For one week in 2005, architect Jake Edgley wished he never had the bright idea of developing two houses in London’s Islington. He’d budgeted on a build cost of £320,000 with £30,000 contingency, but builders said it would cost £500,000 and he’d spent far too much time and money already – some of it borrowed from his family – to pull out. It was a bleak time. "There was a week when if I could’ve wound the clock back and not start the project, I would have..."
But happily, he persevered, coming up with a new, cheaper design that would nevertheless be worth enough to allow him to sell just one and live in the other with his wife Katherine. ‘My intention was just to develop a couple of houses but when it came to it, the opportunity to live in a self-designed house was too good to miss,’ he says.
He’d always hoped that this would be ﬁnancially possible when he’d set out on the project back in 2004, intending to put his insider knowledge to use by turning developer in addition to architect. After working for several major architectural ﬁrms, he took time out to recharge his batteries for the task ahead and set about ﬁnding the all-important site.
Six months of badgering property agents and scouring online auctions later, and the chance to snap up a site ﬁnally arrived – off a busy market street near Angel in north London. Such a central location sounded perfect, especially as the site came with planning permission for two houses.
The major catch – and the only reason that he thinks it ever came his way – was that the site had only a narrow alley for an entrance and was otherwise completely boxed in by neighbouring properties, bringing with it a host of party wall and access issues. ‘Everything was stacked against it for a commercial development. It would never have made a company a proﬁt. It needed an individual,’ he says.
Undeterred, he bought the site, and set about devising a way to squeeze two desirable houses onto the 172sqm space and make a virtue of its unusual nature. The result was what Jake calls his ‘secret houses’, tucked away down the alleyway and facing inward onto their own, very private courtyards.
"It’s sad, but the only reason I could build a modern house with so little resistance was that it’s hidden..."
Financially, he had the advantage of a loan from his family for 40 per cent of the project cost and raised the rest by securing a commercial loan from his bank. Building two adjoining houses made the whole project viable – costing only about one third more than constructing just one.
The site had a romantic history, housing stables for a Georgian ﬁre station and then a millinery workshop. But more recently it was premises for a late-night chat line before falling derelict for ten years and being taken over by pigeons. The stench, and unsafe ﬂoor, meant that for six months Jake barely set foot on the site.
But the real problem was the terrible site logistics. Jake was restricted in construction method by the narrow access and the planners initial insistence that the building height mustn’t exceed the rear perimeter wall. Proximity to drains meant that only a little could be gained from digging down. Even worse, seven party wall agreements had to be made, with one access dispute proving both expensive and time-consuming.
Even so, Jake quickly realised that the site could accommodate two houses, each with two bedrooms. And despite the tiny site the houses would be reasonably spacious, each around 90sqm plus 30sqm of external space apiece. Having persuaded planners to allow raising the perimeter wall height by 1.2m, the key was to orientate each house around its own courtyard to avoid unsightly views onto the back of the neighbouring houses.
who Jake and Katherine Edgley
what Two houses concealed on
a landlocked inner-city plot
where A market street in Islington, London
how long Two and a half years
how much £400,000 for both houses
high point ‘The actual build, it was incredibly exciting and rewarding. Like Christmas every week’
low point ‘Getting the ﬁrst costings back and thinking we couldn’t afford to build it’
tip ‘Get the design ﬁnished before you start doing anything else, and get a good main contractor to quote for the whole project’
Initially Jake included the courtyards within the houses, designing sliding glass roofs to satisfy estate agents’ advice that he’d need a ‘wow’ factor to sell houses in such an unusual location. But the roofs made the build too expensive and happily, his more straightforward ﬁnal design proved agents wrong by selling for £585,000 in just three days compared with expectations of £420,000 at the onset and £500,000 when it went on the market.
"People pay more for a good design than the property industry will give credit for…"
Each of the ﬁnished houses has a large open-plan living area with a fully double-glazed wall facing onto the courtyard. A handsome walnut laminated door swings open at the side, made by the builder after he’d missed the deadline to order the windows. The kitchen is positioned along the windowless wall closest to the adjacent houses, but has a roof light to stop it being too gloomy. Upstairs are two bedrooms – one with en-suite shower – and a bathroom. Another unrealised plan included a glazed ‘reading tower’ above the kitchen, but this was quickly abandoned.‘ It always helps to have a wacky sacriﬁcial element,’ says Jake.
The courtyard is the focus of both houses, especially in Jake’s, where he has commissioned chestnut furniture to match the ﬁrst-ﬂoor timber cladding. Sheltered and intimate, it’s in sharp contrast to the ﬁrst-ﬂoor bedroom terrace, which offers an unexpectedly expansive and varied view over surrounding rooftops. ‘It’s a lovely, urban garden – there’s even an apple tree growing on someone’s roof,’ says Jake, who hadn’t seen the view until the build was at ﬁrst-ﬂoor height.
Initially Jake kept ﬁnishes in each house quite plain for sale, with limestone ﬂoors downstairs, walnut upstairs and white walls. But once he moved in himself, he commissioned ﬁtted joinery, most notably in the snug off the main living space and the oak-veneered, plywood bathroom cabinets.
These are highlighted by an orange LED panel, one of many playful light features in unexpected places in the house. There are tiny blue circular lights inset in the walnut stairs, as well as further lightboxes in the wardrobe, among the shelves in the snug, and a huge panel in the courtyard that constantly changes colour.
"A bit of colour and silliness are good in a house, especially if you can switch it off…"
Fortunately, living next door to the man who bought the other house hasn’t been a problem for the couple, and the neighbour was happy to have Jake on hand during the snagging period. ‘Giles is very nice about it,’ Jake says. ‘I make sure everything gets ﬁxed in return for going over for a chat about snowboarding, a passion we both share.’
Despite the ups and downs of the project and his week of despair when it all seemed to be going wrong, Jake hasn’t been put off. ‘I’d do it again. Once I’d found a good builder and started building it became a great experience.’ But for now, with the family loan repaid, and internal ﬁttings complete, Jake and Katherine can ﬁnally enjoy living in their very own ‘secret’ house.
|Architect/developer||Edgley Design||(020 7033 9522;
Focal Point Construction
|(020 8998 1919;
|Structural engineer||Fluid||(020 7820 7766;
|Planning supervisor||Jackson Coles||(020 7608 8600;
|Party wall surveyor||Dixon Payne Surveyors||(020 8392 2814)|
|Waterproofing||Delta Membranes||(01992 523 811;
|Rooﬁng membrane||Liquid Plastics||(01772 259 781;
|Cladding||Inwood Developments Ltd||(01825 872 150; www.in-wood.co.uk)|
|Limestone ﬂooring||Stonell Direct||(020 7738 0606;
|Wooden ﬂooring||Shoreland Limited||
(020 8365 8995;