Dominic Bradbury, Journalist & Writer


Building or reinventing your own house is a huge commitment in every sense, requiring more than a little courage. Anyone who has ever done any work on their home knows that it soon swallows up time, energy and passion – not to mention money – and along the path to building your dream home there may well be some planning battles and a few unhappy neighbours to bring round. At the end of these epic stories the house itself is the main prize, but how rewarding it must be to also pick up some recognition from the judges of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Awards for all that blood, sweat and imagination.

This week clients Seema and Charles Perez have just learnt that their home in Belsize Park – designed by architects Eldridge Smerin – has been given a Riba Award, one on a list of 97 for 2009. It's deserved recognition for an unusual project that has taken the best part of seven years to fulfill, creating a highly individual but sensitively conceived family home for Seema, Charles – who works in the fashion industry – and their three children, Noah, 11, Jonah, 9, and Ava, 7.

Their home in Belsize Park is now a striking contrast between the new and old, with an open plan and largely single storey communal living space on the one hand – a glass pavilion opening out to the newly landscaped garden – and the original late Victorian cottage on the other. The two elements are arranged in a U-shape formation, with a courtyard in between, and a glass link connecting them together. The Perez family used to live just across the road, in a maisonette, and had long been fascinated by this triangular plot at the end of the street, which had become overgrown while the house itself was semi-derelict.

"Every day we could see this tumble down area and the house, which was empty apart from a friendly squatter," says Seema Perez, who used to work in public relations in the fashion industry. "It had become a curiosity, as well as a bit of a dumping ground. We had always been struck by the idea of doing something with this forgotten piece of land in the middle of NW3 that had such potential."

The small cottage had been built as a home for the coachman of Sir Henry Harben – the first mayor of Hampstead – who lived around the corner. There had also been glass houses on the site and a small market garden, which had turned to wilderness. Then a for sale sign appeared on the plot one day and the Perezs were tempted enough to buy the site, sell the maisonette and move into a small, garden flat next door to their former apartment where they lived for nearly five years.

They contacted Eldridge Smerin – who have designed a number of striking houses in North London – after seeing their very first house project in Hampstead, The Lawns, shortlisted for Riba's Stirling Prize in 2001. Having listened closely to Charles and Seema's brief, Piers Smerin and Nick Eldridge were inspired by the idea of the former glass houses to suggest the new pavilion, juxtaposed with the restored and updated cottage.

"Creating this sense of contrast was always the intention," says Seema. "The main living space would be in this modern, open area filled with light while the bedrooms would be in the cosier space of the old house, which was remodelled, opened up and extended a little at the back in matching brick.

"Our brief also included a courtyard – because we have always really loved them – which they really successfully incorporated in the way they wrapped the modern part of the house around the plot. We also liked the idea of a small unassuming doorway that gives way to the unexpected and our entrance is very much like that. You come in off the street into this amazing garden, which is really the first room of the house that you enter."

Being in a conservation area and a sensitive site, planning permission took two years, with another year for a careful tendering process and then one and a half years of building work, creating around 4,000 square feet of living space. The planting and trees in the garden itself – designed by Ginny Blom – was a wedding gift from Charles and Seema's friends and family and they married at the house in September 2007, just a few months after moving in.

"Charles and Seema really put their money into the architecture of the house," says Piers Smerin, whose practice has also picked up another Riba Award this year for a new house in Highgate. "It's not about expensive finishes, it's about creating an amazing family home from an unused building. Together, we have brought the house back to life but still preserved the idea of an enchanted garden and the neighbours have really come round now they have seen the garden reinstated and the newly planted trees, as well as the exterior of the Victorian house restored."

"Ultimately the judges are looking for buildings that work for the people that live in them or use them," says Riba's Tony Chapman, Head of Awards. "They have to be practical buildings and energy efficient but they should also give something to the environment, both aesthetically and in terms of enhancing the neighbourhood. One of the common themes of this year is the stitching of architecture into its place."

A sensitivity to site and context runs through many of the winning house entries in this year's Riba Awards, which are granted across fourteen regions of the UK. Chapman suggests it has been a positive year, with around 400 entries and the quality of projects has been high.

"The Awards encourage and reward imagination," Chapman says, "in terms of interpreting what the client wants and hopefully giving them more than they wanted."

