Like thousands of other couples, Adam and Billi Street were looking for ways to increase space for their young family. Initially, they considered the possibility of extending their home — in their case, a modest two bedroom ex-council apartment in London’s Battersea.

Instead, they embarked on an ambitious 15-month group self build adventure that fully deserved not one but two of The Daily Telegraph Homebuilding & Renovating Awards for 2017: Best Custom Build and Spirit of Self Build.

The Project

  • Homeowners: Adam and Billi Street
  • Project: Custom build
  • Location: Battersea, London
  • Size: 210m² (the Street’s maisonette); 1,625m² (whole building)
  • Build time: Jan 2015 – Apr 2016
  • Plot cost: £3m (value of original building in 2012), plus £40,000 for the freehold
  • Build cost: £5.65m
  • Current value: approx £14m
Exterior of group self build project in Battersea, London

The building was constructed using a reinforced concrete frame with a light gauge galvanised steel structural framing system and external brick cavity wall support. This allows for high levels of thermal insulation, cantilevered balconies and different positions for the various window types

“In this area it’s quite difficult to afford to move,” begins Adam, who before this project was new to the world of self build.

“It would probably cost us another half a million pounds, so it was basically unaffordable. Instead we started to talk to our six neighbours about buying the freehold. I convinced them that if we demolished our 1950s council block and rebuilt our homes at double the size, we could finance it by building eight new flats.”

The London apartments before demolition

The 1950s ex-council building before the demolition

Now the couple and their two young children have a high-end apartment that is two and a half times bigger than the original, while their neighbours are enjoying more space, light and thermal comfort in their new homes (that, happily, have also doubled in value).

Adam is modest about his ability to persuade his neighbours to see their biggest asset demolished and rebuilt, but his energy, courage and determination to tackle one challenge after another is evident. He credits much of the success to one of his neighbours, friend Carl Johnson — a builder who acted as client on site throughout the construction phase. “Carl was absolutely essential for getting a great finish on this new build property,” says Adam.

The lightwells ensure the new basement apartments are flooded with natural light

Following the group self build project, the apartments are larger, are flooded with more natural daylight and have doubled in value

It also helped that a sympathetic architect, Peter Barber, was happy to sit in the Street’s front room and share a beer and crisps with the neighbours as he chatted through his ideas. “He [Peter] really wanted our opinions, and didn’t seem afraid of different faces saying ‘But I want this’ and ‘I’m going to need that’,” says Billi. “He had a lot of experience with unusual projects like this, so we trusted that he would be able to work with us to get the best result.”

To allow for the eight new flats, and to increase the size of the originals, the design includes a basement, and one additional storey — luckily, from a planning point of view, the roofline of the original block was substantially lower than its Victorian neighbours. Each apartment has far more natural daylight than before, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows and access to either a balcony or terrace, while the four bedroom maisonettes have full height sliding doors leading out to a garden and patio and (in Adam’s case) a green wall with water cascading down it.

The green wall features outside this maisonette to help inprove air quality inside the property

The project features a brown roof (a type of green roof design to reinstate the ecology that was there before the development), as well as a green wall outside Adam’s maisonette (seen to the left in the image above)

Peter Barber was also keen to ensure that the building worked as a whole and related well to the street and the urban neighbourhood. He divided the block into four regular bays, reflecting the rhythm of the Victorian terraces on the street, and chose traditional London stock bricks for the cladding, to complement the surrounding building fabric.

Within the envelope of the new building, residents could customise their own overall space (from one to four bedrooms) and level of fittings, to suit their needs and finances. With seven different clients, the design could have been a “real dog’s dinner”, admits architect Phil Hamilton, Peter Barber’s co-director.

“We encouraged residents not to change the mass and the envelope. Inside we used stud partition walls so that it would be a lot easier to tailor changes to people’s requirements.”

A lightwell ensures the new apartments are flooded with natural light

A lightwell ensures that the apartments are flooded with natural light

Throughout the project, Adam found himself dealing with a barrage of unforeseen challenges, for example, dealing with a ransom strip on a piece of land they didn’t originally own. Numerous professionals also offered essential advice throughout the project. One managed to stop the residents paying a community infrastructure levy, by pointing out that as community self builders they didn’t need to pay the charge — a handy saving of £250,000.

Sorting out the finances was just one element of the project. An initial viability study kicked off the project, followed by the setting up of residents’ company On the Rise (named after its proximity to Battersea Rise and the vision of a new building arising, phoenix-like), establishing ground rules, selecting an architect, agreeing a commercial model for the residents’ company, finalising design options and raising the finance. Only then could construction begin.

Exterior group self build luxury apartments in London

Fish tank windows, a modern take on the bay window, provide frameless glazing and maximise levels of natural daylight in the building. The residents wanted to have plenty of natural daylight in their flats and maintain a connection with the outdoors. Each of the projects four maisonettes has access to its own private courtyard garden. The upper storey apartments have balconies, some of which cantilever out over the building

“If we didn’t get everything right everybody would lose everything, and that is much harder than working just on your own project,” says Adam. “The first three months of 2016 were the most stressful, but you get through it, although perhaps a block of flats as our first effort might be a little ambitious!

“The quote that sums it up best for me is from Matt Damon at the end of The Martian: ‘You solve one problem, and you solve the next one — and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.’”

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