I am lucky with my friends and as I write this I am feeling particularly fortunate because I am at the amazing London house of my friends Luke and Charlotte. They have lent me their place several times over the years and they always ask me if I “wouldn’t mind looking after” their house for them while they are away – as if I am doing them a favour, rather than the other way around.
Luke is an architect and designed the house and arranged its construction with his business partner Tim, while both he and his wife held full-time, demanding jobs.
It’s something of a “celebrity” house: it’s been on TV, is occasionally open for interested visitors and I sometimes see people come and take photographs of it from the street. I get a little vicarious thrill emerging from the house, knowing that people passing by will think I am the lucky man who lives here.
It has some interesting features. For one thing, it collects and stores rainwater to use for flushing the toilets. (This can be topped up from the mains if it doesn’t rain for a while.) In Britain, we usually flush toilets with water that has been filtered and purified the same as drinking water, which is very wasteful.
The house makes extensive use of natural light, so there’s no place in the house that needs lights in the daytime – including the spiral staircase in the “middle” of the house.
More unusually, water is stored 50 meters underground where it remains at a constant temperature. This means it needs less gas to heat it up for showers and for the heating.
None of these features and techniques are revolutionary, apparently, but they are unusual in a family home. Boring deep holes and installing heat pumps, for example, are expensive and will not really pay for itself in terms of reduced energy bills. But they reflect the ethos and talents of the firm that Luke runs with his partner. Basically, a house can be environmentally sound without sacrificing comfort and style.
But the really remarkable thing is that they managed to fit a house here at all. There was a gap of a less than three metres between two existing buildings and opens up at the back. Luke designed the house to fill the whole space. It was a massive logistical challenge to get the building materials and equipment around the back.
London has a severe housing crisis with political and economic aspects, but lack of supply is a major cause. Luke managed to create a four-storey family home where no-one would have thought it possible. Fortunately, Luke had been a student (with me) in Kobe and had seen the way Japanese architecture makes use of limited or unconventional spaces. (Luke was very interested in Tadao Ando’s work.)
Luke and Charlotte’s house (often nicknamed the “Gap House” won the Manser Medal in 2009, one of Britain’s most prestigious architecture prizes. A socially aware, environmentally friendly (Japan-influenced) masterpiece – and a great place to sit and write on a rainy bank holiday.