Engineer Ollie Higson and architect Priska Weems transformed an industrial space in east London into a cosy `urban cottage'. Chloe Grimshaw steps inside. Photographs by Josh Pulman
Ollie Higson and Priska Weems recall the cold November day when they moved into an empty shoe warehouse, laid a mattress on the floor and called it home. There was no kitchen and no bathroom, just two industrial lavatories marked Ladies' and Men's. The central heating didn't work properly, wind blew in through the cracks around the windows and an icy winter lay ahead. Anyone with a less practical approach to home-making might have found the prospect more than a little daunting.

But Ollie and Priska, who had recently moved back from America, had seen beyond the warren of tiny, dark and grimy offices that had been carved out of the space in the Seventies. They had a vision.

For the first few months they cooked on a camping stove. By day, they tore down the wooden partition walls, jemmied off the wooden panelling, ripped woodchip wallpaper from all the ceilings and disposed of the office furniture. At night, they snuggled into sleeping bags on the floor. Ollie, a building-services engineer, says: "Everybody thought we were mad. They thought we'd made a huge mistake."

But their vision held right through the winter as they kept warm by burning all the debris produced during their renovations. "It was so convenient," says Ollie. "We had four rooms' worth of panelling to burn. We never had to hire skips to take all the junk away because we ended up burning all of it."

Now, more than a year on, their dream has taken shape. The building has been transformed into a cottage in the heart of Shoreditch, an up-and- coming though still largely Dickensian area of inner London. It also houses a studio where Priska, an architect, works most of the time.

They found the building by chance. Ollie, who is British, had been living with Priska in America, but was forced to move back to Britain after running into difficulties with his residence permit. "When we arrived here, Ollie was working full-time and it was my job to find a flat," says Priska. "I'd known by reputation that London was very difficult, as is New York, as is Hong Kong, as is anywhere, unless you have connections or you know someone giving up a flat." Ollie has worked for Fulcrum, an engineering partnership that designs low-energy services for new buildings, for 10 years.

The search came to a head after six months of camping out in friends' homes. Priska says: "We were looking at railway arches. There was this beautiful arch for rent - they had just finished it and laid a concrete floor, but the whole place was very damp. We attributed that to the concrete floor and the fact that they had washed the walls - but we came to realise it wasn't drying out properly.

"We just came to see one last time if the arch had dried out and it was still damp. The man from the courier company next door told us that the landlord across the yard was offering storage space in an old office building. We spoke to him and managed to get the lease, and moved in two months later."

Ollie says: "The house came to us on the day when we had totally lost faith. Priska was in tears." The couple moved in, then worked out a deal with the landlord: they would spent a couple of grand on the building and pay less rent over the three-year period of their lease. They calculated that it would still work out at a very reasonable rent.

Shoreditch is the area of London where the City meets the East End: in one direction, you encounter massive modern office buildings; in the other, street markets and a vibrant ethnic community. The neighbourhood has proved a rich hunting ground for home furnishings. "We managed to get almost everything locally," says Priska. "Our stainless-steel kitchen comes from Brick Lane. We just put it on our trolley and wheeled it here. The sofa is from Old Street. It's a great area for foraging."

Ollie works in a traditional office, but the pair were adamant their home would not conform. "You see so many people caught in the gravy train of building their houses into this sort of perfect `whatever' that they see in a magazine," says Ollie. "We are taking the reverse approach. This place is just what it is, and we're not going to feel bad about it just because the bath's got chipped - that's just how it is. In this house, we realised we would not focus on curing the imperfections. We would focus on objects and things that worked in a practical sense or else were just nice."

Priska adds: "It's helped us to realise we don't need to acquire things. When I travelled before, I used to have urges to buy things to take home, to remind me of the trip. With this place, we didn't really have any money to spend on furnishings. All the shelves in the bathroom and kitchen are driftwood we collected on our honeymoon."

For Ollie, the house has assumed a sense of sanctuary. "We call it the Urban Bothy," he says. "A bothy is a stone shelter in the Highlands, a square-built limestone building with a roof on top, where you can shelter if you get caught out in the winter. Our home gives people comfort, like being in a childhood home. You don't often get that with young to middle-aged people in London."

The house also feels as if it has been here a long time. In fact, it conceals a real part of London's history, as Ollie recounts: "On the ground beneath this building are cinders from the Fire of London. This was a marshy hole and it's where they dumped the cinders. We found out that, for all the new building around here, they have to put in huge foundations because there are about 15-20ft of cinders"

Next week: Chloe Grimshaw at home and work with jewellery designer Angela Hale