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building studyOn an extremely tight, part-buried site, Buckley Gray's houses are private worlds of dramatic light and enclosed outdoor spaces

Planning constraints can have curious effects.

In London's Barnsbury, a 1930s storage building and the stable floor beneath, found during excavation, now define the profile and positioning of new housing on this tight site.

To the rear of a pub (now housing), in an enclosed yard overlooked by surrounding housing, Buckley Gray has squeezed a terrace of three houses which even limbo under the former pitched roofline.

For the neighbours, whose very short back gardens edge much of the site, sticking to the old buildings' volume may have the benefit of containing new visual intrusion.

For the architect, the implications were more problematic.

The houses are pushed to the back of the available site, against the high wall that was once the solid rear wall of the old buildings, so providing no view out to the rear. While the resulting single-aspect plot is reflected in calling the houses Haven Mews, in fact the plan is so deep that rear windows are essential for daylight, if not for views. And the digging down 1.5m to the stable floor, while not formally constituting a basement with all of the means of escape requirements that go with it, did also cut off the views to the front at this semi-basement level. But the benefit of excavation was to make possible (just), three-storey houses within the previous buildings' envelope.

The architect's response to these limits to the front and rear, and to issues of privacy for the new occupants, has been to create a semi-private world for each house, providing outdoor lightwell/slot spaces within the perimeter of the previous volume, and on the upper floors, increasing the sense of openness by creating views between spaces within a house. The story is first about ingenious three-dimensional design.

Discussing the planning disintegrates this three-dimensionality to some extent but does simplify an intricate picture. At semi-basement level, a 2x2m rear terrace brings a surprisingly good level of daylight to the adjacent study and bedroom through fully-glazed sliding doors. It is more a visual focus, like a small, enclosed Japanese courtyard, than a space to inhabit. Similarly, at the front, a 1.8m wide light slot alongside the semi-basements leaves the front bedrooms looking on to a wall. This wall has been planted, the experience reminiscent of the planted walls of Unique Environments' recent mews (AJ 22.4.04). It is a good enough prospect to justify glazed walls with sliding doors.

On the ground floor, the front views are open, at least within the range of the small enclosed yard, the entrance to which is an archway under a flying freehold house that Buckley Gray is also currently converting.

The rear of the ground floor stops 2m short of the rear wall, like the basement terrace.

The arrangement at the rear is therefore the 'well' of the semi-basement terrace and then a terrace at ground floor outside the dining area, built over the semi-basement bedroom.

With fully-opening folding glass doors from the dining area on to this terrace and the inside walnut floorboard joints aligned with the terrace's stained iroko boards, the space flows. With the white-painted, planted rear site wall brightened from above, the impression from the terrace is of sky light, of being connected to the indoor space, and of a discreet separation from the neighbouring two houses across the 'wells'.

Above this, at first floor, the rear view out is again on to the light slot, which climbing plants will eventually reach, plus a glimpse of sky above the perimeter wall.

Each house is, of course, a more threedimensional experience than this description of the layouts suggests.Approaching the houses, a bridge along the front passes over the light slot, its slatted balustrade providing the semi-basement front bedrooms with some privacy screening. Stepping inside, the light draws the eye up through the doubleheight space to the frameless glass rooflight at the head of the stair, and beyond, through a glass wall, to a first floor winter garden.

This opens off the first floor bedroom.

Deliberately stopping the first floor short of the outer walls works well. Full glazing from floor to ceiling at these cut floor edges has the virtue of providing connecting views down into the ground floor (as well as outside through the curtain walling beyond). And looking up from ground level, the floor cut-backs above provide open sky views. In the kitchen in particular, a normal-height space suddenly opens up to a second storey above with a wall of glass, not just a window out.

The success of this building is not, though, just the result of designing threedimensional space and transparency. The restrained palette also produces a calm that contributes to the spaciousness, and the white walls and ceilings are instrumental in inter-reflecting light through each house.

Of course, the cool quality of the spaces with their minimal detailing, much helped by choice of fixtures, does not come cheap.

Hidden away, too, is the automation of security, lighting and audiovisual systems that goes with houses which in this part of London are in the £1 million bracket. Nor are they family houses. But for a much wider range of such sites, the scheme does provide an interesting set of architectural ideas about dense housing in tight urban backlands - 'brownfield' suggests something much less constrained.

Buckley Gray succeeds in making light and transparency provide a sense of openness and of the outdoors where physically, these hardly exist.

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