Why isn’t it easier to build your own house in an infill site in Camden?

Zog House

Zog House - Credit: Archant

With London’s housing crisis looming larger than ever, it can be easy to despair of ever finding your dream (affordable) home. So why not build your own?

Despite initial enthusiasm for the project, this design for 80 Microflats in Haringey by the Crawfor

Despite initial enthusiasm for the project, this design for 80 Microflats in Haringey by the Crawford Partnership was refused planning permission - Credit: Archant

With land in north London at such a premium – the back garden in Primrose Hill that sold at auction for £1.26 million last year comes to mind – unless you’re astronomically rich, you’re unlikely to find a north London plot large enough to house a ‘regular’ sized home. The smaller and scruffier the site, the cheaper it is, however, and there are architects who specialise in designing and building bespoke homes in these small, forgotten spaces.

Alan Crawford founded his Muswell Hill-based architectural practice in 1997. The Crawford Partnership specialise in forming modern living solutions from small spaces and awkward sites.

“Our philosophy for the past 12 or more years has been to look at developing the many ‘gap’ sites and brownfield land that can be found all across London,” he explains. “We are always looking at how to take small spaces and make them larger.”

The practice has recently obtained permission for a plot on Wolseley Road, in Crouch End. The site is currently home to two derelict lock-up garages, which are now due to be transformed into a three-level detached house.

“This project is typical of many that the office is engaged for in utilising derelict or unused buildings and land,” says Crawford.

“We’re adding huge value to derelict land. It’s about creating something from nothing.

“Every square millimetre of the interior space designed to be both efficient and flexible.”

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Architect-turned-developer Roger Zogolovitch also finds inspiration in the challenge presented by compact sites.

The Solidspace DNA exploits half levels to create light-filled, voluminous spaces

The Solidspace DNA exploits half levels to create light-filled, voluminous spaces - Credit: Archant

“Development for me is a creative process. They’re like my canvases,” he says.

Rather than viewing the awkwardness of a plot as a hindrance, he finds impetus for his designs in the elements that would make them difficult or unwelcome to other developers. “Small sites are by nature quite difficult but they lend themselves to interesting design. It gives them a sense of place,” he says.

Zogolovitch founded independent developer Solidspace in 2003, specialising in bespoke designs for backland and infill sites. The Solidspace DNA is a trademark design where eating, living and sleeping spaces are arranged in configurations over split levels to maximise volume and light, often radically reversing the traditional layout of a residential property.

Zog House, in Queen’s Park, is an example of the Solidspace principles. Completed in 2009, for Zogolovitch’s son and Solidspace co-founder, Gus, the house occupies a gap site of 187 sq m and redefines the traditional layout of domestic space. Instead of the traditional upstairs-downstairs of the Victorian terraced house, the building uses split levels to create maximum square footage in a minimal spot, with open plan yet offset levels balancing privacy and social family life.

Zogolovitch marries his training as an architect with his belief that independent development is the key to solving London’s housing crisis. Last year he published his book Shouldn’t we all be developers? a manifesto laying out his vision for how developing small plots of land could create London’s much-needed homes.

Crawford is also convinced that reimagining the future of housing requires rethinking our approach to space. He believes compact living spaces that provide all the amenities required of modern living at a lower cost, such as micro flats and homes, could be one way to go in the future. A particular passion project for Crawford has been his proposal for a block of 80 micro flats in Crouch End.

The project envisioned prefabricated 37 sq m rooms linked with a shop, a gym, bike storage and workspace hubs designed to cater to city professionals looking for a solution to their housing needs. Circulation spaces in the form of a galleried atrium would allow natural light to flood the space. But the project didn’t get approval as it contravened planning regulations stipulating that housing developments should provide a mix of homes, rather than only single occupancy flats.

Crawford is candid about the challenges facing architects working on these kinds of projects. Red tape and bureaucracy hamper the process of getting these infill projects approved, whilst neighbours jostle to protect their boundary walls. It can take years to obtain planning permission. “It’s a labour of love,” he says.

Alan Crawford belives microflats could be part of the solution to the housing crisis

Alan Crawford belives microflats could be part of the solution to the housing crisis - Credit: Archant

Zogolovitch is more sanguine about the vagaries of planning permission.

“The political position of local government is very understandable,” he says, “but the government needs to look at issues of scale.”

“Whilst corporate developers might produce one large scale project in a batch, independent developers can nimbly fill in the gaps at a more rapid pace. With fewer restrictions, hundreds of independent developers working on tens of projects in a year could easily match.

Zogolovitch is passionate about the quality that custom built houses can deliver. Using bread making as a metaphor, he describes how large scale developers are churning out “great pantechnicons of mass produced white bread.” Meanwhile, the independent developer can harness their skills as an architect to produce handmade artisanal rolls. “The artisan bread maker has a queue around the block,” says Zogolovitch.

North Londoners are the first to appreciate the popularity of the handmade, although the price tag to match can be steep. In 2003, Solidspace purchased an oddly shaped 270 sq m plot of land at a junction on Stapleton Hall Road, in Stroud Green. Planning permission was obtained in 2011, and the following year construction began on a pair of mirrored houses, each arranged over seven half levels. The property eventually went on the market for just under £1 million. A bargain for London perhaps, but hardly affordable.

The eight year gap between purchase and planning permission is proof of the uphill struggle self and custom builders face when it comes to getting plans approved.

“Sadly, local authorities look at small scale developers with suspicion,” says Zogolovitch. Turning derelict and vacant plots into functioning family homes seems like a win-win for councils and residents alike, but as the frequent disputes over basement extensions have shown, sometimes development can be unwelcome.

Councillor Phil Jones, Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Transport and Planning, is circumspect about the idea of increased freedom for self and custom build projects. “These projects are likely to be low density, making it very hard for a prospective self-builder to compete with other developers to acquire land,” he says, adding that smaller homes “would also not fit with Camden’s policies on maximising housing supply.”

“Taking all this into account,we believe that the best way for identifying suitable land is working in partnership with developers to provide for self-build on larger sites involving other types of housing, and have made provision in our updated draft Camden Plan to include this.” The eight week consultation on the plan closed on April 4, and the Planning Inspector is due to assess it in the summer.

Councils are coming under increasing pressure to support self and custom build projects. A Right to Build summit was held at the House of Commons on April 12, as part of the initiative to boost the number of self- and custom build homes.

Michael Holmes, Chair of the National Custom and Self Build Associations says: “From 1 April 2016, all councils in England will have a duty to maintain and publicise a register of individuals and groups who wish to bring forward self-build projects or who want to have an individually designed house ‘custom built’ for them.”

Crawford is positive that self and custom builders can achieve their dreams – eventually. “We aren’t losing motivation. The joy is eventually something does get built. There is a pleasure when you get there.”