Compact single-storey new build in East Dulwich, London

Built with a limited budget, Stephen and Cecilia Blowers’ imaginatively designed, light-filled home makes the most of its tight city location.

By Beth Murton | 14 March 2017

Built with a limited budget, Stephen and Cecilia Blowers’ imaginatively designed, light-filled home makes the most of its tight city location.

Compact single storey new build in East Dulwich London 1

Affordable plots of land with planning permission to build a house are like gold dust in London, so architect Stephen Blowers and his partner Cecilia count themselves lucky that they were two of the first to hear about a small site going on the market.

Tucked away at the end of a 1930s road with a Victorian street round the corner, the plot in London’s East Dulwich was formed when a section of garden belonging to a three-storey Victorian townhouse was combined with three ex-local authority garages. Previous developer-owners had unsuccessfully applied for permission to build a small development of flats, and in an effort to recoup their costs they were now selling the plot with planning permission for a single-storey bungalow instead. As Stephen’s aunt lived in the house adjoining the plot, she passed on news of the sale to Stephen, suggesting he should consider buying it.

Compact single storey new build in East Dulwich London 2

‘The local residents were very wary of developers and didn’t want another one to purchase the plot, so my aunt was keen for me to buy it instead and then build my own house,’ says Stephen, who started Designcubed Architects with Mark Barnard in the early stages of this self-build project. ‘I was desperate to do it as I could see it was a fantastic opportunity, but I wasn’t convinced I’d be able to afford to buy the land, let alone build a house that would maximise the potential of the plot.’

When the deadline for sealed bids arrived, Stephen was surprised to discover his was the winning bid, meaning he was now the owner of a compact 187sqm plot with permission to build an uninspiring twobedroom bungalow. It took a further two years before work commenced on site, however, as Stephen had to get his finances in place, which he achieved by using savings, re-mortgaging his one-bedroom flat and getting a self-build mortgage. ‘I also had to submit new plans for the property as I felt the whole design needed starting from scratch,’ he explains. ‘Although I didn’t have a huge amount of money for the build, as an architect I knew that it had to be a good design if I was going to believe in the project.’

Compact single storey new build in East Dulwich London 5

With a tall garden wall facing the street, the planners were strict about the building line and stated that any new addition had to be single storey. With no option of building up to create the three bedrooms he wanted, Stephen played around with various layouts to achieve the best solution. ‘To make the most of the 17x11m site, it was necessary to build right up to the perimeter edges of the plot, but I still wanted to have some form of outside space,’ he says. The resulting design is based on the principle of two matchboxes, one containing the main living spaces and the other the bedrooms and bathrooms. Sliding these two volumes past each other so they are offset creates two internal courtyards, providing natural light, views and ventilation for the house. A traditional blockwork and brick construction was chosen to keep down costs and help the exterior facades blend in with the surrounding properties, while western red cedar wall cladding and ipé decking would create a softer look in the private courtyard spaces.

When it came to building the house, however, Stephen admits the process was a very steep learning curve. ‘I did all the things I would never advise a client to do,’ he says. ‘Of the four tenders we had, three were at least £100,000 over mine and Cecilia’s top budget and one was within touching distance. We went with the cheapest option: a contractor with little experience of completing a project of this scale. Needless to say, it didn’t end well.’

Compact single storey new build in East Dulwich London 6

Before the project was even off the ground, the contractor experienced financial difficulties and left the job, leaving Stephen to project manage and find a new builder and tradespeople to complete each phase of the project. ‘It actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I had to spend time trying to get the best deals possible, releasing valuable funds for some of the more bespoke elements of the project, such as the glazing,’ he admits. ‘The whole process also gave me a better understanding of what it’s like to be a client on a project, which has been invaluable since setting up my own architecture practice.’

From the street, there’s little to suggest that behind the rebuilt red brick wall lies a modern, architectdesigned home. An unassuming timber gate in the exterior wall leads directly into the timber-clad entrance courtyard, which is flanked by the living room and one of the bedrooms. The entrance door to the house opens up into the open-plan kitchen-diner at the centre of the layout, where a large roof light brightens the space. The floor of the adjoining living room was dropped by half a metre to create a change in level, easing Stephen’s paranoia about building a ‘boring bungalow’, and a second roof light to one side of this room brings light down the rear wall of the space, preventing it from feeling like a tunnel.