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Mews musings: the back land site that’s been transformed into a modern minimalist haven

PUBLISHED: 12:41 28 October 2016 | UPDATED: 14:13 01 November 2016

The imprint of the house measures just 68 sq m. Photo credit: Rory Gardiner

The imprint of the house measures just 68 sq m. Photo credit: Rory Gardiner

Archant

Highgate based architect Russell Jones has created a rather special two bedroom home from a 90 sq m plot of derelict land.

The pre cast concrete paving slabs continue out into the courtyard, making the ground floor feel expansive. Photo credit: Rory GardinerThe pre cast concrete paving slabs continue out into the courtyard, making the ground floor feel expansive. Photo credit: Rory Gardiner

When it comes to building small, sometimes you need to think big. “68 sq m is the size of a two bed apartment – we built a whole house in that space,” says Russell Jones.

The Australian-born architect completed the Highgate mews house in 2015, creating a two-bedroom, two-storey house on a sliver of back land site measuring just 90 sq m in total.

Despite such a pocket sized patch the home is deceptively spacious due to a clever and careful handling of light and materials by Jones and his architectural practice, in a style that could be described as soft minimalism.

“It’s quite surprising when you open the door and go inside.

Skylights alow natural light to filter down over the exposed brick walls. Photo credit: Rory Gardiner.Skylights alow natural light to filter down over the exposed brick walls. Photo credit: Rory Gardiner.

“You think it’s going to be dark but there’s this lovely light that floods the interior,” says Jones. “One of our starting points was how it looked in the sunlight.”

Natural light is the key player in the mews house. It suffuses the exterior and interior walls, which are created from the same material and blend into one harmonious surface.

“You can see the effect of the weather play over the internal walls,” says Jones, who eschewed wallpaper or paint in favour of this ephemeral form of natural decoration.

Jones created a blank canvas for the interplay of natural light with buff coloured multi tonal Weinerberger Marziale bricks he treated with white cement, lime and washed river sand in a process known as ‘sekkeskuring’ in Scandinavia.

The floating staircase is made of Douglas fir that has been treated with white oil. Photo credit: Rory GardinerThe floating staircase is made of Douglas fir that has been treated with white oil. Photo credit: Rory Gardiner

The result is a soft, textured white that reflects natural light inside and out, with an exterior primed to weather London’s temperamental weather and smutty air pollution gracefully.

“It’s about finding materials and putting them together in way that is soft and uneven. If it’s too perfect and not detailed well it will end up staining and streaking,” he explains.

The pale exterior was in part inspired by the Victorian white glazed tiles he found on the rear extensions of 18th century buildings behind Bond Street, designed to reflect light and repel London smog.

“Most of the architecture we produce is very materials based,” says Jones, who is meticulous about selecting the right bricks, mortar and timber for his projects.

The built in niches in the courtyard add subtle visual interest and make natural shelves for plants or candles. Photo credit: Rory GardinerThe built in niches in the courtyard add subtle visual interest and make natural shelves for plants or candles. Photo credit: Rory Gardiner

“I’m very mindful of the fact that there are developers out there who will build quickly to get a cheap return,” he says. “It was always our intention to think carefully about the end quality.

“We came up with what was a sensible budget and ultimately the client ended up with good value.”

He achieved this delicate balance between budget and longevity by making conscious choices about the materials used, whilst keeping their light reflecting properties in mind. Along with the bricks he selected durable Douglas fir timbers to use in the joinery in the entranceway, floating staircase and upstairs floorboards.

“It has a sense of warmth as well as this sense of solidity,” says Jones.

Natural light washes over the treated brickwork. Photo credit: Rory GardinerNatural light washes over the treated brickwork. Photo credit: Rory Gardiner

The hardiest softwood, it’s also been treated with a white oil to simultaneously provide natural protection and blend it with the light refracting schema of the house.

On the ground floor, precast concrete paving stones stretch from the open plan living area to the walled courtyard, creating a sense of unbroken space. The glazed doorway adds to this effect, as well as allowing natural light to enter the space.

Windows were a challenge when designing the property. As an infill project planning rules dictated that none of the rear windows could overlook the existing properties. In order to circumnavigate the issue, Jones designed a series of skylights and dormer windows, strategically placed to allow light to filter in from the top down.

“In this case it was all about bringing in light from the top of the building over the surfaces,” he says.

Instead of lots of small rooms, Jones opted for an open plan layout for the ground floor. Photo credit: Rory GardinerInstead of lots of small rooms, Jones opted for an open plan layout for the ground floor. Photo credit: Rory Gardiner

This considered approach to light and materiality means the spaces run into each other, giving the impression of one cavernous whole. The open plan nature of the design contributes to this too.

“We didn’t want to fill it with lots of small rooms,” says Jones, adding “we could have been a lot busier and more complex in our detailing.”

By resisting the urge to overcomplicate, the details that he did choose to include are all the more meaningful. A grid of niches in the courtyard is an aesthetically pleasing detail and provides a built in structure where the occupant can hang plants or place candles. The impression is one of comforting security and space.

“It doesn’t look too hard, it’s soft and uplifting but not in an obvious way. It’s a very gentle and calming interior over all,” says Jones.

The muted colour scheme is bright without being antiseptic. Photo credit: Rory GardinerThe muted colour scheme is bright without being antiseptic. Photo credit: Rory Gardiner

The project also fits in to the wider architectural landscape of the area.

“Highgate has a rich heritage of small, modern 20th century infill properties,” explains Jones.

“It was possible for us to use these precedent projects as backup for putting this plan forward as a continuum of the modern heritage that’s been going in Highgate since the early 1930s.

“It doesn’t scream out for attention or try to be overly modern.”

Jones eschews what he deems “big bold attention seeking manoeuvres” instead pursuing loftier goals for his projects.

“I’m much more concerned about producing something that’s appreciated now and in the future rather than for just a moment.”

The house has become a building block in a wider regeneration project for the passageway.

Although the word mews conjures up romantic images of central London cobbled streets and converted stables, this narrow stretch was little more than an alleyway bounded by derelict garages and gardens, a magnet for fly tipping and petty crime.

Now the narrow aspect of the mews allows it to police itself, fostering a sense of community. This is due in no small part to the fact that Jones himself lives in the mews, in a house he designed back in 2007.

It was this previously established relationship with the area – and with the local planning department – that gave him such a firm jumping off point for designing the second home. He’s already been approached by other residents and clients who are interested in developing their own plots into similar properties.

Jones’s overarching vision for the future of the mews itself is characteristically gentle and holistic. He imagines “buildings that aren’t identical but use similar volumes and characteristics that make up a well proportioned and well mannered whole.”

The mews house also serves as a blueprint for how back land plots can be developed to raise the value of the other properties in the area.

“We proved the principle that we can unlock the potential of these kinds of sites for residential development. On an urban level it adds some good quality housing in an area that’s desperate for it.

“We’ve been able to achieve things you normally wouldn’t with a project this size. We distilled a lot from the site and turned it into something quite special.”

Russelljones,net

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