Architect Alex Michaelis loves the colour white, as three trademark minimalist houses he has created on a former motor mechanics’ yard in Notting Hill show. But he prefers to talk about green: green design, green living, green politics.
Michaelis, 44, came to prominence as the architect David Cameron chose to mastermind the eco makeover of his four-bedroom 19th century home in Oxford Gardens, Notting Hill.
However, this project was later overshadowed by the much photographed low-energy underground home nearby that Michaelis built for his family.
Michaelis was born and bred in Notting Hill (his father was an architect, too), and nobody knows the local patch better than him. He is an environmental evangelist determined to convince sceptical buyers that green homes can be glamorous and affordable, stylish as well as functional, cheap to run and satisfying to live in.
During the banking boom, he was busiest doing white and minimalist refurbishments for hedge fund managers. He also transformed commercial premises into fashionable venues such as the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road and the Cowshed Spa in Portland Road, the address of his latest project. Sitting within a gated courtyard, the three modern, low-rise houses have a crisp, white-rendered exterior and glitter with eco features.
Geo-thermal bore holes drilled deep below the properties and rooftop solar panels give an entirely carbon-neutral central heating system. Grey water harvesting recycles bath and other water, while each house is super-insulated. Standards are three times better than building regulations. Even plug-in sockets for electric cars have been provided. But these homes do not look “experimental”.
Michaelis’s inspiration is the sleek, restrained look of Modernist master Le Corbusier. Ranging up to 3,000sq ft, the houses have a bright open-plan kitchen and living area at ground level with bedrooms above, linked to decked terraces. Interiors are diligently unluxurious — predominantly white with oak floors and lots of concealed storage.
Located at the northern end of Portland Road, past chi-chi Clarendon Cross, this is not the poshest part of Notting Hill but close enough to the heartland of pastel-painted terraces and stucco squares.
‘Green houses can be done commercially. They don’t have to cost that much extra’
The houses’ green premium is about £30 a square foot — “a relatively modest amount given the build quality and remarkably low running costs,” says Charles Gourgey, director of developer Amazon. Prices range from £2.35 million to £3.25 million. Call Foxtons on 020 7973 2020.
“Without doubt such houses can be done commercially. They don’t have to cost that much extra,” adds Michaelis.
The cost of the technology is falling. But it is also a battle of ideas. “Residential projects are still challenging. We are trying to get clients to be more environmentally aware and we are reusing lots of materials these days. This is the start of a big movement,” he believes.
Many of his wealthy customers are the sort of people who can afford to rip out everything and start again — and they often do. One of Michaelis’s goals is to set up a neighbourhood reclamation yard (under the Westway has been earmarked as a suitable spot), not full of fancy architectural salvage but a place where old bricks and stones, timber and household bits and pieces can be stored and recycled.
His friend David Cameron is offering encouragement. The Conservative Party has pledged, if it wins the next General Election, to offer grants of up to £6,500 to homeowners who install carbon-cutting technology.
An architectural triumph
Michaelis’s own house, where he lives with his three children and paediatrician wife, is an environmental showcase but, above all, an architectural triumph.
The five-bedroom property is built below what used to be a derelict corner plot that reportedly cost him £750,000. Planners ruled any new structure could rise no more than 1.8 metres above ground so Michaelis dug down by more than six metres to create a wonderful subterranean lair, opened up by light wells.
The central stairwell incorporates a white Corian slide for his children, who have a climbing wall, too. A glass-enclosed swimming pool seems an indulgence but actually helps heat the house, while the flat roof is planted with air-cleaning sedum grass.
Michaelis is preoccupied with another pet project that is likely to take him far away from his own turf. Energy Island is a prototype for a floating island that uses 10 different systems of energy generation from renewable sources to help save the planet, and will be adapted to suit a variety of locations and climates (for information, visit www.michaelisboyd.com).
There are incentives for signing up to Michaelis’s green dream. Last month’s Budget earmarked £435 million for energy-efficient schemes in homes.
Grants of up to £2,700 are available to people on certain benefits who make energy-saving improvements at home. For more information, call 0800 512012 or visit www.energysavingtrust.org.uk.
Grants of up to £400 towards the cost of solar heating (typical cost is £4,000 to £6,000) are available to all. Loft and cavity wall insulation grants are funded by the utility companies. Some local authorities provide grants, too. Visit www.government-grants.co.uk.