Warren and Jocelyn Milne have built an 80m² unimposing end-of-terrace house on an ex-council estate that completely belies the contemporary, space-efficient design scheme hidden within.
When you have spent your life in South Africa, there must be a whole host of cultural and social differences to negotiate when you decide to up sticks and move to London. But perhaps one of the most ticklish for those brought up in the wide, open reaches of the Natal region is the lack of land available for building on our tiny crowded island and, wrapped up in this, the horrifying price of existing properties.
“It was a big shock – accommodation in South Africa takes up a much smaller part of your income,” says Warren Milne who, in the late 1990s, moved to London with his wife, Jocelyn. In their mid-20s and with careers to concentrate on – both are trained in architecture – renting seemed a viable option at first. But by 2003, when Warren had established himself in a decent practice and children were potentially on the cards, prices had left them well and truly behind. The search was on for land.
“Back in South Africa we built our own house and know the pleasure of living in an architect-designed space,” says Warren.
“You just can’t go from an architect-designed house to an end of terrace,” sighs Jocelyn. But, in their quest for a plot, that is exactly what they had to do. In South Africa they had a plot of more than half an acre, perched on the edge of a gorge overlooking a nature reserve; monkeys and springbok would scamper across their garden. Wildlife issues notwithstanding, the couple knew that they would have to reduce their expectations in England – especially as any potential plot would have to be within commutable distance of Warren’s office in central London – but finding anything viable still seemed next to impossible.
For a year and a half, they knocked on the doors of those with large gardens, scoured websites and pestered estate agents. “We looked at a lot of places,” says Warren. “We got quite excited about a plot in Buckinghamshire which had planning consent for three houses. We tried to persuade some friends to come in with us but couldn’t, so that fell through.”
Finally they alighted upon a small plot in the town of Slough. Not the most prepossessing of sites but, at £190,000 including an existing three bedroom house, just about within their means. “I think it was more of a practical choice than a heart choice,” says Warren pragmatically. “We had a limited budget and this meant we got a house plus the land down the side of it, which had permission for a two bedroom house.”
By then they were about to be joined by their first child, Addison, so the rigours of living in a caravan at the bottom of some unserviced site were beyond them. The house solved a lot of problems and they lived there while they redrew the plans for the next-door site.
“I started with something a bit more contemporary but it was turned down,” says Warren with an audible grimace. You can hardly blame him for his disappointment, as the terrace that the planning department were so keen to preserve the character of is the dreariest sort of 1950s ex-council variety, devoid of both interest and beauty: boxy, bland and uninspired. It was a case where the planning department should have been sending in wrecking balls instead of stifling imaginative design.
Nevertheless, the Milnes were forced to comply with this directive – however stupid it seemed – and work with it. Their solution to dealing with a narrow site (their house is only four metres wide compared to the nearly seven-metre width of the existing houses) was to stagger their new home over three storeys. They built a half basement at the rear of the house in which their living room/dining room/kitchen are located, and squeezed the master bedroom into the storey and a half under the roof (the loft was too small to have allowed them to do this otherwise); the first floor windows which align with the rest of the terrace light the stairwell up to it.
The house is indisputably small – just 80m² – but it wears its proportions well. The main basement room feels airy and light – in part due to a 60cm ‘extension’ to the side, topped with glass panels, that brings extra width and light to this crucial area. Allowed only the tiniest of exterior flourishes – a chunky modern porch and a dark wood pare-soleil that both provides a modesty screen for, and disguises the existence of, the bathroom window – the Milnes concentrated on making the interiors as imaginative as possible. It is sleek, intelligent and the detailing is incredible – plus Warren and Jocelyn carried out most of the work themselves.
Every inch of space has been carefully thought through without ever feeling over-designed. In the tiny void behind the basement loo, for example, Warren has made a bedroom for the cat, accessible via a circular hole next to the staircase, so that kitty litter can be hidden from sight. The balustrade to the main bedroom is a recessed diagonal slit cut through the facing board used in conjunction with the house’s SIPs structure (the chipboard finish of the SIPs has been glossed within to play up the change in texture). The open plan kitchen may “only” be from IKEA, but the couple have mixed together three different types of doors to give it a more custom-made feel. A ‘room’ quite literally the size of an airing cupboard is Jocelyn’s office; a built-in desk and shelving providing just enough work space and a hatch that looks through to the second bedroom means she can keep an eye on Addison and very recently arrived baby Jessie while she works at her PC. Inside the nursery, rather than decorate conventionally, Jocelyn has painstakingly scoured copies of National Geographic, cutting out the pictures of Africa and pasting and sealing them onto one wall to create a wonderfully vibrant collage. Throughout, Jocelyn has furnished the place with weird and wonderful reconditioned G-Plan and vintage furniture buys. In the bathroom, the couple even built their own extra-deep shower tray/children’s bath from a paddling pool which they covered in mosaic tiles.
And yet, even if you were able to forget all your preconceptions about Slough, you would still find little charm in this particular corner of eastern Berkshire. The Milnes’ unique house remains part of a vast and dismal low-rise council estate that sprawls sullenly across the north of the town. “If it hadn’t been for the land, we wouldn’t be living here,” says Jocelyn firmly.
Warren is a little more diplomatic: “The estate has turned around in the past four years because there is more private ownership, but I think if we had known more about the area at the time, we wouldn’t have bought here.”
Indeed, if they had known more, they really shouldn’t have bought here. Once the house was finished, it was discovered that there was a covenant forbidding the development of the site, and the local authority levied a £25,000 fee against them to strike off the clause. It could easily have ruined them but after some wrangling with their conveyancing solicitors, the firm’s indemnity insurance covered the majority of the costs.
The house is an amazing achievement. The land costs were covered by the sale of the original house, meaning that they have a wonderful home for the build cost, which was a mere £125,500 – a home that you can only hope will be a calling card for their design work.