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The house that we built: 40 years later, architects recall how they turned garages into grand design

The story of how a couple constructed their own home in York Rise... at a time when the land in Dartmouth Park cost £9,000

10 February, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Birkin Haward and Jo Van Heyningen

IT was an original “Grand design” – a house built by a young couple in the heart of Dartmouth Park.

Now 40 years on since the final brick was laid, architects Jo Van Heyningen and Birkin Haward recall how they bought three garages in York Rise, NW5, and designed a modernist family home.

It was the mid-1970s. Birkin as working for Norman Foster, while Jo was designing housing at the practice Neylan and Ungless when they decided they wanted a place of their own.

Outside the house in 1980…

And now…

Birkin had designed housing before, working on offices and factories using the materials that made Norman Foster a global brand name, while Jo was designing housing, at the time working on a project in Southwark.

“At first we were not thinking of building,” recalls Jo. “We put an advert in the Hampstead and Highgate Express for a house and someone in Bramshill Gardens, near York Rise, replied.”

It wasn’t what they were looking for – but as they strolled home, they noticed a sign at the entrance of a set of garages advertising land for sale.

“It had been carved out of a garden and measured 11 metres by nine,” says Birkin. “It was a pretty small site, but it was really interesting,” says Jo. “There was a big chestnut tree in our neighbour’s garden on the eastern side and that helped make it such a wonderful place.”

The garages already had solid foundations so they were reused to limit disruption to neighbours and keep costs down. The couple paid £9,000 for the land and then a further £20,000 on building the house.

“What struck us was the orientation,” says Jo. “It was south facing. It meant where the garages were was an obvious choice for the house.” Birkin recalls how he loved the idea of courtyard living, so they created a space that would become an outside room.

“The courtyard was wonderful,” says Jo. “We had many happy times there, using it for day-to-day living, holding parties, and it was central to the feel.”

Planners would only allow a building that was one-and-a-half storeys high so for the interior they drew on the listed Neave Brown homes in near by Winscombe Street – where Birkin had lived for a time – putting an open plan living room on the upper floor that made use of spaces beneath the eaves.

The garage site the two architects transformed

They added an industrial feel to stairs and railings, with metal steps and landings and materials ranging from steel beams, glass, cement tiles and brick.

“We created a glazed area that had plenty of sunlight, and later we installed a stove with a flue that ran through the centre of the house and helped heat upstairs,” says Birkin.

It wasn’t all straightforward. They had just dug out a cellar and the builders had put up a retaining wall when the famous flash flood of 1975 swamped York Rise, wrecking the work.

And a planning officer at Camden Council added an obstacle telling them not to use any modern materials – “not even good ones”.

He also said he was worried about the sun shining off the building and being visible from Hampstead Heath. However, the project was passed and took just over a year to complete.

The plan laid out in sketch form

Over time, the garage became a workshop with a bedroom and bathroom, and they added an office and extra sleeping area on a stretch of land to the north of the house.

Eventually, they moved just 100 yards away to another empty plot, where they built their next house, complete with a larger office on the top floor for their practice to work from.

“We can still see the York Rise home from our balcony,” says Jo. “It was from a certain phase of our lives, and we are still proud of it.”

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