This Japanese and Californian - inspired house is sandwiched between a factory and a garden in an industrial cul-de-sac
On turning into the industrial cul-de-sac in Hackney, east London, Marcus Lee’s house is clearly apparent at the end – due to a big blue sans serif number 17 on stained timber. Closer up, and an angular triangle of timber and glass emerges, pointing skyward and creating a lovely counterpoint of light and levity in an area dominated by London brick. ‘I’m interested in Japanese and Californian domestic architecture,’ says Marcus. ‘This house has been described as an eco-house, which is fine. But it wasn’t the starting point.’
This summer morning is bright, and the door is wide open. In one direction is an exquisite garden by Groundwork East London; to the other is the Church of St John-at-Hackney, surrounded by green space. Hardly the dystopian Hackney of legend, this urban idyll’s only challenge is a factory next door, once a repository of pickles, now a car-spraying plant.
Marcus lives here with his wife Rachel, and their three young daughters – Marcus’ two grown-up daughters stay intermittently. This demands space, which the house provides in quantity. ‘The first design was two storeys with a flat roof,’ says Marcus, who then realised that he could gain an extra storey by using a pitched roof. It works well, sandwiched between the factory and the Groundwork garden, which has an old sycamore tree. ‘The house is like a bookend,’ says Marcus. ‘And the tree’s good, because it provides shade in summer.’
Marcus used to work at Richard Rogers Partnership, where he met Rachel, who now works at Arup Associates. With much expertise between them, both had built a similar house in nearby Highbury. They sold it in 1999, and in 2000 bid for this plot at auction: a bit of unwanted garden about 33mx9m, some of which they have kept. It’s now a glowing green sward. ‘Recently turfed,’ explains Rachel. ‘We hope it stays that way.’
They drew up plans, but the first application was rejected as too big. ‘The planners said it should feel like a back lane development,’ says Marcus. Then came problems with the site investigation, and anxiety about pollution from the factory.
These were resolved, and henceforth the build was ‘fairly straightforward’, with Marcus acting as his own project manager. ‘The critical thing was getting the structure sorted, which I did with Arup,’ he says. The frame was manufactured off-site by a timber maestro called Gordon Cowley, who has developed a new kind of beam and post connection, and when the components were brought to Hackney it went up in two to three weeks.
'With no load-bearing walls, this house is a very flexible space'
The result was like looking at ‘a barn in the city’, says Marcus. ‘It has no load-bearing walls so it gives you flexible space. You can move rooms around if you like. You could even unbolt this house and put it somewhere else.’ Lest that give the impression that it is flimsy, the building is actually very solid, braced against the next-door factory by way of a buttressed wall. ‘It stops the house falling over, and it’s also quite Japanese to keep everything to one side.’
Marcus and Rachel’s Highbury home had been built in Malaysian Balau, now a proscribed hardwood, so here they switched to Siberian larch. ‘It’s very durable,’ says Marcus. The house also uses red cedar for frames and cladding, and Douglas Fir for the balconies, all of which add subtle variations of tone.
After the frame went up then came the glazing. ‘We hired a crane, driver and suckers to put up £17,000 worth of windows, and it was a bit tense. Thankfully, they were up within two hours,’ says Marcus. That’s a lot of glass, but because of his bio-fuel boiler, the energy equation allowed more than might otherwise have been acceptable.
The ground floor is a large open-plan space. There’s a dining area and a seating zone with a corner sofa from Coexistence in Islington and a Conran Shop rug laid over Wickes’ slate tiles: ‘Not the best, but they work well with wood.’ A few steps lower than the street outside, it has the ambience of a conversation pit, and is enhanced by a painting by Marcus’s sister, Helen.
Clues to the timber frame lie in a central post and the ceilings, where plasterboard has been cut into the beams. Flos lamps on long articulated stems sweep either side of the geometric stove, made by Danish company, Rais, which swivels on a base to provide differing heat from different sides.
But the chef d’oeuvre is over five metres of orange Corian, curling from the entrance right through the house and incorporating the hob. ‘We were going to have it made to form a table, but that would have been expensive,’ says Marcus. ‘It already cost about £3,500. It’s worth it, though.’ Behind it, there’s a wall of stainless-steel kitchen cabinets with Ikea carcasses: tucked beneath is a television.
The wooden stairwell is a showpiece of the joiners’ art, leading to a first floor that takes full advantage of the windows. This space could never be stuffy. The full-height doors have been painted in Corbusier-influenced building-block colours – pea green, duck-egg blue – and the beams show on the floor: again, Marcus’s desire to describe the structure.
Up another flight, and you are into what Marcus calls ‘sleepover territory’. The girls have a dramatic eyrie, built into the pitch with views over gardens and churchyard, and furnished by home-built beds and a bookshelf that doubles as a ladder.
Downstairs, the Lees prepare for lunch in a peaceful atmosphere that seems to emanate from the house itself. ‘Some friends said they thought it was like a holiday home,’ says Marcus, as he shows me out. ‘I liked that. It is a bit like a chalet.’
Architect: FLACQ www.flacq.com
Wood frame engineering: Arup www.arup.com
Wood frame: Cowley Timberwork www.cowleytimberwork.co.uk
Timber cladding: Frank R Pratt www.frankrpratt.co.uk
Staircase, balconies and cladding frames: G&M Joinery www.j-mjoinery.co.uk
Timber pellet Baxi boiler: FBC www.fbcgroup.co.uk
Boiler installation: GreenSystems greensystemsuk.com
Dining table and chairs: Back in Time www.backintimeuk.com
Wood and coal burning stove: Rais www.rais.com
Corian for the kitchen and bathrooms: Eric Wilson & Co www.ewcfabrications.co.uk
Oak table and bench seats: Heal’s www.heals.co.uk
Lights and Flos lamps: Coexistence www.coexistence.co.uk
Kitchen units: Ikea www.ikea.com
Bathroom fittings: Just Add Water www.justaddwater.co.uk
Words: Oliver Bennett Images: Jefferson Smith