‘There’s Markhouse Avenue and that’s Markhouse Road,’ says architect Mark Shaw, founder of Studioshaw, gesturing to the streets that surround his new-build home with an amused grin. ‘I thought, the universe is telling me something.’
There is an element of luck and good fortune to the story of how he first discovered this hidden, disused plot of land in east London.
He and his friends had been talking about building their own properties for some time, but it was on a whim five years ago that Mark stopped by an auction by himself to take a look at what was on offer. ‘I’d been looking at a plot in Dalston, but it went for silly money. Then I remembered flicking through the catalogue and seeing this thing that hadn’t sold. It was a bit weird, because nobody had bid on it. I asked one of the auctioneers, “What happened to that plot? Was something wrong with it?” I was a little suspicious.’
He needn’t have been. The slice of land, surrounded on all sides by existing homes, was challenging, certainly (more on that later), but with planning permission in place for two properties – one for him and one for his friends, it was worth the risk.
After visiting the site, Mark spent a year looking at the agreed plans for the two homes, making thoughtful improvements. ‘To me, it was all the wrong way round,’ he says of the design for his own 135-square-metre plot. ‘The courtyard would have always been in the shade and the inside would have overheated from constantly being in the sun. I flipped it.’
Now, the outside space, linked via full-height sliding glass doors to the open-plan kitchen/dining area, is perfectly placed to drink in the morning sunshine, with a pitched roof (another addition to the original plans) allowing the boxed-in property views of the sky. There are two further courtyards attached to the bedrooms – one containing a sunken bathtub and the other a shower encased in glass. ‘It was inspired by an outdoor shower at a hotel in Thailand I stayed in,’ says Mark. ‘This one has underfloor heating, though!’
Planning permission stated that none of the surrounding gardens could be overlooked, so the original blueprints had stipulated a single-storey home. Not one to be told no – he’d already spent a whole year negotiating 27 different party wall agreements – Mark remembered a taller tumbledown building that had stood in this spot before work began.
He sketched a proposal for a small upper level to his home, like a viewing platform looking out all the way to Hackney Marshes, that would sit in the same spot. ‘Even when it is cloudy, the whole sky lights up as the sun sets,’ says Mark, who barely watches TV, choosing instead to study the panorama from his perfectly positioned perch.
This window, just like every other in the home, was carefully positioned to drink in as much of London’s unpredictable sunshine as possible. The reason is not just to boost Mark’s serotonin levels. It’s actually used to warm the concrete walls and floors, which act as thermal mass, soaking up heat and releasing it during the day.
‘I hate being cold. If it goes below about 16 degrees I just get really grumpy,’ he confesses, adding that he wanted a home that was not just energy efficient, mindful as he is of the climate disaster, but also one that was low-maintenance.
The materials palette here is simple and practical: concrete and wood. It’s a look that takes many of its cues from brutalism, a style close to Mark’s heart. He was heavily involved in a campaign to grant listed status to Dunelm House in Durham, where he spent some of his younger years, helping to convince others of the beauty in the property’s simplicity.
It was his affection for this building, as well as the motorways and tower blocks he was fascinated by growing up in Glasgow, that instilled an early desire to be involved in architecture. It’s a passion he now wants to pass on to a new generation as a RIBA Architecture Ambassador, a role that will involve him taking workshops of school children to Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing, the former home and architectural laboratory of John Soane, which was restored in 2019, winning the RIBA National Award.
It’s a property that couldn’t be much further from the clean, pared-back design of his work at Studioshaw, which includes plans for Bistrotheque, a new arts venue in east London, plus a competition-winning apartment block overlooking the canal in Hackney Wick and the refurbishment of Twickenham Film Studios, to name just a few.
‘I’m fascinated about how people live,’ says Mark, who adds that many of the ideas for his own house share the values he has been trying to instil in his other projects, especially the Hackney Wick apartments. With large balconies offering plenty of natural light and a meticulous focus on using every square metre of space to the maximum, the parallels are clear.
When it comes to offering advice for other people looking to improve their way of life by building their own home, Mark’s three key pieces of advice are fittingly straightforward.
‘Firstly, don’t get your knickers in a twist about time frames. Add six months onto any plan and accept that development moves at a glacial pace. Secondly, remember that there is always a way around anything, from building regulations to legal stuff. There are very few definitive ‘no’s in this industry, you just have to think creatively. Finally, be very pessimistic with your budget. How many times have we all watched Grand Designs and they’ve run out of money? Keep a bit back, be prudent, and think long and hard about the things you do want to splash out on.’
Pragmatic and practical, it’s thinking like this that has ensured this new home a sunny future. studioshaw.co.uk