Brick by brick
Building a prize-worthy home from scratch h
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)