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One House. Two Families. Three Children. Four Last Names. by Iain Aitch

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.

Those 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.

In 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.

They 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.”

The 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.

The 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.

“We 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 a week.”

The 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.

It 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.

Since 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.”

Though 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.

The 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.

One 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.”

The 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.

The 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.

But 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. Quite unique.”

Both 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
Knott Architects website.

All content copyright © 2012 Iain Aitch


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