Mind the gap

The Daily Telegraph, July 2008, Feature

On the corner, between two London streets, is a grotty little park set back from the road – a hangout for alcoholics and drug addicts. The average passer-by would barely register it, but to the architect Cezary Bednarski this piece of pavement is a rare and special thing.

What Bednarski can see that others can’t is a prime brownfield site that is ripe for development. And, if all goes according to plan, he will soon be building two family homes on it, one of which he will occupy himself.

There is a dearth of good sites in inner-city London. With the housing shortage reaching crisis point and strict planning restrictions in place for new buildings, land values have soared. Over the past 20 years all the obvious inner-city sites have been bought and developed. So for a family wanting to build their own house the options are severely limited. As a result, once-neglected plots have become extremely sought-after.

Bednarski’s corner site is atypically visible. On the whole, these plots tend to be hidden, oddshaped slivers of leftover land, such as back gardens and side alleys. But to those able to recognise their potential, these offer a fascinating challenge that in recent years has inspired some fantastically clever, even beautiful solutions.

Bednarski is becoming a master of the game. His recently completed Hesmondhalgh House in Gloucester Road, Kensington, has just won an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

His visionary client had taken a gamble buying an awkward, derelict site – a former garden plot behind a terrace of shops and flats. He had been struggling to develop it, and after several previous schemes had failed, he approached Bednarski. The client wanted a three to four-bedroom house for his family of four, dog and au pair.

Since they entertained a lot they needed a large living-room and spacious kitchen/diningroom as well as a play area and a quiet reading area. While they wanted a modern design, they said they had too many things – including more than 2,500 books – to be able to have a minimalist house. Storage was also a priority.

One of the greatest logistical challenges was its inaccessibility. The only way that builders could get materials and equipment on to the site was through a single doorway facing the street and then down a narrow corridor inside.

Bednarski had to design the house in such a way that it could be constructed using only building components that would fit through the doorway. It would have been impossible to install large columns, for example, while complex construction that required conventional equipment was out of the question. A small digger was all that the builder had to work with. Finding a builder up to the job was key.

After a long battle with local residents, Bednarski won permission for his design, and construction of the house was completed earlier this year. The neighbours were unhappy about the principle of building a house on the site, arguing that it constituted overdevelopment, and that they would suffer from loss of privacy and noise pollution. But now that this is all in the past, the wow factor for first-time visitors to the house is discovering a hidden world beyond a mundane, narrow corridor.

Indeed, as you open the door of the corridor to the rest of the house, you find yourself in a series of light-filled spaces, culminating in a spectacular double-height living-room. And with clever design, Bednarski has turned the constraints of the site into a unique opportunity.

‘Every inch matters in a project like this,’ he says. ‘You simply can’t afford to waste any space. And the design has to be absolutely site-specific. The Gloucester Road house was an excellent exercise in going back to basics, about how best to exploit the changing qualities of space and light as you move through a building.

‘We didn’t want anything overly fashionable – as in strange and different architecture for the sake of it – as this wouldn’t have worked here. This was partly because there were absolute constraints on the shape and size of the building and even where we could place the windows. The main effort involved was how to strive to be ingenious rather than frivolous.’

Bednarski is now hooked on the challenge of these difficult infill sites. As well as designing his own home, he has bagged a commission from the housing association Octavia to build a slightly larger version of his skinny Toast House, a 2.8mwide project in Peckham, south London.

Bednarski is not the only architect to spot an opportunity like this. Luke Zuber, of the practice Envelop, set out to build a house for himself on a difficult, leftover plot in Crouch End, north London. The main problem he faced was persuading the council to let him build high enough. Islington council placed a height restriction order of just 3m on the site. On appeal, Zuber won permission to go as high as 5m, while sinking the house into the ground gave him even more volume.

To keep the living spaces light and open, he kept them on the upper floors, placing the two bedrooms below. Luckily for Zuber, the neighbours were very supportive. For years the site had been blighted by a pair of ramshackle sheds – for them, almost anything was an improvement.

When the plot at the back of the architect Gianni Botsford’s house in Notting Hill came up for sale last year, Botsford decided to develop it himself. For 20 years, the view from his back window had been blighted by an ugly 1960s bungalow that occupied the site. But he wasn’t prepared to sit around and watch someone else replace it with another monstrosity. He also knew it wasn’t going to be a simple task.

North-facing, squeezed between buildings and with land containing large protected trees, it required a particularly canny solution. Botsford presented the planners of the local borough, Kensington and Chelsea, with two alternatives. One was a reticent, hidden scheme. The other, a bolder solution, a sculpted pavilion with a dramatic formed roof. To his astonishment, they preferred the latter.

‘I’ve found planners are much more willing to let you be experimental on a site that’s not visible from the street,’ Botsford says. ‘In a situation like this, pretty much anything goes within the volume of the building.’

For clients wanting a bold modern design, this freedom makes these sites doubly attractive. And the privacy that you get from being tucked away is a major draw to prospective occupants. Botsford used complex virtual modelling to analyse the fall of light and shade across the plot before setting out his design. Increasingly sophisticated computer software is helping architects make the best of these sites – in terms of maximising daylight, say – and is another factor encouraging their development.

Botsford says that his experience with awkward infill sites has made him see the city in a whole new way. He is always on the lookout now for an unusual plot. Since these kinds of plots tend not to be advertised, those interested in them need be very proactive in hunting them down.

And this is set to become even harder. As the credit crunch threatens to slide into recession, it makes sense for many people to improve their homes rather than move. So these infill sites can only become more desirable as homeowners look for any neighbouring space in which to build an extension.

In recent years, architects have produced some fantastic solutions. In addition to Botsford and Bednarski’s houses, Caruso St John’s extraordinary windowless Brick House was shortlisted for the 2006 Stirling Prize, while another practice, Pitman Tozer, designed the stunning Gap House, which was featured on the Channel 4 programme Grand Designs Live in May.

A difficult infill site costs more to develop than a conventional plot. And it’s not easy. It takes vision and ingenuity, not mention a lot of legwork to find a good plot in the first place.