Crouch End designer on the reality of self-building her dream family home

An open plan kitchen with raw brass kitchen island.

Tash’s bright and airy kitchen with her movable, raw brass kitchen island. - Credit: Michelle Beatty/MAB architects

Despite being a long bumpy road, taking on a self-build home project led to a family home and a career change for one north London designer.

With the arrival of their first born back in 2012, Tash South, founder of renovation consultancy South Place Studios, and her husband Richard realised they had outgrown their Crouch End flat.

Although the couple wanted to stay in the area, the pair soon realised they had been priced out of purchasing a family home nearby thanks to a market boom. “It was really disappointing,” Tash recalls. “We had only just moved into Crouch End and we really loved it. We wanted to stay.” 

A couch in an open plan living area which included lounge, dinning area and kitchen and a view of the back garden.

Tash’s downstairs living areas pleasingly flow into the back garden. - Credit: Michelle Beatty/MAB architects

Determined to stay local, the pair decided to self-build their new family home. While Tash says this wasn’t necessarily cheaper than buying in the area, it did mean that she and her husband could break down the mortgage in stages, making it achievable.

It was also a process that took around five years and a lot of grit and anguish to complete.  “We were very naïve at the start,” Tash says. “Had we known it would take that long, we probably wouldn’t have done it. 

“We sacrificed so much and the process is all consuming. All our energy, money and time went into it.   

“At times we did question if it was going to be worth it,” Tash adds, “but you get to a certain point when you’re so deep in, you can’t stop. You have to push through and finish the thing.” 

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After sending off roughly 30 letters to landowners enquiring about garages and vacant plots, the pair found a seven by 20 metre block of land owned by a “fabulous” older lady and her partner. The elderly couple were pleased their extra land would go to a family rather than developers, and were fair about price.   

“We had all sorts of crazy responses to the letters,” Tash says. “Like people asking for £1million for a garage.  

“It’s definitely pot luck finding somewhere viable and then getting the owner to sell to you at a reasonable price. That’s all part of the challenge.” 

While finding the plot of land was relatively straightforward and happened within a year – faster than Tash and Richard anticipated - the stumbling blocks and delays came when legalising the land sale and during the planning stage, which took about two years to complete.  

“The legal process of buying the land was so involved, the time it took to get everything into place was a surprise,” says Tash.  

“There were also lots of objections to the plans, but we were expecting that – it is a modern house in a conservation area,” she goes on to say. 

“Unfortunately, if the number of objections goes over a certain amount, the matter goes to the planning committee.” 

A master bedroom with built in storage and a double bed with green bedding

The master bedroom comes with an en-suite and built in storage, as well as a city view. - Credit: Michelle Beatty/MAB architects

The couple had to attend a meeting at the town hall, where they and their objecting neighbours put their cases to the committee, who then made the final call - a nail biting but ultimately successful night for Tash and Richard.

“It was a very stressful evening,” Tash recalls. “We went along feeling very nervous knowing people in the room didn’t want us to do this.   

“In general, there is a lot of resistance to new builds. People are either resistant to change or in their mind, they think the property will look atrocious.  

“But actually, we’ve had so many complements and loads of people wander down the path to have a look at the house,” she adds.   

“It’s nice to know people appreciate the design even though we had so many objections to start with.” 

Tash and Richard also took on a lot of the project management such as sourcing contractors in an effort to keep costs down while still working – Tash then as a graphic designer and Richard in film. By the time 2018 rolled by, the couple were expecting their second child too.

In spite of - or perhaps partly because of - all the challenges Tash faced during the process, the experience of self-building led Tash into a new career path as well, steering her away from graphic design and into interior design and renovation consultancy. 

She had begun to document the various stages of the self-building process on her blog, which started to get attention. Tash’s first client, who wanted help re-designing her apartment, contacted her through Instagram, and Tash says, “it just grew from there”. 

“It’s so nice to help people renovate, because it is hard. There are so many different relationships involved, and aspects to the process too. It’s not just financial and practical. It’s your home, and a builder is coming in and ripping it up. You have to support people through that.

“There can be neighbour conflicts, planning conflicts and part of my role is supporting people through the difficult parts, as well as picking out nice tiles for them.” 

The view of a self built family home from the back garden, where you can see the kitchen and dinning area.

The back view of Tash’s modern self-built home. - Credit: Michelle Beatty/MAB architects

In terms of design for Tash’s new four-bedroom, three-storey home, Tash and Richard worked with Mark Barnard of MAB Architects to get the space they wanted. “The plot is quite tight and you’ve got to get all the rooms functioning the way you need them to,” explains Tash, “so we went through quite a few design variations. 

“But in terms of interiors, I did that all myself.

“Richard would make some suggestions and I would consider them,” she adds with a giggle. “Sometimes, but not always.”   

Tash goes on to say that the interiors became “pretty much” her thing.

“For me the project had many different aspects. It was a family home, but it was also to be a show house for me to showcase what I can do, and it was also a bit of an experiment.

“I chose lots of materials, like raw brass and polished plaster, that I would live with and see how they reacted to general family life, so I can give clients good advice that comes with real experience of living with these things.” 

Tash South sitting in her self build home's lounge

Interior designer and founder of South Place Studios, Tash South. - Credit: Supplied

Tash and her family moved into their new home in the summer of 2018, when it was liveable but still unfinished.  

With the ordeal of the build behind her, I ask Tash how she feels about her home now.

“We love it, but you definitely have to fall back in love with it,” she says.

“The process was traumatic at times. We were building this thing that was going to be amazing, but it was taking away five years of our life.”

“Even when you move in, it’s not the end. There are so many things to sort out. It took about a year or two to get to the point where we started to enjoy it.  

“That was difficult,” Tash adds. “We didn’t expect to feel like that.”