This London house shows how to build a light and airy home on a narrow plot
A dazzling homage to the spirit of Modernism, not even the British weather can dampen the exuberance of Suzanne Brewer's house, The Courtyard. ‘I wanted to get a Thirties pavilion feel,’ says Suzanne. ‘I hope I've succeeded.’
Indeed she has. Although the day of my visit is foul, The Courtyard's white walls still gleam with reflected light. It's an elegant, three-bedroom house, tucked economically into a narrow plot in Blackheath, London, which, until recently, was the end of a garden. ‘It's a very long and thin plot, only 6m wide but 30m long,’ says Suzanne. ‘That's the width of a Victorian terrace, but a lot longer.’
Suzanne decided on ‘an unconventional courtyard design based around two connecting rectangles, maximising the surface with lots of glass’. It's a bright solution that avoids a deep, dark centre in the house, and proved a deserving finalist at the Grand Designs Magazine Awards in 2006.
Suzanne and her banker husband Andrew Sheehan have lived here since March 2005. An architect, Suzanne had a head start over amateur self-builders. Nevertheless, the process was still painstaking, a testament to her drive and tenacity.
In 2000, Suzanne began searching for a plot. ‘I looked at all the plot-search sites, but it was difficult to find any in London,’ she says. So she seized the initiative and pored over Ordnance Survey maps of Blackheath for neglected spaces. She unearthed about 30 sites, found out who owned them, wrote to the owners, and waited. Most wouldn't sell. Then a retired architect with a garden site bordering onto a hotel got in touch. In 2001, he sold it to Suzanne for £250,000.
While the nine-month build was ‘plain sailing’, says Suzanne, the design and planning stage was tortuous. Plans had been rejected before for this and a neighbouring plot in the hotel’s garden. There was much to consider. Blackheath is the oldest conservation area in the country, and Suzanne's plans had to have negligible impact on the street. To avoid overlooking, there could be no windows on the north and west sides, and only limited ones on the south: ‘Another reason for the courtyard,’ she says. ‘The windows mostly face inward.’
Other obstacles appeared. A legal hitch held the whole project up for a year. Then there were objections from the hotel: ‘I said if we got planning permission, it would create a precedent for them to do something with their part of the garden.’ They agreed, and another house to her design is currently being built next door.
Before digging the foundations, Suzanne had to get the archaeologists in: ‘The area has several aspects of archaeological interest from plague pits to Roman remains, and needed approval from English Heritage.’ Next, she had to rebuild a 30m-long, listed wall between her house and the hotel. Then, during the build, the couple’s self-build mortgage proved troublesome. ‘You've got to get through four stages, and at each stage you need funds up front,’ she says. They had to re-mortgage the land to raise the capital.
As Suzanne says, the house was very much ‘site specific’. From the lane outside, it's unobtrusive. There's a door with entry phone, a glamorous electric car door, and once inside, a small pebbled garden, punctuated by three silver birches. ‘Again, planning law,’ says Suzanne. ‘If you take a tree down you've got to replace it.’
A herb garden at eye level then draws the eye up the façade: a curtain of glass that, despite the domestic scale, rises like a glittering cliff face. It's a moment of quiet drama, inspired by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House and Graham Phillips' Skywood House – both exemplars of the architectural glazer's art.
Inside, Suzanne has kept the decoration to a minimum, in order not to spoil the perfect white walls. There are several works of art dotted around, including one by Gilbert and George and two cow-hide wall pieces. But despite these, Suzanne's design incessantly draws the eye towards the central courtyard and its bed, planted with bamboo and palms and set around decking. ‘It was a case of getting instant greenery,’ she says of the plants.
The garden is south-facing, as two wooden loungers testify. ‘The house is designed to follow the sun,’ says Suzanne. ‘It rises in the kitchen, shines over the garden, and sets over the dining area.’ At the back of the house is a small garden space providing yet more light.
The courtyard is entered via the house's key feature: an 8m-long concertina window. It's by German glazing company Schuco and cost £8,000. ‘By opening up the glazed wall, the garden feels much bigger,’ says Suzanne. Above this feature, a massive girder connects Suzanne's two rectangles. ‘The upstairs corridor is a bridge,’ she says. It's also the glory of the top floor, with a sensual oak floor.’
A sheet of glass operates as a balustrade, and beyond the stairs is one of the light wells: as Suzanne had to adhere to so many planning restrictions on windows, she has used skylights around the house to achieve more light. The house's biggest artwork, a floral screen print, hangs here across both floors.
The idea of uninterrupted space pervades throughout. Suzanne aimed to have as few frames on the glazing as possible. The floor in the bathrooms is white resin: ‘I'd specified it for a commercial project and liked the way it was seamless.’ It's a method that relies on good materials, which can be expensive. So to save her budget, Suzanne made savings elsewhere.
The bathroom taps are a ‘far cheaper’ version of Arne Jacobsen's Vola taps. MFI provided the skins for the cupboards and the clothing rack in her bedroom. ‘Although it'd be too expensive to have full height doors everywhere, I've kept the door framing full height,’ she says. The two full height doors sit downstairs, where they are most on display.
Suzanne and Andrew also like modern design classics, with pieces by the likes of Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen. They all have a purpose, and as you might imagine, it's an uncluttered place. But Suzanne and Andrew have enough objects to hold the eye. In the bedroom sits an Art Deco mirror and even a perspex obelisk, both from a Poirot film set, via Suzanne’s parents.
Against the window-free west- and north-facing walls, Suzanne has put deep cupboards. ‘It's where I put my rubbish,’ she says. Well, to maintain such perfection, some things have to be hidden.