London Evening Standard, October 2008, Feature
Every architect dreams of building their own home. But when two architects, each with their own dream, set out to build a single, shared home, the result is almost guaranteed to be a complete nightmare. That is why, when architects Luke and Suzie Zuber decided to take the brave step of building their own house, Suzie was happy to take a backseat.
“I made a very clear decision early on that I wanted it to be Luke’s building, his baby,” she says. “It was far more important to me that our relationship survived, rather than us falling out over a design.
“Besides, I had every confidence it would be the kind of house I would want to live in because I love the work he does.” The pair had been trawling auction catalogues for years chasing that elusive thing a decent London plot. When a site in Heathville Road, Crouch End, came on the market they knew immediately that their search was over. Unlike other plots they had seen, this one sat directly on the street, rather than being tucked away. Also, the two ramshackle, rat-infested garages that blighted the site were vacant, so there were no tenants to deal with.
There was, however, a catch. The owner of the land, Islington council, had placed a height restriction of less than 10ft on any new development, seriously limiting what could be built. When the couple bought the land at auction for £78,000 they were taking a major gamble.
Says Luke: “I had researched the national guidelines and realised the council had got it wrong and that the restriction they had imposed should have been five metres more than 16ft. But, foolishly, I expected the council to simply amend the restriction. I hadn’t considered they would demand a further £78,000 to do it.”
While Luke’s design for a two-bedroom house got the support of local councillors and residents, it took a year and-a-half of wrangling with belligerent town hall officials before the restriction could be amended. There was a point during the long battle when Suzie despaired of building work ever starting.
Even with the new five-metre height restriction in place, Luke had a job squeezing a two-bedroom house on to a 800sq ft site. The key to the design was turning the house upside down, so that bedrooms where placed below a lightfilled upper floor devoted to open-plan living. He also dug down, so the ground floor sits well below street level. But to avoid the lower floor feeling like a dingy basement, Luke has made the entrance hall double-height, topping it with a skylight. Though this has lost some floorspace upstairs, light now draws through the hall and brightens up the bedrooms.
Space-saving ideas have been deployed throughout: a charming study area flies over the entrance hall, the stair balustrade doubling as cupboards and bookshelves; there is a storage cupboard next to an en-suite shower and another one under the bath.
Luke did not want a series of rooms, like little boxes, each waiting to be filled with furniture. Storage had to become integral to the structure of the house so that living space appeared “carved out” and uncluttered.
In the first-floor living room, for example, the “wall” that fronts the street consists of a wooden storage unit and a window seat surrounded by glass. The unit gives privacy from the street, but it feels as though the entire wall is made of glass. It’s ingenious.
Using natural materials was another priority. Again Luke kept it simple: American black walnut for cupboards and cabinets, blue Irish limestone for the floors and a lime plaster skim coat.
Amazingly, he has done it all for only £220,000, excluding land and legal costs, and the house is now worth about £600,000.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Luke had to sack one group of builders early on when it became clear they could not meet the quality of finish he required. In the end, he took on most of the construction work himself, which eventually reduced the cost of the project.
He has achieved what he set out to do to create a warm, comfortable home that is also exciting and fun to live in. And Suzie was equally thrilled with the results. Apart from installing a slightly smaller bath, there isn’t anything she would change, she says.
The feature that Suzie loves most is the skylight. “Whenever anyone comes over I tell them that if they do only one thing to their home, then it should be adding a roof light,” she says.
“It brings in light all the time, which is a fantastic quality. When it’s sunny we can watch the path of the sun and the shadows changing all through the day but even when it’s a grey day there’s a lovely glow. It’s really beautiful.”
How to get the look
Architect: Luke Zuber Architects (020 7234 9826; email@example.com).
Built-in wooden furniture: made to order in solid American black walnut from cabinet makers Dovetailed Designs (020 8517 5171; firstname.lastname@example.org). The balustrade bookcase and desk cost £3,200. The cost for all wooden fittings including furniture, wardrobes, handrails, timber wall cladding, balustrade, desk, shelving, cooker screen, doors and door frames, bench seats, front gate, fences and wall lights was £30,000 (this figure does not include installation costs).
Tiles: the floors and bathroom walls are tiled in blue Irish limestone from Miller Druck International Stone (020 7234 9999; email@example.com). The cost for 130sq m of tiles, which covered floors, bathroom wall, shower, bath and cooker surrounds, was £6,500.
Installation cost was £11,000. The cost for supplying and fitting the tiling averaged £135 for each square metre.
Rendered walls: the walls, where not tiled, were given a lime render finish, to produce a soft glow, with Marmorino lime putty and marble dust. The work cost an average of £40 a square metre and was undertaken by Calfe Crimmings (020 8847 1561; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Kitchen: designed and built by Luke Zuber, using MDF panels that were given a protective “two-pack” coating by Flo Rite (020 8885 2320). The total kitchen cost, excluding appliances, was £2,000.