One architect whose imagination is clearly healthy is Niall McLaughlin, who has picked up four 2009 Riba Awards across the UK. One of them is for the House at Piper's End in Hertfordshire for friends and clients Jimmi and Liz Bradbury and their daughter Kim, 14. McLaughlin had known the Bradburys for years, having gone to university with Jimmi and later Jimmi, 47, worked as quantity surveyor on McLaughlin's first commission.

When the Bradburys bought a small 1850s house and outbuildings down a small lane, surrounded by fields, they initially thought they would extend and update the house. But when McLaughlin and the planners started talking the limitations of the original house became very clear, especially its poor insulation and build quality. The planners were very responsive to the idea of replacing the Victorian buildings with a new house, which could be better oriented and more environmentally friendly, as well as being a striking piece of architecture and a tailored family home.

"A few neighbours thought that we should keep the original house but the planners were quite excited about getting a very modern, eco-friendly building on their patch," says Liz, 51, a teacher and parish councillor. "When we realized that we could build our own house, we both said that we wanted something very individual and with open spaces. I love it – I just find it so peaceful and calming."

The 2,400 square foot house is designed around a central, double height living room, which opens out to a terrace, reflecting pool and views out across the orchard gardens. A large and dramatic canopy helps filter the effects of the midday sun on this glazed side of the house, while the opposite side of the building that holds the entrance area is clad in cedar. The four bedroom house has a wood chip boiler and solar panels sitting on the green, sedum coated roof.

The Bradburys spent just over 500,000 on buying the original house in 2001 and their build budget was 640,000 – slightly over their original budget due to the rising price of steel. It is a highly flexible space, with plenty of sliding screens that help partition off parts of the house for extra privacy when needed. There is also an element of calming, Asian-inspired minimalism, partly inspired by the Bradburys time spent living in Asia. Most importantly, the design of the house is exactly suited to the way the Bradburys want to live.

"The best thing about architecture is the way that it makes a frame for people's lives," says McLaughlin. "It's great to see Jimmi and Liz living in the new house."

The hunt for a highly tailored, bespoke home also energized Steve and Dee Hind when they commissioned another award winning new build from architect John Pardey. This too is a highly contextual and sensitively designed house, sitting by a river bank in Buckinghamshire in another secluded and beautiful location. To overcome flood risk – which last winter briefly turned the building into a dramatic island – the contemporary, timber clad house was designed on stilts, offering mesmerizing views from the main living space across the waterway and willow trees.

Steve Hind, 57, and his wife Dee, 55, were living in a period, 16th century farmhouse, which they had restored over many years. But they tired of the low ceilings, lack of light and the way the traditional house was compartmentalized.

"We wanted something very contemporary and Dee really wanted an open plan kitchen, dining and living area," says Steve Hind, who recently sold his office equipment company and is now working in property letting and consultancy. "In the old house, we would get stuck in the farmhouse kitchen when friends or family were in the living room. Now we are completely open plan and wherever we are in our living area we see the river."

The Hinds – who have two grown up children, Todd and Lara – bought the site with a two bedroom bungalow for 500,000, which they lived in for two years before starting work on the 3,000 square foot house with a build budget of around another 500,000. Hind co-project managed the build himself, with help from an experienced friend and neighbour, as well as working closely with Pardey on the design.

"We looked at a prefabricated Huf Haus and an Italian prefab," says Steve Hind, "but they didn't have the flexibility of a bespoke house where you sit down with the architect and discuss your lifestyle and what you really want from the house. When we were introduced to John, he really listened to us and when he came back for the second briefing he had already put together a model so that we could see exactly what he was suggesting. It was great – he had really thought it through and we cracked on with the design."

It's the highly bespoke and sensitive nature of these houses – both for the clients and their surroundings – that really sets them apart, creating the polar opposite to housing estate uniformity. These are courageous houses, but behind them all is also a warm and productive working relationship between architect and client that is so crucial to a truly successful and imaginative house.

"For me," says John Pardey, "the most successful aspects of the finished house are that it was so beautifully built and that the Hinds seem to love it. They have fitted into this house like a glove."

Eldridge Smerin – – 020 7228 2824

Niall McLaughlin Architects – – 020 7485 9170

John Pardey Architects – – 01590 626465