Discovering an abandoned piece of land conveniently situated just across the road from their Battersea home seemed like incredible luck for Kate Oldfield and her husband Andrew Howard. Building plots in London are notoriously difficult to find, and the site seemed ripe for redevelopment. “We dreamed of building a really exciting new home there,” says Kate, a publisher, “but we should have realised it was all too good to be true.”
The couple had struggled to locate the owner of the land, which was hidden behind a hoarding. “We imagined there must be a building in there, and one day Andrew was working on our roof and looked over to see a nettle-infested overgrown plot and a shabby prefab,” Kate continues. “He started investigating, and we discovered that the council owned the land, which had contained two semi-detached houses in the 1960s.”
Wandsworth Council was previously unaware of the land, until Andrew and Kate tried to purchase the disused plot in 1997. Once the council had been alerted to the plot it refused to sell to the couple, and instead invited sealed bids from all-comers. Andrew and Kate’s was only the fourth highest bid, however due to the other developers’ bids falling through, the couple were able to secure the plot at their original offer.
The couple worked zealously with an architect to design a house for the plot. Unfortunately the planning officer at that time made it clear that only a traditional house would be considered, which should echo existing period homes in the area. “There was absolutely no flexibility to interpret the planning guidelines, which stated that new buildings should ‘preserve or enhance’ the area,” says Andrew. “The planners were so strict that everything was dictated to us, down to the choice of brick.”
By now much of the joy had gone out of the project, and the couple decided to simply build two traditional houses on the land and sell them on. The plans were submitted and approved, but a phonecall from the new head of planning was to halt Kate and Andrew in their tracks. “He told us that he was amazed we hadn’t used the opportunity to build something more exciting and modern,” laughs Kate. “After everything we’d been through we were assured that he would personally back a unique, contemporary design.”
Six months – and several thousand pounds in design fees – later, a new set of plans had been produced. The L-shaped house was to be constructed in rendered blockwork and clad externally with sections of horizontal and vertical timber. Glass would feature prominently, with large sections of glazing, sliding glass doors and even a glass bridge leading to the master bedroom. The plot was then re-designated to fall within a Conservation Area, and so Andrew and Kate had to amend the plans to include two bay windows and to maintain ‘the step of the street’. Timber and glass were limited on the front elevation but a really contemporary design was allowed to the rear.
The build itself was not without its fair share of problems including arson and graffiti attacks, as well as the builders declaring insolvency. In the end though the couple are delighted with their new home; “Finally the house is paying us back for all the trauma and stress caused by the build,” says Kate. “Let’s just say it’s been an experience!”