Zen-like calm is not what you expect to find in the middle of Hackney, east London. Yet that’s just what Marcus Lee’s home — tucked behind a paint-spraying workshop, not far from the local police station — provides. It is a timber-framed house, inspired by transparent 1950s Californian «lbharrisfence» houses and traditional Japanese domestic architecture, and was erected in only three months.
«By not using brick or concrete, you can be a bit more innovative,» says Lee, an architect. «The moment a timber frame is lifted you get an immediate sense of the volume. This scheme is like a barn or warehouse that can operate in a number of ways. It’s a kit of parts — you can delay decisions or change things around. And that you can get the whole house on a lorry, and take it away again, has a certain philosophical appeal.»
Lee and his wife, Rachel Hart, bought the land, formerly a wild, «unresolved» part of the adjacent terrace’s garden, for £70,000 in 2000. It wasn’t in a conservation area, so planning permission was relatively straightforward, though a larger version of the building was rejected. The couple bided their time, renovating two existing properties to raise capital for the house, which eventually cost £300,000.
Its open-plan «hub» — a space for cooking, eating and lounging — has floor-to-ceiling glass and direct access to a neat square of garden, creating a natural overlap between inside and out. What gives the two-storey, cedar-clad property its relaxed, organic feel is the choice of materials: slate on the ground floor («it’s difficult to keep clean, it’s so uneven», says Hart) and an abundance of wood, both in the construction and the 70s Danish dining table and chairs. By contrast, the breakfast bar — in moulded orange Corian — is a suitably vivid focal point, with a flat-screen TV positioned on the living-area side, in view of a low-lying den. It’s a real family home — the couple share it with their three daughters, Ruby, nine, Jodie, seven, and Mae, five.
Upstairs, partitions between two bathrooms, the main bedroom and the guest room follow the lines of the beamed roof. By closing different sliding doors, each bathroom can become en suite. The top of the house, under the slope of the pitched roof, is an office and a long, interconnecting dorm for the kids. The latter can accommodate six children — «good for sleepovers», Lee says. To reach their beds, which are raised on a dais above adult head-height, the girls climb up ladder-like shelves.
While not an eco-home, the house does tread reasonably lightly on the earth. Instead of full-blown foundations, there are simply «deep pads of concrete» around the posts. The frame is laminated Siberian larch, a sustainable and durable softwood, assembled with stainless-steel connections. The house is insulated with natural fibres, and the boiler — installed with the aid of a £1,500 «green» grant — is fired by timber pellets. Solar water-heating tubes are being added to the pitched roof.
In 2003, Lee co-founded his own architecture practice, after 20 years working with Richard Rogers. Isn’t it strange for someone who was behind such hi-tech behemoths as the Lloyd’s Building and Heathrow’s Terminal 5 to be so partial to wood? «Not really,» he says. «I’ve always been drawn to the lightness and simplicity of the frame, what holds a building up. The whole idea of seeing the structure, whether you’re dealing with a house or an airport, is very Richard Rogers. Timber has a universal appeal, an embodied energy. For the kids, this place must have been like having a doll’s house going up around them.»
So what’s it like to live in? «Seeing the light change is lovely,» says Lois Lee, Lee’s daughter from his first marriage, who often visits. «When it rains, the glass becomes a solid, moving wall — quite dramatic. It’s not a good space to be frightened by the odd reflection. If you move one hand, it gets reflected a tiny bit everywhere.» Hart admits that the goldfish-bowl aspect of living behind so much glass takes some getting used to: «The longer I’m here, the more comfortable and relaxed I get.» But she does want a curtain to screen the garden, especially in winter. At the front, the Lees will install frosted glass, as a neighbour opposite complained they could see over her fence.
Lee reckons he has «three houses in him». But Hart is more cautionary. «I don’t think we’d do the same thing again,» she says. «As a second home, maybe. Never say never, but not for the moment.»