Melanie Schubert and partner Paolo Vimercati didn’t set out to buy a derelict double garage when they were looking for a new home. In one online search, Schubert forgot to include a minimum value – “and this was the cheapest property you could buy here”, she says. As architects, the couple realised that, with planning permission, this seven-metre-square plot with no garden in south-east London might just be a route to the best possible home for their budget.
Where the garage once stood – single-storey brick with moss-mottled roof tiles and drifts of dead leaves against its doors – is a startlingly modern three-storey mews house. Built of reclaimed bricks, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, it was designed to fit the family’s needs – from their nine-year-old daughter Ava’s bedroom, with skylight over her bed, to an open-plan party space, and even an ingeniously concealed cat door.
The mews itself is “higgledy-piggledy, unpaved, with a friendly community”, says Schubert, who is originally from Germany. There are five homes, and many garages, on the road but their plot looks on to a communal garden for the council block beyond it, which they have use of since joining the residents’ association. In keeping with the original workshop feel, the ground floor has a facade of shutters made from charred larch; these fold out in three sections. The right-hand third has the front door carved into it, while the other two fold out to reveal a vast floor-to-ceiling window. The two panes can then slide inside the front-door panel to open up completely in fine weather.
“As it’s a dead end and a private mews, I might see three people going past a day,” says Schubert. “It is super quiet and we have a lot of planting out front.” A Fatsia japonica provides lush, glossy leaves alongside agapanthus, a cherry tree, a magnolia and more.
In daytime the remote-controlled shutters are always open. “As soon as I go downstairs, I open them,” she says, “so you don’t feel you’re closed in a box.” Even when the shutters are closed, they leave a 1cm gap, that adds a surprising amount of light which floods downstairs from the glazed landing.
The couple eschewed traditional kitchen trappings and installed an old carpenter’s bench of Vimercati’s. And to the right of the stairs is a secret door to the basement, with utility room, shower room, study and spare room. “Paolo is Italian and I’m German, and whenever we have family round, they have their own space,” says Schubert.
They dug deeper than is normal to give the basement high ceilings, and there is a 1.5-metre light well along the front of the house – under a sturdy grill – to provide natural light and ventilation.
Upstairs, in Ava’s room, the curtains hang in front of the shelving and desk area so that at night, says Schubert, “the room becomes a lot calmer because you close off all the mess”. But the pièce de résistance is a secret skylight in the roof above the bed, through which Ava can stand up and look: a panel slides open to reveal it. A carved mountainous landscape runs along the raised bed frame, while suspended above it is a blue carved sky with a similarly bumpy horizon line. “It is a nod towards the mountains where Paolo comes from,” says Schubert.
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The master bedroom has wood panelling, inspired by a ski hotel the couple once stayed in, and the foot of the bed is placed against the wall with the huge picture window, leaving the bed head, with built-in drawers that open behind it, floating in the middle of the room. “You wake up and look outside – it seemed logical,” says Schubert. “We have blackout blinds and a sheer curtain, so in the morning we pull them across and look out on to the tree.”
The unorthodoxy continues in the bathroom. A smart box at the end of the bath conceals the loo. “I have a total aversion to toilets in the bathroom,” Schubert declares, unapologetically. “It’s a very ugly object, and you don’t use it that much.” So they invested in a fancy Spanish model that includes the cistern in the rim, so it could fit in a box. “I sit there when my daughter is having a bath, or she sits on it to brush her teeth.”
Another mysterious multifunctional box sits outside the front door. It houses the two cats’ exit tunnel – “because cat flaps, unfortunately, are always ugly” – but also garden tools, the post box and a charging port for electric cars.
It’s a home designed for socialising. “It’s great for parties because you can open it up entirely and have a lot of people,” says Schubert, adding that nobody has yet fallen off the (banister-less) stairs. The house works perfectly for free-flowing community barbecues. “We normally do a Christmas party for the children, and there’ll be at least 10 kids on the stairs. Everyone sits half on the steps or on the sofa, all piled up in the corner.” samarchitects.co.uk