Finding the Plot; in a City Where Most Houses Are Pretty Much the Same, Some People Are Determined to Live in a Different Space, Whatever It Takes. Jo Denbury Meets Five Londoners Who Built Their Own Utopias

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Arabella & James Cant Open-plan family house in Kilburn Arabella Cant, 37, a freelance art director, and her husband, the photographer James Cant, 40, have built their own four-bedroom house in North West London. 'I can't really take all the credit,' she says. 'It was largely my husband. For as long as I have known him - about 11 years - he has been diving into alleyways looking for potential sites to build on. Then James came home one day and said he'd found this great site on Kilburn High Road.

And I said absolutely not in a million years; I really didn't want to move there. But then he got me to see the site - a disused factory overlooking a park - and I climbed on the roof, saw the view and fell for it.' Last year the Cants pulled the factory down and have since built a four-bedroom contemporary house - complete with polished concrete, floor-to-ceiling windows and underfloor heating - with a very open feel that replicates the houses of James's Australian roots. The whole project cost them around [pounds sterling]650,000.

'Before we did this, life was getting me down,' explains Arabella. 'But building this house, with the photographic Studio 246 below which I manage, has meant that I can take control of my life.

Whereas before, after paying for the nanny, I had about [pounds sterling]10 a week left for myself, this has given me the opportunity to look after my children [Lola, seven, and Evie, three] and work all in one place.' Not that it has all been effortless.

Getting planning permission took six months, and there was a moment of near catastrophe when the carefully poured concrete floor had been polished and finished, only to discover that the underfloor heating had been wrongly laid.

'I just thought, "This is it, our dream ends here,"' recalls Arabella.

Luckily, it turned out that the heating worked fine, so the new floor could stay down.

'I don't think self-build is easy. It has been a real labour of love and taken two years of our life,' Arabella adds. 'But I would recommend it. To find a plot you have to keep your eyes open and the place will come to you.'

Sarah Featherstone Courtyard complex in Bethnal Green Sarah Featherstone, 37, the woman who designed the award-winning Drop House in Northaw, Hertfordshire, has long been making her name as an innovative architect. Based in the East End, she bought herself a narrow, overlooked plot of just 4 x 21m comprising a shop and a rundown workshop in Bethnal Green. 'I hadn't considered owning a shop but when I thought about it there was a lot of potential in having a commercial live/work premises. For a start, the shop would pay my mortgage.' She estimates that the site cost her about [pounds sterling]120,000 and the work about [pounds sterling]250,000. For that she has created a home 'that has the potential of three bedrooms, but the third is deliberately separate from the house because you have to come out and cross a courtyard to enter it. At the moment it is a studio flat.

'Finding a plot in London is difficult, but the thing is to find something that is considered too small by a developer. My site was an anomaly and it didn't catch anyone's interest. The best way to look for a site is to scour the area you live in, where you have local knowledge.' Sarah solved the problem of not living on a pretty street by creating her own internal courtyard for the house to face and to provide views and unpolluted natural light. 'It was an opportunity to create a house that was in tune with what I really wanted,' she muses. The project has paid off, with Sarah getting commissions from the likes of the Peabody Trust to create more homes in awkward urban locations.

Sarah intends to find another site to start the process over again but now finds that she is up against potential clients who have been inspired by what she has achieved. …


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