DIY Designer Dream Home: Anne Spackman visits a wooden sanctuary in the heart of urban sprawl

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The Independent Online
Shaws Cottages in Forest Hill was once a pair of tennis courts. A rickety wooden pavilion stands as a reminder. After World War II it reverted to being a garden, with apple, pear and apricot trees in the orchard, a pond and a rose bower. They are still there, but, growing up in the middle, is a five-bedroom, three-bathroom house with a timber frame and grass roof. It is so well camouflaged, you can barely see the wood for the trees.

The house is probably the most ambitious example of ecologically sound, self-build around London. Its creator is Jon Broome, graduate of the DIY school, whose architectural practice, Architype, specialises in this work.

Where most self-build homes are small and a touch primitive in design, having to be accomplished with a minimum of money and skills, 11 Shaws Cottages is large and attractive. It looks architect-designed, rather than architect-built, the kind of house you would live in out of choice, rather than principle.

Jon Broome and his family will be moving there from one of London's pioneering self-build projects, around the corner in Segal Close. This area of south-east London, with row upon row of shops and small houses, seems an unlikely spot. But like all areas, it has patches of spare ground and, more importantly, is within the boundaries of the authority which has promoted self-build most strongly, Lewisham Borough Council.

It provided the land for the close, seven log-cabin style houses completed in 1982, when self-build was considered very eccentric.

The houses conform more to the general image of self-build, timber frame homes. They are very simply constructed boxes, with a frame of wooden beams, filled in with a sandwich of panels and divided into separate rooms. But for all their simplicity, they provide something a bit special. On the main road, a few hundred yards away, you have to wind up your window to keep out the smell of traffic and dust.

At Segal Close you park in a small car park and walk down a leafy passage, with the houses running off on either side. The morning after a thunderstorm, the place has the alpine smell of timber.

The large areas of glass, and a semi-outdoor deck at room level give the feeling that you are living as much in the garden as the house. It is very peaceful. Having built the houses themselves fostered a strong sense of community. 'I think we know each other more than most people know their neighbours, says John's partner Rona Nicholson. 'It is very much our private domain.

Jon, Rona and their two young children Alex and Zoe will be only the third occupants to move out of the close. Like the others, their family has outgrown its space. The house, with three bedrooms, two living rooms, kitchen and bathroom, is under offer at pounds 75,000. It cost around pounds 10,000 to build.

Their satisfaction is demonstrated by them building another house, which will be habitable by September. It will have cost pounds 150,000 (pounds 48,000 for land; materials pounds 65,000 and labour pounds 35,000). The heart of the house is a double-height rectangle, with oak floor made from old Saracens' vinegar vats, retrieved from the factory near Tower Bridge. In the centre is the kitchen, at one end the dining area, at the other the family area.

The room, like the house, gets its colours from contrasting timbers. Tall thin Douglas Firs from Shropshire provided the main upright supports, pine 'branches support the ceiling and green, organically painted boards cover one wall. Above is the main bedroom with a gallery and bathroom with a small window right by the tub. 'So that I can call down for a cup of coffee, says Rona.

Three other areas, all with separate outside access, lead off from the central space. One will be the child-free living room with office beyond, another the nanny/guest wing with bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette, the third will be the children's ghetto, with bathroom and three bedrooms leading off a central play area. There is a utility room and conservatory. Outside walls are made of Norwegian fibre board, stuffed with recycled newspaper. Windows are made of Pilkington K glass with aluminium beading.

The house sits in a quarter of an acre. They put it on the scrubbiest patch, to retain as many trees and plants. As with their current house, the garden seems ever present.

Jon Broome has spent every day off, weekend and most evenings 'on site for two years. He says it has given him great satisfaction, but he probably won't do it again. His partner says he definitely won't be doing it again.

Architype, 4-6 The Hop Exchange, 24 Southwark Street, London SE1 1TY (071-403 2889).

(Photographs omitted)