72A Worthy Gamble
Buying a dilapidated garage without planning permission in a London conservation area was a big risk for Melanie Schubert and Paolo Vimercati, but the result is a striking new three-bed family home
Taking a leap of faith, a London couple buy a garage in a conservation area without planning permission — transforming it into the site of their new home
Taking on a self-build project can sometimes seem like a leap of faith. For Melanie Schubert and Paolo Vimercati, this leap was more like a dive into the unknown when they purchased a London plot. “We were effectively buying a garage without planning permission,” says Melanie.
“It was a huge gamble — our parents thought we were crazy! We found the plot online and it was the first opportunity we came across, and the cheapest. We knew the area and wanted to build something here but sites were so rare in this part of London. When it came on the market it seemed too good to be true. It was a risk, but we saw the potential to build something unique.”
The couple were renting a two-bed flat in Kensington, and craved more space and a third bedroom. Melanie, a director at architectural firm SAM Architects, began drafting designs for a brick-clad building as well as a timber frame home, both of which would take up the entire footprint of the plot. “We drew up two different ideas and entered pre-application advice with the planners to get a sense of what they wanted,” says Melanie. The scheme also involved digging down to create a basement level, resulting in a three-bed, three-storey home.
“They made it very clear that they wanted to see a brick house, and given that the site is within a conservation area we didn’t want to push it. But we didn’t want to use a London stock brick — we wanted to create something different, so we did a lot of re- search into bricks and looked at black, purple and grey reclaimed options. We chose reclaimed bricks which were uneven in size and colour, and chose black mortar instead of cream. It was also important to us to use real bricks and not brick slips, which I think just look like decorative cladding,” Melanie continues.
building on a tight Urban plot
After a lengthy planning process (“It took almost a year as they kept wanting more information from us,” explains Melanie), the scheme was approved first time. But when work began on site, access proved troublesome. “As we were building on 100 per cent of the plot, there was no space to store materials and we were quite on top of our neighbours at one point. The fact that we had to dig so deep to make way for the basement didn’t make things easy either, and the size of the plot meant only three or four people could work on site at one time — things improved once the shell of the house was up,” says Melanie.
Access was not the only issue the couple faced on site, either. A large tree to the front of the property meant multiple surveys had to be carried out to ensure it was protected from excavation work.
After a year and a half on site, with the couple continuing to rent their flat during the works, Melanie and Paolo moved into their completed home. The house has been designed to be deliberately minimalist, with polished concrete flooring used for the
basement and ground floors. Colour has been injected into the kitchen, however, which was built by a London joinery company. “I knew I wanted pre-coloured plywood for the units as I was tired of doing white kitchens,” says Melanie. “I wanted a kitchen that looked more like a work bench and this material is very durable, waterproof and easy to wipe clean. By concentrating the colour in one place, the kitchen acts like a piece of furniture — I love it.”
The house also benefits from generous ceiling heights (3m on the ground floor, 2.7m-high ceilings in the basement, and 2.5m on the first floor), which creates an airy feel. The floor joists to the rooms above have been left exposed in the open plan kitchen for an industrial feel. “The steels were painted and we oversized the joists in order to meet Building Regs, so that the timber would have a slower burn rate in the event of a fire,” says Melanie. “We then packed thermal and acoustic insulation on top and installed underfloor heating.”
Perhaps one of the most impressive features of the property is the large burnt larch shutters to the exterior, which provide privacy and security to the roadside elevation at night, but open out to reveal 3m x 3m sliding glass doors from Sky-Frame during the day. “I didn’t want to feel like I was sitting in a fishbowl at night, but I love that once they are open they almost act like blinkers and really frame the views over the green opposite,” she says.
The couple tried to stick to their budget, although, Melanie admits, they didn’t succeed. “In the end we just couldn’t value engineer some of the necessities that make the house what it is. We felt that we didn’t want to compromise, as we’re only doing this once,” she says. “Sometimes a budget is defined by how much money you have; other times it is defined by how much the house will be worth — but of course you need the money to get it to this point. It’s about finding a balance.
“You couldn’t have this house anywhere else,” she concludes. “It’s been designed to frame the view it has and works to make the most of its position within the street and the available space on site. It’s our forever home, and we love it.”
The homeownersMelanie Schubert and Paolo Vimercati The projectContemporary self-build Location London Build time 18 months Size 140m2Plot cost £150,000 Build cost £400,000 Value Unknown
Before & After Friends and family questioned Melanie and Paolo when they bought the dilapidated garage (below) which previously sat on the tight plot and had no planning permission in place.