and many now-mature trees, which the couple sensibly planted before the build started.
Inside, concrete walls are offset by a brass-topped kitchen island that gleams like gold. Upstairs are two bedrooms and bathroom for guests, where family or friends stay. Big picture windows look over the garden, while vents can be opened to create air flow.
The family quarters are on the south side. There’s another big family room, which can be divided if required, while the children’s bedrooms are upstairs — for Sadie, seven, five-year-old Leila, and Finn, 18 months. The master bedroom is here, too, simply done, in timber and warm-tinted concrete, with a gorgeous en suite bathroom that has a shower boxed in wood. Floors downstairs are polished concrete, upstairs, they’re grey-green linoleum. The curtains are felt, which adds warmth and sound-proofing.
Jake demonstrates the laundry chute he designed — which of course, the children adore: “Simple things like this give pleasure on a daily basis,” he says.
The east-west flanks of this long house have no windows, so that neighbours aren’t overlooked — and can’t overlook, either. Yet the house is full of light, a vital thing on Katherine’s wish list.
Katherine and Jake’s families had known each other in Salisbury, where they both grew up, since Katherine was seven, but when she was 23, a recent English graduate living in London, she shared a flat with Jake’s sister, and so met the man. They fell in love and moved into a flat in Hackney, then Jake built them a tiny house in Islington.
When they’d had their two daughters, they looked for the next step. Jake is a perfectionist and examined 400 sites over three years. He used an auction website, and when he saw the market garden, he went to view. He couldn’t believe how beautiful and secluded it was, despite the waste chucked on it over the years. But he also knew he might never get permission to build a house there. Even so he went to the auction — and lost it. Three months later, that buyer failed to complete, so Jake snapped it up “and just accepted I might never be able to build on it,” he says.
The site was overgrown with trees, including little seedlings, but Southwark council put a tree protection order on every single one. “I negotiated with the tree officer for a year over which we could remove,” he says. In the end they cut down 70, keeping the key ones.
Then began the struggle for planning permission, in which there would be 80 local objections. Jake’s first idea of a long house punctuated with courtyards, wiggling down the site, was simplified into two volumes with one courtyard. He took it to the planners, and it was thrown out a couple of times. Eventually, at committee, the design was thrown out again, but an observer — who was a planning consultant — offered help to appeal. This time, the Edgleys won. Now that the house is built, the neighbours are happy.
This was a self-build, saving money all the way, working with craftspeople to achieve all the lovely, ecological, carefully done finishes, and to solve problems. When work began there were 40 lorry loads of rubbish to clear, and many other hurdles to overcome.
But this house is a tribute to common sense; to energy-saving, modest materials such as timber, concrete, slate, and brass, and to creating something beautiful and lyrical that will last another 200 years, and house many happy families.
Cost of build: £950,000, excluding architect’s and contractor’s fees
Value now: £3,175,000 (estimate)
FIVE CLEVER IDEAS
1. Search for sites via the Essential Information Group.
2. Make your own dazzling kitchen work surface with brass sheet over plywood. You’ll need expert help to fit the brass, though.
3. A new breed of LED light bulbs look as good as the old-fashioned ones. Find them at companies such as Everything LED.
4. Planting trees before a build means you have a head start on creating a garden, not a bombsite, to look at once the build is done.
5. Buy Ikea wardrobes, cut off the feet and paint the fronts.
GET THE LOOK
- Architect: Jake Edgley
- Staircase and all other interior design: by Edgley (as above)
- Most joinery: by Edgley (as before)
- Freelance builder: Samir Akhtar at Silverwood
- Extra craftspeople: from New House Construction via Robert Sawicki
- Calex clear-filament LED light bulbs: from Ryness
- Marmoleum flooring: from Forbo
- Sliding windows: from Fineline
- Tree surgery: by Wassells
- Garden planting: by Helen Robson at Gardenia Gardens