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For photographer Ed Reeve, building his own house had been a lifelong dream. When he met architect David Adjaye, and found the perfect plot of land in London’s De Beauvoir Town, Reeve knew his time had come. The Sunken House, so-named for its excavated site, is a dark, cedar-clad cube in a stuffy part of town, where weathered brick and clay chimney pots are more common than modernist angles.
The facade achieves a notable sense of verticality for such a stout structure, with its stained-timber cladding aimed straight up toward the sky. The heavy, horizontal brick-work of the neighboring Georgian houses seems to imply aesthetic controversy, but in fact, during its short planning review, Reeve's house received letters of support from no fewer than five neighbors. The front gate opens onto a driveway, which in turn leads to a private patio around back.

A rather mysterious cube rises up between thetrees and neighboring Georgian houses of London’s peaceful De Beauvoir Town. The cube is clad in a cedar rainscreen, which is stained dark brown. A single slot window at the front is all that indicates that this is, in fact, a house. To those close to the commissioner and inhabitant, Ed Reeve, it has affectionately become known as Ed’s Shed.

“Since I was nine, it has been a lifelong passionto one day build my own house,” muses Reeve, a photographer. It is with justifiable pride that he can make such a statement, as he contentedly sips a cup of tea in his recently completed home.

The thought of building your own home is, by most people’s standards, a draining proposition. Finding a plot in London is already a struggle, as the shortage of availability coupled with the turmoil of regulations and high land costs are three challenges too many. For Reeve, the opportunity couldn’t come soon enough.

Serious conversations to realize his childhood dream go back more than a decade, to when Reeve met the then-fledgling architect David Adjaye. While Reeve shot Adjaye’s portrait and early architectural projects, the two struck up a friendship. When, in 2003, a mutual friend pointed out a potential site in De Beauvoir Town, Reeve immediately fell in love with it. He always knew he wanted a house with plenty of natural light, instinctively in tune with the trained sensitivities of his photographic eye, so he was understandably eager to exploit the location’s evening sunset as well as optimize the view of the surrounding trees. Reeve was adamant that the new house should make a panoramic composition of the natural environment outside—a visual luxury in sharp contrast to the urban density on view for most city dwellers.

After Reeve purchased the plot, formerly a builder’s yard located at the end of a block of houses, Adjaye commenced with some early concepts for Reeve’s consideration. One of his first ideas was to include windows only at the back of the house, to focus and accentuate the view—but the idea never really gained traction with Reeve, who grew uneasy with this rather extreme proposal. The final design was approved in 2004 (albeit with more windows). Adjaye obtained planning permission within eight weeks, accompanied by the written support of five neighbors.

The entire site was excavated to basement level in order to create the sunken concrete foundation on which the house now sits. With this in place, the prefabricated solid timber load-bearing structure simply arrived one day on two trucks from Germany. The large section-engineered spruce panels were expertly assembled in two days and, to everyone’s satisfaction, gave immediate shape to the house. Hemp insulation improves the acoustic performance of the structure while the solid timber frame boasts a significantly reduced carbon footprint. (Each cubic meter of timber saves almost one ton of carbon dioxide emissions, compared to the use of brick or concrete blocks.)

There was a lull of a year before suitable builders were found to complete the fit-out, made more difficult by the fact that Reeve’s budget had already been maxed out. Perseverance and continued momentum were essential, both of which could be attributed, in some part, to Reeve’s new partner, Michela Meazza. Indeed, certain key moments in the house were accompanied by key moments in their relationship. For example, Reeve celebrated the purchase of the site at their first dinner date; the rough structure was then inaugurated with a bottle of champagne as the couple perched tentatively on the roof. Now, they have been happily living in the house since May 2007, having overseen the process together.

Through a set of gates at street level, one reaches the house beyond a small space that provides off-street car parking—a rarity in London. The dark-brown-stained timber that clads the facade also flows into the vertical and horizontal surfaces of the concrete patio. This abundant use of what isessentially wood decking gives the impression that the house has sunk into its own skin, which explains why Adjaye named it the Sunken House.

Past the front door, a triple-height space—a key transitional area—houses a walnut staircase flooded with natural light from the overhead slot window. Small, randomly positioned panels dot some of the walls. These somewhat abstract interjections open to the outside, allowing natural cross ventilation to counteract any overheating in the summer. All rooms have under-floor heating, banishing the need for unsightly radiators. The master bedroom, bathroom, and office occupy this main floor, so guests are either steered down toward the kitchen or up to the main living room.

Head upstairs and the tranquility of the site comes alive: The patina of foliage from the rubina, oak, maple, and birch trees and surrounding gardens are framed beautifully by the large single-pane picture window. Dominating the vast white room with its poured white rubber floor is a corner sofa by British furniture designer Rock Galpin, big enough for entertaining or catching a movie on the slick TV. The back wall features immense built-in closets, which Meazza uses for her office. For the brave, a drop-down hatch in the ceiling reveals a slidingladder with access to the barrier-free flat roof, which boasts stunning 360-degree views of London’s distant high-rises. Solar panels reap the rewards of such exposure and generate energy for the home’s hot-water supply.

Down in the kitchen, a spacious layout for both the cook and guests fulfills the couple’s love for entertaining. A large glass window allows light in and gives view to the small jasmine-lined out-door area, great for summer parties. The garden links around to a small courtyard at the front of the house, and stairs loop back up to the entrance.
 
One leaves Ed’s Shed certain that it is anything but a shed. Adjaye has managed to create an urban sanctuary—a home that invites you to retreat from the demands of city life. The couple, hindered by constant travel commitments, are conscious that they need to add more homely touches to counteract a feeling of emptiness in certain spaces—a sparseness that is nevertheless balanced by soft artificial illumination and continual shifts in natural light.

Asked if there is anything he would have done differently, Reeve responds with a fairly resolute “no.” He is living the euphoria that is inevitable after such an ambitious endeavor—an endeavor that has literally been a lifetime in the planning.

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