Brick by brick

Build­ing a prize-wor­thy home from scratch h

The Guardian - Weekend - - News -

It’s called the Mak­ers House with good rea­son. The architects made it. I mean, ob­vi­ously they de­signed it – but they also got down dirty and helped to build it. “Any­thing we could do our­selves, we did,” says So­phie Gold­hill, part­ner, along with her hus­band David Lid­di­coat, in the young firm Lid­di­coat & Gold­hill. “Sweep­ing up, run­ning out to the build­ing sup­pli­ers, car­ry­ing the bricks – you name it.”

She and Lid­di­coat more or less moved their of­fice and staff to the build­ing site in east London to man­age the project. I’ve watched enough episodes of Grand De­signs to know this can be a dis­as­ter, re­sult­ing in rows, di­vorce, bank­ruptcy and a lot of eye-rolling from the brick­lay­ers. “No, no,” Lid­di­coat cor­rects. “If any­thing, the mak­ing was more fun than the de­sign­ing.”

But why on earth would you? They’re architects, of course, ge­net­i­cally pre­dis­posed to­wards con­trol freak­ery, to ob­sess over de­tails such as the pre­cise align­ment of plug sock­ets. But mak­ing build­ings, phys­i­cally, with your hands, is not nec­es­sar­ily part of an ar­chi­tect’s train­ing. “When you study ar­chi­tec­ture you’re so dis­con­nected from the process of build­ing,” Gold­hill says. “That seems very odd to us,” Lid­di­coat adds.

They have form. In 2008, the cou­ple built their first home, the Shadow House, on a plot in the up­per reaches of Cam­den Town, north London. “We couldn’t af­ford to buy any­thing,” Lid­di­coat re­calls. “But there was this mo­ment af­ter the crash in 2008 when you could find postage-stamp-sized plots in London, over­looked by devel­op­ers, rel­a­tively af­ford­ably.”

By build­ing it them­selves they could make it even more af­ford­able and learn the nitty-gritty of how a build­ing ac­tu­ally comes into be­ing. “It was an ed­u­ca­tion,” says Gold­hill. “You have to have a mil­i­tary at­ti­tude,” Lid­di­coat says. Ar­chi­tec­ture, adds Gold­hill, “is mostly lo­gis­tics”.

They must have en­joyed it be­cause no sooner had they moved in than they started all over again. Only big­ger. And with a baby on the way. With their firm ex­pand­ing, they de­cided to sell the Shadow House to buy a stu­dio for an of­fice and this plot for their fam­ily. Well, that was the plan.

This time they were manag­ing 100 peo­ple on site, and dozens of →

con­trac­tors. But it gave the cou­ple in­cred­i­ble con­trol over the re­sult. “We got re­ally nerdy,” Lid­di­coat says. “We’d try things out: how ma­te­ri­als smelled, or felt when you walked on them bare­foot.” (This surely drew eye-rolls from the brick­lay­ers.) The site was awk­ward, trape­zoid – “in­her­ently com­plex”, Lid­di­coat says – on a busy street, over­looked by neigh­bours on all sides and in a con­ser­va­tion area with listed build­ings. The full whammy, which prob­a­bly ac­counts for the plot’s af­ford­abil­ity. By run­ning the project them­selves they saved money to spend else­where. First of all: space. Gold­hill and Lid­di­coat went in all guns blaz­ing, with a de­sign over five floors. “We fully ex­pected the planners to tell us to lop the top off or scrap the base­ment,” Lid­di­coat says. But they didn’t.

All that ob­ses­sion paid off. The house is im­mac­u­lately made, not a duff de­tail in sight. The idea, says Gold­hill, was to cre­ate a con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of the kind of Vic­to­rian vil­las built nearby. “If 19th-cen­tury builders were build­ing to­day, what would they do?”

It is a deep house, with the main, split-level liv­ing-space-cum-kitchen­cum-din­ing-room es­pe­cially cav­ernous. Even on a dull day, the in­te­rior is bright, its space sliced with shafts of light. Large win­dows punc­tu­ate the front and back walls; on the side walls, the stepped shape of the house al­lows clerestory win­dows to run at ceil­ing height front to back. Those five floors fold on top of one an­other, open-plan, of course, with in­ter­nal spa­ces di­vided mostly by slid­ing doors or thick, colour­ful cur­tains, to be con­fig­ured how you want. The top floor has two be­d­rooms and a bath­room; the floor be­low two more be­d­rooms, a large bath­room, a closet and what is cur­rently a makeshift of­fice; be­low that lies the gi­gan­tic main liv­ing space on two lev­els; and, fi­nally, a base­ment snug and util­ity room.

They didn’t stint on ma­te­ri­als. “It’s im­por­tant for a home to feel right,” Gold­hill says, “and so much of that comes from the ma­te­ri­als you see and touch.” The fa­cade is fronted by ex­pen­sive Dan­ish Petersen bricks. But, be­ing an en­tre­pre­neur­ial pair, such in­dul­gences “are off­set with cheap raw ma­te­ri­als”, Lid­di­coat says, like pave­ment con­crete kerb stones from B&Q. The pair liked their “raw­ness” and orig­i­nally wanted to use them lib­er­ally on the fa­cade. The lo­cal con­ser­va­tion of­fi­cer dis­agreed. In­stead they are used at the base of the walls as a kind of plinth. And in the main liv­ing space, the whole of­fice stayed up till 2am one night to fix a gi­ant net to the stair­case in­stead of a banis­ter: “Cost: £29.99,” Gold­hill says.

Af­ter all that slog, the cou­ple only lived in the house for a few months. A se­cond child had come along. “We were be­gin­ning to think again about where we wanted to bring up our fam­ily,” Gold­hill says. Then the London prop­erty mar­ket ex­ploded.

So they sold the house to a de­signer/ar­chi­tect cou­ple, Valentina Au­drito and Abhi Kumb­hat, and their fam­ily. They have filled the house with quirky Clock­wise from top: colour­ful cur­tains di­vide up the space; the kitchen; the first-floor bath­room. ‘If 19th-cen­tury builders were build­ing to­day, what would they do?’

art, flashes of neon, and out-there fur­ni­ture de­signed by Au­drito’s ar­chi­tect par­ents: an arm­chair in the form of a gold lamé purse; a pair of gi­gan­tic golden lips for a sofa.

Lid­di­coat and Gold­hill upped sticks to Whit­stable in Kent and moved the of­fice to Mar­gate. “We were a bit sad to part with the house, but for us it was more the process of cre­at­ing and mak­ing it that was im­por­tant. We were re­ally ex­cited to see Abhi and Valentina move in and start to make it their own.”

The fam­ily now live, Gold­hill says, in an “unlovely bun­ga­low – but at least we have our next project.” The Mak­ers House, mean­while, is up for the Royal In­sti­tute of Bri­tish Architects’ House of the Year prize this au­tumn. Whether or not it wins, it’s a supreme les­son in get­ting the most – space, value for money, beauty – from one patch of land

See the Mak­ers House in Grand De­signs: RIBA House of the Year, on Chan­nel 4 this month.

‘We got re­ally nerdy about ma­te­ri­als’: the kitchen/liv­ing space (left), which looks into the rear gar­den. The Petersen brick fa­cade (right)

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