London is hardly the most forgiving of cities for couples wishing
to settle down and raise a family. Sure, the city provides a great
base for work-hard, party-hard singles, but once they pair off and
hit their 30s Londoners are often faced with the prospect of leaving
town in search of cleaner air and an apartment big enough to at
least swing a kitten in.
who decide to stay have to choose between struggling on in the expensive
and insecure rental sector or mortgaging themselves to the hilt
for an ex-local authority property (a low-grade, low-rent form of
government housing, also called council housing) with one bedroom.
This was the choice facing architect Tom Knott and his partner,
artist Kerry Stewart. They had rented in the unfashionable Finsbury
Park district in the north of the city for six years and wanted
away from the screaming neighbours and their barking dogs. They
desired something that was more about living and less about survival.
Somewhere with space and light which guaranteed them their eight
hours a night without being woken by the neighbour’s answering
machine blaring through the ceiling.
the area in which they were living they were looking at paying around
$170,000 for a small apartment in a block or above a store. Even
before shaking out their pockets and checking under the sofa cushions,
the couple knew that a loft apartment in one of the up-and-coming
areas of London was way out of their reach. The only answer seemed
to be to cut out the property developers and do their own conversion.
already had a head start, with Tom having recently set up an architectural
practise with his younger brother, George. Things were made slightly
easier, at least financially, when Tom and Kerry heard that Kerry’s
old art school colleagues, Hiro Nakata and Cecilie
Telle were also looking to make the move from shoebox to dream
home. They too were coming up against monetary and aesthetic barriers
to buying somewhere that was suitable for them and their daughter,
Anakin. “I didn’t think I would actually own a place,”
says Hiro. “I really don’t like the way that British
houses are – narrow corridors with small rooms. I feel claustrophobic.
Ever since the idea that I could buy a place to live in it was a
warehouse conversion that I had in mind.”
four cemented their house hunting union towards the end of 1996
with drinks at a pub in Chinatown, and the search for somewhere
that could provide living space for all of them started in earnest.
The group also provided an interesting international outlook on
design: Tom is a native Londoner, Kerry is Scottish, Cecilie is
from Norway and Hiro grew up in Japan. With yet another London property
boom in full swing, the four suffered various setbacks and disappointments
as they scoured London for factories and warehouses which had potential
as a future home. They eventually settled on an old handbag factory
in Finsbury Park, a short stroll away from Tom and Kerry’s
then home. “I walked in and just thought ‘fantastic’.
It was just this big space, ” says Tom. “You had to
walk through this dingy dark garage and you just came out into this
heaven,” continues Cecilie.
foursome paid $170,000 for the building in March 1998. After a few
planning problems were ironed out, they were the proud owners of
an 80-year-old 40-foot-by-100-foot shed. Just over one year and
a lot of work later the shed had become two houses, each with its
own artist’s studio, where Kerry could work on her sculpture
and Cecilie her knitwear design. The property also had an extra
room at the front that could house Tom and his brother’s business,
Knott Architects. This was part of the deal: Knott Architects designed
the project without charging for their work, thus allowing the four
to cut costs.
did it within the office as a non-fee earning job,” says Tom.
“The arrangement with George is that he gets to do it for
himself sometime in the future.” Having the office in front
of a showpiece example of the brothers' work has certainly done
the business no harm, and they are now looking to move into larger
premises - though Tom hopes to keep it local as he enjoys being
close to home now that he has a six-month-old son. “For me
it’s great at the moment as we have the young boy, Jimmy.
So I get to see him and Kerry a lot during the day,” he says.
“Sometimes it means that I don’t leave the street for
shell of the factory was divided equally between the couples into
two houses with 3,200 square feet of floor space each, spread over
the ground floor and a mezzanine level containing two bedrooms.
The living space was designed with the studios between them to act
as a buffer for privacy and noise. Part of the factory roof was
removed, providing a good deal of the light in the two houses and,
most importantly, allowing a small garden area to be built into
the front of the living space. It’s not exactly Hyde Park,
though it has attracted some interest from the foxes that patrol
the area at night. This rare commodity in London also allows four-year-old
Anakin and her two-year-old sister, Edie, to run and play without
the risk of ending up near the busy road in the front of the property.
was Edie’s imminent birth which meant that Hiro and Cecile
were the first to move into the new residence in August 1999. Edie
was due in one month and the couple did not want to have the pressure
of a move and a new baby. The property was not quite completed at
that point, initially leaving them without windows, but it was finished
in time for Tom and Kerry to be in their new home in time for Christmas.
