The opportunity to build a 900-square-foot home on a constrained lot in London was a creative challenge for London architect Charles Thomson and designer Kate Blee.
While it may appear an afterthought compared to its larger neighbors, this home in London’s Islington borough took years of planning—and some gleeful strokes of luck. Architect Charles Thomson of Studio 54 Architecture and designer Kate Blee moved to this area more than 20 years ago and, over the course of two decades, bought the home next door and the one facing their rear garden. They renovated the rear unit for renters, and allowed their university-aged sons to move into the newer address next door. But when they wanted a place for themselves, it was this tiny location that presented Thomson and Blee with real challenges. “The plan of the house evolved in response to the particular constraints of the site: a relatively narrow west-facing street frontage and the close proximity of neighboring properties both at the front and at the rear,” says Thomson.
Codes made it impossible to build a two-story structure, so he needed to get creative. Skylights brighten the home’s interior and exposed beams make each space feel larger. The home opens to a courtyard as well. Everything required a discerning eye and patience, two key attributes when such a small plot depends on the details.
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“We have described the house as an urban cabin and this captures the essential character we were seeking to achieve,” says architect Charles Thomson. “Because the plan is so tight, it was critical that every part was considered carefully. But we also wanted spaces that were simple and flexible to accommodate the typical range of family activities.”
Handmade bricks from Petersen bricks are a prominent component in the house, stretching from the façade and walkway into the ground floor’s living space. Unifying the space was important to Thomson: the presence of Mosa ceramic tile throughout creates visual continuity. An Ernest Race chair sits next to a Hans Wegner sofa in the living room.
Multiple skylights, including one over the kitchen, bring sunshine into the home while keeping it private from surrounding neighbors. Pendant lights by Arne Jacobsen for Louis Poulsen, hanging over a dining table by ercol furniture, provides additional illumination. “The kitchen-dining-living room is cozy, but it is large enough to entertain 12 people,” Thomson says. The green chair is a prototype from Barber Osgerby and the rug is by Kate Blee.
“We wanted a house that was warm and intimate, and this meant carefully considering materials and finishes,” says Thomson. “We have chosen a limited pallet of quality, robust, and tactile materials that provide a consistent theme throughout the house.” Western red cedar was used for internal cladding, built-ins, and seating.
Thomson says “the house invites a frugal attitude towards ‘things.’ It demands a discipline in prioritizing what is essential in a small space.” Vitsoe shelving keeps one bedroom neat.
Thomson notes that the uniformity in the property is a nod to minimalism, but there are small details that distinguish one room from another. The size of the flooring tiles, which are heated, change in size from the front of the home to the back in order to create a “varied rhythm,” he says. The timber ceiling is painted with Farrow & Ball’s Charleston Grey.
Since surrounding neighbors can overlook the one-story property, Thomson created a roof detail that is environmentally friendly and attractive: “the bio-diverse [green] roof is planted with indigenous species of flowers and grasses,” he says.
“The design process was organic, but we wanted to create a well-crafted house with intrinsically beautiful materials that would deliver joy as well as robustness to sustain a long period of time,” Thomson says.