The Handmade House: A Love Story Set in Concrete By Geraldine Bedell.
Viking, 2005. £16.99 In this era of TV's Grand Designs, this book should be required reading for anyone thinking of building the perfect family house that will, with the skill of an architect, liberate them both physically and spiritually from their cluttered previous existence.
Having failed to secure a red-brick Edwardian house, Geraldine Bedell and her husband (plus four children) purchase a small backland site in Islington at £150,000 over the asking price, and from then on money, or rather the lack of it, is a running theme.
Through a friend they meet and appoint Azman Owens as their architect, and, as the design for a minimalist glass box embracing the garden gradually emerges, so does the subtle power of the architect to influence how the clients should change their lives to respond to this environment. In parallel with the architectural development, nasty issues such as neighbours' rights of way over the access lane arise, all of which need further non-existent money thrown at them to resolve.
Like the architect, the builder, Varbud, was selected purely on recommendation, and then a price and programme were negotiated. Inevitably, the estimate was far in excess of the clients' funds and could have been significantly reduced by getting rid of the immaculate fairfaced concrete walls that the architect had by now convinced the clients were essential.
Eventually the building work proceeds, including these walls, and the passion with which the client, architect and builder debate concrete delivery, shuttering and surface finish proves to be riveting.
The skill of the architect to subtly bring the client along with the minimalist design concept is impressive, and the book demonstrates the very personal nature of the architect/client relationship in domestic projects. The one thing that went exactly according to plan was planning consent, with Islington council throwing out local petty objections in support of an excellent piece of modern architecture. Construction was fraught with the usual dramas - bad weather, incorrectly built work and client angst at the apparent small size of their future home as the walls rise.
Practical completion is, of course, delayed many times, but in the end the family move in and settle into their new surroundings with surprisingly few problems and a sense of great liberation (Bedell having surreptitiously discarded much of their previous life in plastic bags). In the end, redemption comes through the power of architecture to transform human experience.
The spectre of bankruptcy remains a constant throughout the project, only miraculously avoided at the last by much refinancing, last-minute cheques and brinkmanship with bank managers. It takes the Bedell family over a year after completion of the house to begin to get straight financially - but after three years of building, £540,000 eventually comes to feel like a bargain.
This is a moving modern Honeywood File with a happy ending, and a gripping read for any architect or client contemplating a 'grand design'.
Nigel Woolner is a director of Chapman Taylor