Urban Mesh saw potential in a site shunned by other developers and designed a house to transcend the narrow geometry of the plot and complement an already colourful street.
Homeowner Oliver Lazarus explains: “I’m an Architect – the perfect nightmare self-build client. Thankfully, colleagues at Urban Mesh were invaluable soundboards for ideas and had high boredom/tolerance thresholds. It’s very possible to go round in circles when designing your own place, probably even more so if you do it for a living. I was spared this by my colleagues and many of the features and ideas in the house are also down to conversations with them. It did also make me appreciate the value of architects.
“I’ve always had a fatal attraction to building houses since first seeing a self-built house by Constructive Individuals at the Milton Keynes 1986 Energy World Exhibition. I subsequently spent the early years of my architectural practice working with self-builders including projects in London.
“We wanted a larger house that would see our family through the next 20 years but didn’t want to move out of the area where we live, go to school and work. With the crazy house market these days, you need to either have very deep pockets or find a solution outside of the norm – self-build is one of these solutions.”
Oliver continues: “The plot was long and narrow and didn’t really stack up as conventional development plot. A number of people had looked at it previously, but funding was difficult as the title deeds had an old covenant preventing residential development which made borrowing difficult.
“It was close to where we already lived and to be honest, if you want a self-build plot in London you don’t really have a lot of choice. We knew other people that had tried to develop it and were walking past it one day, saw the number of the site security company on it and phoned up. Once we had a sniff that the owner might be happy selling, we just got on with it as fast as we could.”
Oliver explains: “The primary inspiration was to make a home that would last us and our family 20 years – larger, smellier kids, their friends, family parties, visitors, possible older generation relatives living in etc.
“After that, architectural conceits seeped in. I work as an architect for Urban Mesh Design. The practice cut its teeth eking space out of tight inner-London properties and has a huge portfolio of residential projects built for large commercial owners. Over those projects, we’ve developed some great ground rules for space planning and also a simple design ethos where the primacy of creating a series of well-proportioned, well-connected spaces is never compromised.
“Once this is in place, the next challenge is to make the building greater than the sum of its parts; spaces to be multifunctional and open to being interpreted, configured and inhabited in different ways.
“Manipulating the way light entered the property was also incredibly important. The plot is very long (20.5m) and only 12ft wide (3.7m) at the front so a lot of effort went into negotiating a way of bringing light into the centre of the plan. “As a practice, we always like to engage with the opportunity to create texture and intrigue through brick. Because this plot was so long and thin, it had a disproportionately large perimeter for a house of this size. This took up a significant part of the budget (and was a reason why it hadn’t been attractive to developers previously).
“For this reason, the majority of the perimeter was built using conventional block and render and we allowed the journey into brick only at the public-facing parts of the facade.”
Volcano House sits on Coate Street, E2, a pedestrian thoroughfare that runs east-west between the burgeoning Oval Space and the tranquillity of Haggerston Park. Sited in a conservation area, the locale is also blessed with a number of modern house gems and given this heritage and the increasing foot traffic through the area, Urban Mesh was keen to add to this East London landscape.
Given the relative small layout of the exterior and its prominence on the street, Urban Mesh was able to focus on quality over quantity and deliver something unique. Working closely with brick supplier Erkan Nihat of EBM and brick maestro Ian Peper of HG Matthews, Urban Mesh developed an entirely bespoke and innovative ‘Black Volcano’ brick specifically for the project.
Consisting of three bands of differing brick treatment and throwing mirror polish slips into the mix creates a surface that is as reflective as it is enveloping – by day; a semi-transparent elevation and by night; a reflective beacon of the bright lights of the East End.
“We were keen to have the facade turn the corner to address the street but as every last centimetre counted with such a narrow site, we were keen to build right out to the party wall with the neighbouring property. This meant that we could then not put windows in the side elevation; so a banded design evolved that brought the lines of the windows around the corner. For this band, we revisited a project we’d done many years ago where, to bring a courtyard into a north-facing yard, we adhered a number of brick-sized mirrors to the house opposite. We revisited the site, the mirrors were still there and still shiny so we thought we’d build on that for this current project.
“There were two other bands. For the first of these, we worked with a brilliant independent brick manufacturer based in Buckinghamshire to develop a glazed brick especially for this project. The second bands were made from a very flat black, matte brick, which at ground-floor level we split and turned inside out to expose its rough patterned interior.”
The interiors of the home were playfully designed to suit the desires and personalities of Lazarus and his family.
“We finalised the design after lots of talking over family meals and a great app called ‘iThoughts’. This is a superb mental mapping app that helps you remember and connect all those vital elements of the brief that you remember at 2am in the morning. “We also had the whole family drawing over printed drawings with their ideas for what they wanted.
“Colour was a big driver internally. Personally, I’m a bit terrified of colour, but I’m very good at a number of shades of ‘greige’. Fortunately, my partner is a colour maestro. Where I will paint 20 colour samples and agonise between them, my partner can pick a colour and just get on with it – which is a talent. This was also needed as the windows had to be ordered before we even started on site and they each had a different colour specified internally,” explains Oliver. As a result, the home is filled with colourful and individual touches throughout. In the main dining space, sliding pastel green kitchen units are complemented by a cantilevered sea-blue wrap-around leather banquette and reclaimed peach church pew. Glass doors disappear into walls, neon hearts glow and stairs become periscopes. In the third-floor master bathroom, a well-placed step puts the 6’3" and 4’11" couple at equal heights at double stone sinks as well as providing access to a secluded street-facing bamboo terrace.
