Self-build is the radical approach taken here to addressing the rising prices of housing in London, and to the general lack of interesting dwellings at the bottom of the market. A group of five who met on the diploma course at the University of North London (now London Metropolitan University), in time reduced to three, set out on foot and on scooters to find a site. They tried every approach they could think of - agents, auctions, stopping people in the street, whatever. One day, approaching the tenant of a backlands workshop, hoping the land might be for sale, they were directed to another, unnoticed potential site, where they have now built.
Whatcott's Yard in Hackney was a storage yard between the backs of two Victorian terraces - 'in between', hence the name of the terrace. It is the sort of site increasingly unacceptable for industrial use, in this case already out of use. The existing storage building would take little demolishing.
Nothing if not intrepid, the trio presented their outline terrace ideas to the planners, were refused on the grounds that the only possible use of the site was a bungalow, but bought the site anyway subject to getting planning permission within six months.
It was 'relatively cheap' because others had tried before and it was understood to be risky to buy in the hope of getting a viable planning permission. Following resubmission and an appeal, the idea for a terrace of three houses was accepted. Anticipated concerns about non-traditional materials and openings/overlookings did not materialise.
The site is not a very public place but quite close to the backs of the terraces.
It took a year to gain planning permission.
It took another to set up a small self-build mortgage. Then each of them took a year out to project-manage subcontractors and to work on the build, developing useful carpentry and plumbing skills in the process.
There is, of course, a cost penalty to designing a non-uniform terrace, but designers are not going to go to all this trouble to end up with a standard house. The balance they struck was to build a very simple-shaped terrace volume in timber frame, a technology that allows ready personalisation within. The terrace is divided into three identical volumes by structural studwork party walls, each with a 47m 2 internal footprint. This framing allows the south wall of the terrace to be fully glazed.
That sounds clear cut, but then there is the building to clad. Were they individuals or a design team? They did the shell together - as Silvia Ullmayer says, they knew that if each exercised too much individual freedom, the building 'would not be strong enough'. In fact, says Ullmayer, it was the details and the materials that were hardest to agree on rather than the broader issues of form. Any one of the three was allowed a veto over a particular external material.
In practice, an earlier drawing of the south facade shows a very regular rhythm over the three houses, with some of the storey-height glazed panels as opening lights or ground-floor terrace doors. Now No 3 (the furthest east) has broken up some panels with a scattering of smaller opening lights.
The gables and rear of Nos 1 and 3 are clad in polycarbonate sheet, with some windows to the rear, though the polycarbonate also runs over openings as a cheap 'obscured glass' for privacy. (Insulation is variously recycled newspaper and sheep's wool. ) The rear of the centre house is fully glazed. The roof is sedum. The result is essentially symmetrical.
But as with Georgian terraces, a uniform facade can conceal variety behind. Having jointly designed the envelope, individual briefs as well as individual architectural preferences came into play. No 1 is a house share with a workspace. No 2 is a two-bed house.
No 3 is two self-contained flats.
In working out these briefs, each house is in some ways strikingly different - in being single or double-aspect, making circulation discreet or centre-stage, how much the timber frame is featured, choice of flooring materials and more. There are underlying similarities too, not least from the economy of getting any one subcontractor to work on all three units.
All three designers like timber, white and light open planning, putting bedrooms downstairs to make use above of what openness the site offers, and the open three-dimensionality of a framed building. The dominant southerly orientation shapes all the layouts. The monopitch volumes allow a partial second floor: a half floor to the south in Nos 1 and 3; a smaller sleeping platform held back from the south face in No 2, giving more sense of floating in the air. And each unit gets one single step in section, used as a step up to the first-floor kitchen in No 1 and as a ground-floor step down from the entrance zone to the southerly spaces in Nos 2 and 3. (They may win the AJ's First Building Award, but they won't win the access prize. ) The designers have produced three different units within the uniform frame of a terrace - inventive, full of light in their more public spaces, eminently liveable, an implied criticism of the uniformity of conventional terraced housing. Almost a demonstration project, this risks a queue of student visits.
Being architects' own houses there are, of course, one or two items still to complete; a shower here, shading there. Overall, though, the job is done. What next? They might work together again but that is not a grand plan.
Barti Garibaldo is already involved in timber-frame projects in Italy. Annalie Riches and Ullmayer are back working for mediumsized practices, gaining more experience of larger projects. But, as Ullmayer says, the taste of going it alone has whetted the appetite.