The bill was $260,000, with some money saved by the couples carrying
out work themselves, but this still brought the price in at just
less than the cost of a two bedroom apartment on the same street.
completion the four have been receiving guests whose jaws often
hit the floor when they see what they have done on their relatively
modest budget. “Doing this gave us the confidence to go on
and encourage other people to do it and to use us as their architects,”
say Tom, who is now working on two similar projects in the area.
“One of the driving forces behind doing something like this
is to find affordable housing for people like ourselves who would
otherwise go out and buy a small flat with a large mortgage.”
identical in size, the two units have quite distinctive characters.
Both are clad in warm-hued Douglas Fir on the outside, but the interior
design reflects the tastes and need of the two couples and their
families. The most striking difference is in the bathrooms. Hiro
and Cecilie have a Japanese-style bathroom with a high, square tiled
bath and wood panelling, whereas Kerry has designed a shower room
that is more art work than washroom. She sunk colored Perspex rods
into the exterior wall, which means that the sun sends colored beams
of light across the room. At night, the light in the bathroom shines
through the rods to the outside, providing a beautifully illuminated
pinboard of tiny red and yellow lights.
main space inside each house is a large ground-floor area used for
seating and dining with a kitchen attached and doors leading off
to the bathroom and studio. But even these high-ceilinged areas
are laid out very differently, with the staircase to the mezzanine
level in different locations. Hiro and Cecilie have used their wooden
staircase to divide up the main space, whilst Tom and Kerry’s
is discretely situated against the main interior wall for a more
open-plan look. Both houses have the ability to open up to the garden
outside with a good selection of large doors and windows on both
levels. Interior windows can also be opened to allow the bedrooms
to overlook the living area.
striking feature of Hiro and Cecilie’s house is the area that
has been given over entirely to their daughters. The majority of
this part of the house is taken up with a modern-looking two-storey
playhouse which was built by Hiro. “Their toys were all over
the place and we thought, as the space was so good, it would be
good for them to have an area for themselves,” says Cecilie.
“We hadn’t sorted out that particular space anyway and
we thought why not designate an area that is all theirs, because
they are such a big part of our lives.”
playhouse is constructed from off-cuts and ex-display material from
interiors store, The Conran Shop, where Hiro works. British design
guru Sir Terence Conran, who owns the shop, would probably be proud
to see his rubbish put to such inventive use. The little girls were
lucky to get the space and the playhouse as Hiro, a skateboarding
enthusiast, had originally earmarked the spot and the materials
for a skate ramp.
children seem to enjoy the capacious living area and the sand-blasted
brickwork interior is ideal for parents worried about dirty fingerprints
on the walls. “I think Anakin loves the space, says Cecilie.
“She can cycle indoors and I remember that from my childhood:
For a while we had a really big house and a huge kitchen and [I
was] able to have my tricycle in there.” Even Tom and Kerry’s
son, Jimmy, seems to appreciate the roomy interior, constantly straining
his neck to stare up at the ceiling, which at its apex is 17 feet
from the floor.
the main advantage to the children may have less to do with the
physical space than with the community that the project has created.
The two couples have bonded into an extended family that will mean
plenty of interaction between their offspring as they grow. They
also baby-sit for each other. This arrangement is especially valuable
in a city like London, where young families are often a long distance
away from relatives. “Even though you think you might worry
about privacy, having friends next door far outweighs that,”
says Kerry. “We always knock.” Cecilie cites the fact
that they often have trouble persuading their daughters to come
back from Tom and Kerry’s as proof that the relationship is
working well. “It’s like a family,” she says.
“I think that relationship is very important for our children.
couples see their new home as being a long term project in a physical
as well as a social sense. They are slowly getting on with the addition
of storage space and decorative detail to the interior and both
acknowledge that the space could be radically altered as their children
grow. “The structure of what we have done is not very precious;
it’s timber stud walling with plasterboard, so it is quite
adaptable,” says Tom. “If we want to knock it down and
change it it’s not a big deal.” Cecilie looks quietly
horrified at the idea of ripping out walls so soon after settling
in, but agrees that the house feels quite organic in nature, with
the potential to change layout and usage of rooms as needed. And
when the need does arise, at least she knows where to get her hands
on a good architect.
For more information on the project see the