Suzanne Brewer encountered a raft of problems when she decided to design and build her own house in south-east London. But, as she tells Sutherland Lyall, she still enjoyed the experience.
Architects' own houses are always fascinating because they are inevitably self-build, are often more adventurous than suburban estate agents might think prudent, and normally involve a great deal of bureaucratic and financial agony. The Brewer Courtyard House in Blackheath, south-east London, is no exception.
Suzanne Brewer is an associate director of London practice Barr Gazetas Architects. This was a private job, carried out during intensive weekend drawing and design sessions with 8am site meetings, lots of negotiation with the usual advisory suspects and a personal BlackBerry.
TROUBLED HISTORY Brewer found the site at the end of a long garden. More accurately, she spent a day in a map shop looking for large gardens with rear access and sent letters to prospects. Then she spent a year persuading a retired architect to sell her the end of his garden.
The site's history included a series of failed planning applications in the 1980s. There was also no inkling of the water or sewage works the local council had promised to agree to:
Thames Water said it would not connect to a single house and a local authority permission was needed. This was an old site and an archaeology consultant had to be brought in. Eventually Brewer placated English Heritage, soothed the neighbours, won over the Blackheath Society and, when she gained planning permission, finalised the land purchase and put out tenders. Prices (this was July 2003) varied from £75,000 more than the £275,000 budget to £564,000. The contractor, Cooper Builders, and the quantity surveyor, CBL, reduced the cost to just over £300,000. This involved trimming the fit-out, landscaping and some finishes, and appointing the roofing, glazing and render contractors directly. The prices included the discounts architects receive. But, Brewer says: 'The only thing I didn't change was the skin: the walls and glazing.'
MAIN EVENT Then everything stopped. Digging had revealed an old, unmapped sewer connection. So drainage was sorted. But the council decided to renege on its agreement to allow the water supply and it took 11 months and £23,000 to install a 110m-long water main. Brewer stayed with her contractor - although at the end of nearly a year, the firm pointed out that inflation, plus the mains installation, had increased the cost to £350,000. She says: 'I chose the original builder because they were by far the lowest tender. They proved to be very keen, were on time and on budget - even if I didn't like the fact that the budget had gone up with inflation.' The contract was the conventional JCT 98 without quantities and the specification was written under NBS. Brewer says: 'I'm not a big fan of bills of quantities. There are quite enough discrepancies between bills and drawings, and the bill tends to override. I would much rather someone prices the drawing and the spec. And it [not having a bill] means fewer fees. But I don't hate quantity surveyors at all. I just like to think that in 10 years I will be able to know it [building costs] myself.'
BUILDING STRUCTURE The plan has a kind of inevitability on such a long, narrow site.
It has a front- and back-facing block at the front, connected by a narrow link to an inward looking block at the rear. The planners insisted that privacy measures be applied to the first floor of the rear block. So it has no windows overlooking the property at the back and its courtyard windows have fixed vertical louvres allowing light in but preventing views across the next-door property. Also, the first floor of the link is blank. Brewer found this restrictive but now that she is designing the house for the adjacent site it makes more sense - it means she will not be reciprocally overlooked by her new neighbours.
The rear block has the main and single-aspect bedroom at first-floor level, above the living room which faces into both the main courtyard and a small enclosed space at the back. There are no privacy problems at ground-floor level. The front block has two bedrooms and a bathroom at first-floor level with a kitchen facing the front courtyard and a dining room overlooking the central courtyard. The single flight of stairs in the link runs along the blank party wall. Aligned with the width of this flight are storage cupboards and a WC by the front door.
ROOFING The structure is based on four lateral 'goalpost' steel frames and the front and back incorporate diagonal bracing. The structural infill is insulated load-bearing cavity blockwork. Ground and first fl oors are block and beam with Nuheat 10mm Optiflow water pipes laid in the screed. The two main roofs are supported on 195mm-deep timber purlins spanning across the site with a ply deck and laid to a slope of four degrees. The roofing is Sarnafil, which Brewer had just used on a job with her practice and which can come in a slate-coloured finish - helpful with the planners. She agrees that single-ply membranes can be laid to flat roofs but says: 'I think if the roof failed it would not be as big an issue if it is laid to falls.' The roof has the standard SarnaTherm rigid insulation on top of the purlins and more insulation between them. Brewer says:
'Putting insulation between the joists is not normally recommended but our dew-point calculations showed it was going to be OK for condensation.' Because of the large areas of glass, Brewer had to take a target U-value approach which meant she could trade off the windows with large amounts of insulation in the roof and floor.
SOLID AND VOID Brewer wanted a building form of monolithic surfaces juxtaposed with voids represented by glass. But she abandoned the idea of concrete early on, finally deciding on the hybrid steel/blockwork structure with cavity-insulated blockwork clad with Stolit K render from Sto on all external walls. This reinforced acrylic render performs a lot better than traditional sand-cement render and comes with a 10-year guarantee. She avoided laying the acrylic over external insulation because her experience is that it can be 'a bit fragile at ground level where it can get bashed about'.
The other main element in the skin is the glazing. Brewer's ambition was to have all habitable rooms opening out to outdoor space. Consequently, 40 per cent of the elevations (excluding the blank north party wall) incorporate Schüco anodised-aluminium glazing deploying argon-filled low-E double panels. Brewer says: 'I am a big fan of Schüco. I have used it before and was keen to use its semi-frameless system on the front elevation. At the time Schüco was one of the first to have a double-glazed semi-frameless system and I felt confident about it.' Brewer then found Schüco has a lift-and-slide door system, the RS70F. She says its great advantage is that it is possible to 'slide very large and heavy units effortlessly'. There are five of these sliding/folding/ stacking glazed units. Brewer also opted for Shüco rooflights for the three lights over the stairwell. She says: 'I looked at Vitral, which does a lovely thin section, but these skylights became part of the big Schüco order and were half the price.'
INSIDE FINISHES Although Brewer abandoned thoughts of a concrete structure, she did use concrete for her kitchen work surfaces. There was a design issue. Brewer wanted the work surfaces to lie flush with the glazing transom but, given the height of the units, they had to be quite thin.
Her original thought was that an expensive surface would help make a cheap kitchen look good. So she looked at Corian but was more taken by MASS sealed Portland grey concrete from Cast Advanced Concretes. After it was installed she said ruefully: 'It is almost too refined - it almost looks like Corian although it is more expensive. But I didn't expect it would cost the same as the kitchen.' Floors in circulation areas are Kenton Jones' tobaccoburnt and distressed oak planks, which are suitable for under-floor heating. Brewer had originally specified Gabor limestone from Stone Age but that got lost in the value-engineering exercise. In kitchens and bathrooms, the flooring is a 5mm white seamless resin from Ryebrook Resins. Brewer says: 'The resin works fine in the bathrooms but in retrospect in the kitchen I would have preferred a more natural polished concrete finish. Everyone said you couldn't do it without power-floating the floor but I have done more research since and now know that that is not true.' Architects almost always specify D Line door handles and Vola taps, as did Brewer. Happily for her budget, Higrade Hardware had introduced a less expensive equivalent to its Vieler range, which Brewer specifies quite a lot. So to bathroom fittings - and Brewer used the Metro tap range from Bathstore.
Would Brewer ever do it again? She says: 'I love it - to the extent that I want to do more developments. You don't have to answer to anyone. If there is a problem no one goes into panic.
There are no over-reactions and making a bigger deal of things than is justified. It means I can deal with things on my own.'