Architects head east in hunt for land

5 February, 2019

Marcus Lee describes the east London mews where he and other architects are developing small sites as “gritty, like a cross between Luther and The Wire”. But at lunchtime on a bright winter’s day the only hurdle is negotiating large, muddy puddles.

But if you want to find affordable land to develop in London, ‘unadopted’ roads, industrial fumes and dodgy locals are par for the course. Add to this the risks associated with planning and the difficulty of borrowing money to fund a small development, it’s no wonder so few people do it. But get the postcode right and it can be a way to stay in the capital with money over.

Sprowston Mews in Forest Gate, Newham will be Lee’s third development. He built his first house in Highbury, Islington in the 1980s, selling it in 1999. He then bought a piece of unwanted garden in Hackney for around £85,000 and built The Framehouse, selling it to the journalist Lucy Kellaway for £1.7m in 2015.

That year his former co-director Rachel Hearn purchased a garage site in the mews. Lee helped negotiate buying an extra piece of garden from a neighbour creating two plots on an L-shaped site. A year later he helped buy a second site opposite.

“I have built houses in Islington, Hackney and now Newham, stepping out of Zone 1 in tandem with London’s move east. Each time l have taken advantage of being on the poorer edge of prime development but keeping close to transport links and these days connections to Shoreditch, Hackney and Peckham matter more than to the West End.”

On the second mews site he’s built a two-and-a-half storey house now lived in by his daughter and partner ( see image above). On the L-shaped site he’s building two three-storey houses, one for himself and one he is selling to friends ( see image below).

Sprowston Mews is an ‘unadopted’ road thus not maintained by the local authority, which was initially reluctant to give consent to new homes because of the state of the road and its reputation for ‘lawlessness’, chiefly drugs and prostitution.

Neither was the mews connected to the mains water and drainage supply. This was one of Lee’s first hurdles and installing services cost around £65,000, shared between eight other residents.

“We lobbied Newham hard to consider the applications in the first place. There was resistance because of the state of the lane and policing problems. In the end the local councillor came round and was really supportive of our initiatives and he has helped us push for adoption. We formed a residents’ association to manage the services project, which was very stressful due to resistance by some garage owners to any disruption”.

His daughter’s house was built for around £250,000. Lee’s house (160 sq metres) and its neighbour (140 sq metres) are being built for £2000 per square metre. The houses are built of concrete brick with exposed internal walls, floors are a cheap version of polished concrete, heating is under-floor and Lee’s own house will have an external stair so the three floors can work as individual flats.

Next to his daughter’s house, a former colleague from RSHP has bought a garage plot ( see image below) and further up the mews award-winning architect Matheson Whiteley is undertaking a joint venture with two clients who will live and work in the building when completed.

Said Donald Matheson: “The flats we have designed are quite large by most standards – around 92 sq metres We think this will attract owner/occupiers to form a small like-minded community and contribute to the shift in the activity in the mews from commercial use to a more residential focus”. And there’s no doubt that the mews will change as the car spray shops disappear as the residents move in.

But says Lee: “A mix of uses can add vibrancy. It will break my heart to see the harpsichord maker go in Sprowston Mews – less so the fuming spray shops!”

Archiboo and Rare Space are running masterclasses on how to develop small sites. The current series is now sold out but if you would like information on future masterclasses, please register here