Gruff Architects shoehorns a finely crafted house onto a constrained backland site in south London


French & Tye­

When architect Rhys Cannon spotted a backland site in south London he was not intending to build his own house, but the opportunity proved too tempting. The yard belonged to a builder with whom Cannon had worked several times, and who asked his practice, Gruff Architects, to explore its development potential. “It looked too good to miss, so I put in an offer”, he recalls. A two-year negotiation ensued, giving time to ponder the various obstacles to development: first, the tight, triangular plot sits right on top of a railway cutting, and second, it lies behind a row of houses, only accessible via a narrow track “which became a recurring theme of difficulty throughout the build”.


Section, elevations, basement, ground and first floor plans

The four-bedroom house is arranged over three storeys including a basement, “and they are all different”, says Cannon, “there’s no real continuity between the floorplates”. The contiguous-piled concrete basement was made necessary by the proximity of the railway embankment, but provides useful additional living space and a guest bedroom. The volume of the steel- and timber-framed, timber-clad first floor inclines away from a neighbour’s garden (giving the house its name, Pitched Black) and oversails the ground floor, resting on blue-painted columns. No first-floor windows directly face neighbouring houses, so interest was added by “staggering and fragmenting those facades”, says Cannon, which also allows light to penetrate through slot windows. Below, a car turntable allows off-street parking.


A lot of design energy was also invested in the details, says Cannon. The blue steel legs are a prominent feature, so the architect turned to a Lincolnshire-based art fabricator with whom he had previously worked. The base of the columns had to be encased in concrete to guard against vehicle impact, so Cannon employed a couple of his former students to design and build a curvaceous barrier. “Some of the guys on site were a bit bemused to see us rolling up our sleeves and doing it ourselves, but it gave an extra layer to the building”, he says. Combining in-situ and precast elements, the barrier incorporates a bespoke brass gully grille that was CNC-cut in Gruff Architects’ own office.


Inside, where the building’s geometry is picked up in the design of joinery, there are further bespoke details such as capsule-shaped brass door-pulls that are 1:100 scale versions of the landscaping plan. “We had fun with elements that would probably take too much time or cost too much on any normal project”, says Cannon, “but this is what you live to do, and when you are building for yourself you can take that time and suck up the expense in order to achieve it”.

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Gruff Architects
Marval Developments
Structural engineer
Built Engineers
Rhys Cannon and Joanna Brindle