LIVING APART TOGETHER

Can the layout of a house defeat the 'unhealthy monoculture' of young, single, professional life? Emma Marshall reports on a radical design for living that manages to combine privacy with company
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The Independent Culture
IN AMONG THE uniform council estates of north-west London rises an unexpected edifice, unusual not only for its eye-catching colour scheme and plastic form, but for the fact that behind the brightly painted walls lies not a block of flats or another converted Victorian warehouse, but an experiment in living.

New-build houses are unusual in dense city centres - planning offices are notoriously restrictive and sites are difficult to find - but what makes this house interesting is not just that it ever got built, but its radical function.

The four buzzers at the door are confusing. What at first appears to be a stylish apartment building is, in fact, a detached private house. The ground, second and third floors, each the size of a one-bedroom flat, are devoted to sleeping and bathing, while the first floor is a combined sitting-room and kitchen. Essentially, three flats in one building, but with a shared living space.

This is a home designed for communal living. A possible solution to privacy without the loneliness? If Julyan Wickham, its architect, is to be believed, this represents the domestic ideal for young and (increasingly) single Nineties buyers.

"This sort of building makes sense in today's society." A man of resonant tones and designer glasses, the architect of such public spaces as Bank restaurant and Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor talks lucidly about what he describes as the "unhealthy monoculture", where "you have thousands of young people living alone, with only a TV for company, but no one thinks of translating this into architecture."

Two important factors contributed to Julyan realising his concept. His client, Alex Gladstone, a 29-year-old film location manager, was fortunate enough to have a father willing to finance the project, and wise enough to leave the job of designing and building to the architect. "I found the site, but after that the project increasingly became my father's and Julyan's," he admits. Another crucial factor was the location of the original building, in an area of Kensington not subject to conservation restrictions.

More renowned for office blocks and estates, the west-London streets south of the Grand Union canal initially seemed an unlikely choice. Much of the local housing is council-owned and the few recent gentrifications are exceptions. But the derelict building Alex spotted proved a canny find. Completely dilapidated, the "dog of a house", as Julyan recalls it, was a planner's headache.

"The roof was held up by a stick in the bath ... When we approached the planners, they were quite simply bored by yet another architect with a conversion proposal. When I light-heartedly suggested pulling the whole lot down and starting again, faces lit up."

The resulting house testifies to a surprisingly sympathetic collaboration between architect and planners. "They were extremely positive," says Julyan, not a comment often heard from architects about their traditional enemies. The brief was for a house suitable for Alex to share with his brother and a friend, which would allow for privacy as well as social interaction.

Alex is enthusiastic about Julyan, whom he first met as a teenager and worked for when he was 17. This familiarity perhaps accounts for Julyan's unrestrained design. Today a house of modest beauty sits snuggled by the council estate next door. Bordered by a schoolyard to the rear, the red front elevation swoops round in a soft curve. The flank wall is a complementary bright blue. The colours were approved by the planners and achieved using high-quality paint, guaranteed to last 20 years or more.

Great gashes of glazing appear to be randomly cut into the render. "Where normally you would expect a column to sit, we placed the windows," says Julyan. This unexpected transposition gives a cockpit-like view onto the surrounding estates. The windows, from Holland, are frameless, and so discreet when open as to blur the distinction between interior and exterior - a compromise towards outdoor space (the only thing the house lacks, according to Alex). The building fills the site, leaving no room for a garden, and neighbours complained about the prospect of being overlooked from a proposed roof terrace.

A grey front door opens at street level onto a hall flanked by a laundry room and bike store. The first bedroom is Catherine's. It has white walls and a wooden floor. Storage is ample, with a dedicated work-space defined by bolt-on laminated desks. Each of the three bedrooms is on its own floor with an en-suite bathroom of glass mosaic walls and MDF panels.

Ahead of Catherine's room are the stairs which run straight up the spine of the house, a four-storey tunnel of colour with one cobalt wall washing cool reflections onto the white surface opposite. "I chose the colours - the fun bit," says Alex.

His brother "got fed up with floating" in the two years it took to complete the house, so the second floor is home instead to Benji, a partner in the last-word-in-cool K bar. As king of his castle, it is fitting that Alex should sleep on the top floor.

Each of their spaces is defined more by the character of its occupant than by its design. Alex's taste appears to be for the "ethnic", but "for Benji is has to be white," he says. "The cleaning lady seems to spend most of her time ironing his shirts." Benji admits to fastidious tendencies: "I do find it hard to tolerate mess. Catherine calls my room The Shop." Glancing past an open cupboard door, you can see why. There are shelves of clothes that Benetton would be proud of.

The colours of the three bathrooms vary slightly. Turquoise tiles sing a watery song with their grout dyed the colour of jade in Catherine's, while the top-floor bathroom, with its tangerine tiles glowing against banana walls, speaks more of African suns and baked earth.

The juxtaposition of minimal and messy is not apparent in the shared room, though. "It's hard to make an impact on the living-room," says Benji. This is an open-plan area with grey kitchen units at one end and sofas at the other, bathed in a square of sunshine streaming in from the skylight. The generous kitchen shelving is clearly intended to hold more than the packet of Special K and jar of Marmite in evidence. A truncated kitchen island doubles as a bar and yes, the fridge is more or less empty. "It does tend to be more take-aways than dinner parties," confesses Alex, going on to insist: "We will entertain when the new dining table arrives." Quite what is wrong with the existing one isn't clear.

In fairness, that this house resembles a cool dumping pad rather than a home is probably more to do with its newness than its design. "I love living here and I'm definitely house-proud," says Alex. He insists that it works beautifully as a shared house and feels that he would be less happy living here alone, even if he can go for weeks without bumping into his flatmates.

"It's a very relaxed house," says Benji. "I couldn't think of a better space to live in. Alex is going to have a problem getting rid of me." He did, however, harbour reservations about moving to the area. "I really didn't know what to expect."

"On the whole, people have been only compli- mentary about the house," says Alex. He suggests that it is the lack of curtains and the fact that people can see in that promotes the good will.

"The real beauty of this house is that it cost less than refurbishing the original would have," says Julyan Wickham. About 25 per cent less; exact figures are hard to extract from architect or owner, but pounds 300k is a modest estimate, over and above the cost of the site. He is clearly impassioned by his first London new-build house. "It's also bigger than the original, by at least 15 per cent." The ghost of a tiny attic has become a complete floor. "And it's energy-efficient." The four inches of insulation on the exterior walls and six in the roof and the double glazing help retain heat in winter and keep rooms cool in summer. "The house works for Alex and his friends," he concludes, but ultimately it is flexible and "could easily be adapted into a family home," or self-contained flats.

So if you like your own space but don't like living alone, this sort of layout makes perfect sense, with the obvious benefit of living in a large house without extortionate rent. Communal living combines a place of your own with the advantages of having friends alone. This does, however, presume a relaxed attitude, one that Alex and his flatmates seem to share (although one suspects that living in such a desirable abode helps).

The inhabitants can exist cocooned in their own floors, living separate lives, only integrating if they choose, although the apparently hectic social life of this trio suggests that they rarely meet in the shared space. That this house works is perhaps a comment on the lifestyles of young professionals in the Nineties.

! Wickham & Associates architects can be contacted on 0171 402 0669

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