Why did you decide to build your home?
I had noticed some derelict land in Camberwell with a small workshop that always seemed to be closed. As Richard had long wanted to build his own home and as the site was in an area we liked, it seemed to have potential for us to develop. I tracked down the owners and kept writing to them during the course of the next year. One day out of the blue they replied. We negotiated down the original £500,000 asking price as there was no planning consent in place for residential development; we were taking a risk on whether it would be granted. The site was big enough for us to build two properties, one of which we planned to sell.
How did you get planning permission?
After we discussed the design, Richard prepared sketches and a card model to show our neighbours. We wanted them to know our plans so we could resolve any objections before applying for planning permission.
There were only a few requests for alterations and many were pleased that the site was being developed.
The consent came within two months, much faster than expected. The only requirement was that we had to remove the top metre of soil because the previous occupants’ printing business may have contaminated it.
Did you build both houses at the same time?
The second property was completed first and we moved in for three months to keep a closer eye on things.
Richard project managed the builds, checking the work every evening and writing notes to give to the builder before work in the morning. We had a buyer for the second house by the time we’d moved to ours, but the property crash came and the sale fell through. We continued to pay a mortgage on both houses and rented out the second one for a year. It eventually sold for a lot less than we’d hoped but it did payoff the mortgage.
Tell us a bit about the house?
We wanted to create something contemporary and urban on the outside and light, airy and welcoming inside. Our three adult children have all left home, so we could afford to be a little indulgent. We included a workshop for Richard on the ground floor, a dining room that doubles as a dance floor – I was a ballet teacher years ago and had always yearned for one – and a double-height living area inspired by the courtyard of a riad we visited in Marrakech.
Was the eco aspect important to you?
Yes. As we’re approaching retirement we wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible. We have photovoltaics and solar panels for our electricity and water, and the house has been insulated to a very high specification.
The underfloor heating system stays at a constant temperature, which means we never wake up to a cold house. But these eco features had an impact on the design. For instance, we had to have huge silver ventilation pipes going up through the living room, so Richard designed an alcove to conceal them. We do wish that we’d insulated even more. Our heating bills are only about £300 a year, but could be even smaller.
Did everything go to plan?
The timber frame should have been fast to erect and easy to insulate but we had a setback when the concrete base and frame didn’t match, as the measurements weren’t correct. Not only did that mean a six-week delay, but no one would accept responsibility and pick up the cost.
How long did the build take?
After 12 months of work, we moved in just before Christmas 2007 even though the house still wasn’t completely finished. We lit the stove for the first time when our family came to help us move in.
What has influenced your decorating?
Colour is very important and places where we’ve lived or travelled have inspired us, too. There’s a Moroccan style courtyard – and we’ve used a lot of golden orange and dark wood, which remind me of living in Singapore as a child when my father was in the Navy.
Are you happy with the finished house?
I love it and Richard is incredibly proud that he designed his own home. We opened it up to the public in September last year for Open House London, an annual event celebrating the diverse architecture of the capital. We had almost 600 visitors and at one point there was a queue down the street!
Contact Avanti Architects at avantiarchitects.co.uk; visit Debbie’s company at brightcolours.co.uk
Photography by Richard Barton and Tom de Gay