Jeremy and Susanna Emmerson have built a clever contemporary-style family home next door to their old one — on a narrow site formerly occupied by a garage.

Architect Jeremy Emmerson was out walking his newborn to sleep one evening in 2005 when he happened to glance in an estate agent’s window. He spotted a 1950s end of terrace house with its own separate garage and immediately saw a great opportunity.

“The single garage was on a piece of land about 4.5m wide and 28m long and sat between the 1950s house that was for sale and a Victorian property,” he says. “Being an architect, all I thought was, ‘I could build a house in there.’”

The Project

  • Name: Jeremy and Susanna Emmerson
  • Build cost: £330,000 (£2,063/m²)
  • Build time: 1 year
  • Location: South London

Although Jeremy and his wife, Susanna, weren’t planning a move, they decided the three bedroom property in south London, on for £295,000, was too good to miss. There was, however, a catch. “The house was ex-council and had a covenant that said the property and land could only be used as a single dwelling,” says Jeremy. “I got some legal advice before we put in an offer and discovered it might be possible to pay to have the covenant removed.”

It was still a risky move, though, because even without the covenant Jeremy and Susanna didn’t know if they would get planning permission. “We decided even if we couldn’t build we could always extend or, at worst, sell the house on,” says Jeremy.

The Emmersons moved into their new home in June 2005 and began the process of getting the covenant removed straightaway, but it took more than 18 months and a fee of £35,000 for the council to agree to its removal.

During this time Jeremy worked up a design. The new house was to be 4.5m wide and around 13.5m long to fall in line with the longer Victorian property, which also allowed him to maximise the size of their new dwelling. However, with plans to excavate down three metres, they could have a semi-basement level, too. Lack of light was a potential issue in the long, narrow design but Jeremy’s layout makes the best use of the south-facing rear, by drawing light into the depth of the house.

Jeremy put the plans out to tender but when the three prices for the construction alone came back between £300-£400,000, he decided to split the contract in two. “Underpinning is quite specialist work so a main contractor would probably use a subcontractor and add on a margin,” Jeremy explains. “We found a groundworks contractor for £55,000, which was cheaper than anyone else, and hired a building contractor for the remainder of the project, which came in at £230,000.”

Construction got going in November 2009 with four months of careful digging and underpinning. The rest of the project progressed relatively smoothly under a fully covered scaffold to protect the project from the elements. The family finally moved into the completed house in November 2010. Jeremy describes living in their bespoke contemporary home as “a real treat. There was no way we could have afforded to live in a house like this without following the self-build route and it’s fantastic because our new house is almost twice as big as our old home.”

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