When Nic Howett realised his family needed more space, his options were limited. Sky rocketing house prices meant for him and his partner, buying something more spacious in the Camberwell area just wasn't an option. Attached to the artsy, leafy green suburb in south-east London, just a few miles away from the buzzy city centre, they were resistant to say goodbye to the area they'd come to call home, having spent a decade embedding themselves into the community.
They decided to embark on an ambitious mission to transform the basement flat they were lucky enough to own. As a talented architect (Nic Howett Architect), Nic drew up the design plans himself, but he had never built anything before.
Inhibited by the expensive cost of hiring professional construction workers, him and his partner decided to self-build. The transformed Victorian terrace basement flat that sits nestled behind a shop is truly remarkable. Enter: The Secret Garden Flat.
Using simple and modest materials that were easy enough to use, the extension comprised two new spaces – a bedroom at the back of the basement flat and a secluded garden studio – upgrading a one-bedroom flat into a spacious two-bed with the added bonus of a dedicated WFH space.
The couple were sensitive to their surroundings and wanted to create something that sat organically among the workshops, shops, and commercial buildings (along with other residential properties) that neighbour their home.
Nic says the main inspiration behind the remodelling was to make the most of the thriving nature that surrounds their home. The garden is generously sized considering its location on a busy main road, and they live in a conservation area full of trees. The couple wanted to open up the home into the space, creating a greater connection between indoors and out, so they could experience the health benefits nature can provide on a daily basis.
Their garden has been cultivated carefully over the decade they've owned it to encourage biodiversity by planting pollinating flowers natural to the local environment. They also use the plot to grow their own fruit and vegetables. On top of the new structure, they planted low-growing sedum on the roof, making the most of every opportunity to support local wildlife by creating green space.
Nic achieved the breaking of the indoor/outdoor boundary by extending into the garden using timber; a lightweight material easy to use in a site that is awkward to access (like the back of the basement of a Victorian terrace property). The couple started with the outhouse studio at the bottom of the garden, teaching themselves the construction basics as they went along. By the time it came to adding the extra bedroom onto the house, their confidence had grown.
The bedroom is now enveloped by the leafiness of the garden. Nic reveals how much him and his partner love waking up and falling asleep every night to the sights and sounds of nature. They are attuned to the slow passing of the seasons, experiencing it all from the warmth and comfort of their bed. Floor-to-wall windows help achieve a hygge-like feeling of everyday camping. The use of wood throughout the design is in keeping with the flat's focus on its natural surroundings.
Their new work studio is secluded at the back of the garden, surrounded by trees. The privacy and quietness is conducive to the hours the couple spend there working together. Given the move towards hybrid working, a dedicated office space has no doubt boosted the value of the property.
Nic points out one of the big benefits of building a space at the back of the garden, is that the garden becomes the focus of family life, nestled in the middle of the living spaces, rather than an afterthought out the back. The house in a small way echoes a courtyard-style property, and passing through the garden is a daily mood boost for the family. In summer, doors are flung open and the children can play outdoors while the couple work or cook dinner.
Determined not to be forced out of their community by rising house prices, they've managed to create something contemporary that truly breaks down the barrier between indoors and out, all achieved while adhering to a strict budget. Where there's a will, there's a way.
• The Secret Garden Flat won Home of the Year in the 2023 Don't Move, Improve! awards.
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