At upper levels, circulation areas expand to become music, games and homework spaces – as much a salute to creative space planning as a reaction to the family’s previous corridored Victorian maisonette.
The ground floor provides a calm refuge arranged around a large pear tree planted within a glazed courtyard containing guest accommodation and an airy open-ceilinged studio space for Lazarus’ yoga and health practitioner wife.
Despite the plot size, the home is filled with natural light from generous glazing in recesses that resulted from extensive party wall and Rights of Light negotiations. Even the plot shape formed part of the design process as negotiations with a neighbouring development resulted in a widened rear and a beguiling wedge-shaped footprint to the building that subtly opens up as you pass from front to back.
“Even though the house had outline planning, getting consent for detailed plans was a grind,” explains Oliver. “The site was in a conservation area which, with underfunded planning authorities, can be a curse. The cycle of communication with officers that can only be funded to work part-time can be painful. I got so frustrated that in the end I went into a meeting at the planning office with a nice new pen and asked them to draw exactly how they wanted to change the bits we couldn’t agree on and then amended the plans and resubmitted them as per their design.
“However, planning proved to be the easiest bit! As soon as we started the party wall process, we were served with an injunction from the neighbouring commercial building as they claimed that our building would damage the value of theirs. “We spent the next year trying to persuade the building owner that turning the scrapyard that occupied the site into a good-looking building would improve rather than damage their building. In the end, they were quite reasonable about it but the delay and additional professional fees still gave us a bit of a hammering.
“The next challenge was partly self-imposed. A building was being built next door on the other side to the commercial building and it was too big for the site! The architects for the building suggested us giving them a bit of land at the front of our site in exchange for a bit more land from their site at the back. This was great as our site became a wedge shape that opened out to the rear which works really well, but it did mean going back for another planning permission.
“A self-build is a great opportunity to try out new products. For the shell, we used a new full-fill insulation that enables you to build thinner cavity walls (the site was so long and narrow that a wall build-up 100mm thinner gave us an extra 16m² of space – equivalent to an extra bedroom and en-suite).
“It was an interesting moment for the introduction of home automation. Nest products are great, its thermostats are a total no-brainer; although the lack of heat detector in its protector range is a problem. The Nest camera makes a great budget version of video entry.
“After much thought, we ditched intelligent lighting systems – everyone understands a light switch and they never crash.”
Oliver continues: “We originally designed a heating system powered by a woodburner with a huge hot water storage cylinder. The week before we were due to fit the woodburner, a New Scientist report came out with evidence that air pollution in London was largely caused by the huge increase in popularity of home burning and the particulates emitted. In that light, it was difficult to justify making a house that entirely relied upon this for heat generation. We stuck some solar thermal on the roof instead to supplement a gas boiler.
“The biggest and best renewable, however, has come from building the house airtight and using MVHR. I was a bit sceptical about it but it has been amazing. We used Solarcrest to help us design the system and the company was great as it could pull elements from different manufacturers. We’ve been amazed at how fresh the air feels in the house and also how heat gets redistributed about the house. We went through our first winter using just the underfloor heating in the ground-floor hall slab to heat the whole house.”
When discussing how long the project took, Oliver explains how they stuck to the timeframe, loosely: “We always said it would be finished by Christmas, although never told anyone which one. After buying the site in 2011, however, we didn’t expect to be only just making it in time for Chritmas 2017!
“2012 was spent getting detailed planning granted, 2013 was spent negotiating with the commercial neighbour on Rights of Light, 2014 was spent gaining new planning consent for change of site boundaries and we started on site in February 2016. In 2017, the shell was complete and we started the fit-out in February 2017. We moved in during December 2017.”
Oliver believes he didn’t do too badly in regards to remaining within his orginal budget, he explains: “Groundworks were a lot more expensive than we initially anticipated. Due to the length of time from purchase, the biggest unexpected cost was interest payments – but they never seem to talk about that bit on Property Ladder!
“Hopefully, the house is a fun moment in the street – everyone’s very complimentary about it and the odd person has been seen snapping photos.
“As architects, we rarely get to see how places that we designed are lived in. Living in something that we’ve all thought really hard about how to make and seeing how it enhances family life has been a great lesson and quite reassuring.
“The mirror brick facade is better than I could ever have imagined. I still always walk back to the house the long way round for the view.
“I love the hallway. Our previous Victorian house had a twice-daily pile-up by the front door as folk tried to negotiate coming, going and loitering with intent. That it can be a joyful experience to get in and out of the house has been a revelation.”
If Oliver did the whole thing again he would hire an architect. He says: “Doing this made me realise what great value they are. Trying to do everything – drawings, legals, finance, project management etc – drove me bonkers at times.”
But would Oliver do the whole thing again? “Inevitably, yes. The fatal attraction will never go away. It wasn’t always a joyful process, but it has provided our family with a home that we could not have otherwise had.
“The project has been a labour of love from purchase and planning through to construction and fit-out but, given the opportunity, what architect could resist the opportunity to build their own house, especially so close to home in London. The nature of the site pushed us as architects to create something engaging in the streetscape and internally to create a generous home with functional, beautifully proportioned and well-connected spaces. As a family, it gave us the incredible opportunity to build a lifetime home in an area we lived and loved.”