The Shadow House: A story of inner city self-build

Having designed large luxurious properties for private clients and worked on complex urban social housing developments, David Liddicoat and Sophie Goldhill were keen to use their combined experience to create a small, attractive, cost effective and compact home for themselves. By David Mote

Architects David Liddicoat and Sophie Goldhill felt that the lessons learnt as part of their home’s design and build would help demonstrate how similar inner city homes can be created on small and often overlooked building plots.

The adventurous architects’ first step was to find an affordable inner city site where they could build their home, while testing their ideas of living with less.

For many self-builders the conventional way to find a building plot is by working with estate agents or attending local auctions. However, David and Sophie felt that the competition for sites promoted by property agencies has resulted in potential homeowners wanting to build a single property overpaying for the limited land available.

So the couple got on their bikes and, cycling around the city, explored the backstreets for a small and affordable plot of land. The result of their exacting search was the discovery of a derelict former electricity substation at the end of a Victorian terrace, located just behind the Kings Cross goods yards. At 38 sq m the space was not just small – it was very small. However, the previous owner’s failed attempt to get planning permission to develop the site had resulted in the land’s value being depressed and falling within David and Sophie’s budget.

The size was right, the price was right and the location, apart from the fact that it was in the fiercely protected Camden Square Conservation Area, was also right.

Engaging with the neighbours
It was soon very obvious that the only way of developing this unusual site was for David and Sophie to work closely with local neighbourhood organisations and planners. For the project to succeed they knew it was essential that these key community groups understood and supported their plans to create an innovative and possibly different looking property that still complemented the area’s historic local vernacular.

The resulting Shadow House, named for the way its form plays with light and shade, became a true example of modern self-build with David and Sophie designing the property and its interiors, managing the planning process, overseeing the manufacture of the fittings, fixtures, furniture and building construction.

The couple took a careful, collaborative approach to gaining planning permission, developing the design with close and detailed conversations with the council’s officers.

It was agreed that the maximum envelope for the house was to be determined by its relationship to surrounding buildings and the numerous ancient lights that overlooked the site. However, the greatest debate took place over the building’s external appearance.

The conservation lobby demanded that the house should reflect the area’s tough, industrial-era context. So David and Sophie proposed the use of a Dutch-format engineering brick with a black glazed finish, which resembles the cut face of coal. This was contrasted with sheer frameless glazing, with accents of white statuarietto marble, echoing the plaster reveals and porticoes of the existing local Victorian architecture.

As David explained:

“The tectonic of the house was driven by its physical and legislative context. We had developed a robust and monolithic design, reinforced with an unforgiving, monochromatic skin. Because our budget was so tight, we planned to carry out as much work as possible ourselves and limited our palette to primary materials. We found these limits liberating rather than restricting: there is great poetry in practical things, so we reveled in finding simple means of assembling the house.”

Bringing the outside in
Working to such a tight budget, David and Sophie constantly re-drew the design to eliminate costs, and carried out much of the work themselves.

With the site being located on a man-made terrain, which is a mixture of mobile clay and spoil taken from the cutting of the railway lines to Kings Cross and St Pancras, the substructure of the property had to be reinforced with concrete ground beams and piles. The superstructure is formed from load bearing masonry and oversized larch glulam beams – to maintain structural integrity in the event of fire – are laid directly into the brickwork to support the roof and floor structures.

The interior structure and window reveals are in raw larch, while the polished concrete floors, which were poured in-situ, flow between each of the rooms. The rooms’ walls are the same dark brickwork as the exterior and contrast with the stark white concrete floor.

The larch beams used to support the ceilings of both floors are hung with bare light bulbs, which remain exposed inside every room.

One of the bedrooms and a library occupy the first floor, along with a bathroom with a uniquely glazed ceiling.

The first floor bathroom’s huge sheer glass ceiling, which had to be craned into place, creates a real contrast with the close atmosphere of the living spaces. This bathroom design creates the sensation of being outside when either showering in full sunshine or bathing under the stars.

Additional storage spaces were built within walls, to avoid clutter. The TV and its cables are concealed behind a black glass wall and even the toilet roll has its own marble niche. The washing machine is in a secret cupboard behind the toilet; discreet storage fills every spare corner while the kitchen extractor is buried into the brickwork.

With the two bedrooms, two bathrooms and separate living and dining area all generously lit by large windows, the small room sizes were dealt with by cleverly adapting the ceiling heights from room to room.

This was essential to create a sense of space, to what could feel like very constrained rooms. It was important to modulate the sections and vary the ceiling heights by changing the floor level and building roofs at different heights. The design has created ceiling heights that range from 3m in the living room to 2.1m in the entrance area. This allowed each space its own sound quality, sense of comfort and ventilation.

Making a house a home
However, just building a house does not make a home. With this in mind David and Sophie also designed the fittings and furnishings.

These included a minimalist zero larch bed frame, stainless steel, marble and spray lacquered matt doors, a granite and laser-cut timber table light, soft furnishings using African fabrics, a Nyaradza bedspread and Akwasidee cushions.

Larch block board panels form a backlit plafond français to the living room and bedroom, and line the deep internal reveals to form inviting window seats. The composition is completed in off-white fitted cabinetry, which was made in the house before being sent off-site to be spray-finished.

One small luxury the couple allowed themselves was to buy two slabs of bookmatched Statuarietto marble, which they used throughout the house as a reflective contrast to the brick walls. The whole design revolves around this play of light and dark with carefully controlled moments of bright intensity and shadow.

Following the clearance of the site, construction work on The Shadow House began in August 2009 and David and Sophie moved into their iconic new home at the end of January 2011.David and Sophie have moved on but The Shadow House is now an established home and landmark in Camden.

An award winning design
Recognised as a prize-winning example of space saving architecture the property has been applauded not just for its aesthetics but also for being a remarkable financial success story. The total cost of land purchase and construction came in at £210,000 for its 79 sq m.

Although the couple’s first venture into the world of designing property that can fit onto a small and affordable piece of land, the Shadow House has already won a RIBA award, the Small House Award at the 2011 British Homes Awards, the residential category of the Daily Telegraph Homebuilding and Renovation Award, a New London Architecture commendation and a Manser Medal nomination.

British Homes Awards director and Hon FRIBA, Mike Gazzard, summed up the success of The Shadow House explaining:

“The British Homes Awards judging panel were very impressed with the attractive and very clever design of The Shadow House. It has proved that with innovative ideas and a real passion you can create an effective and comfortable home on a site the size of a conventional garage.”

Project summary

  • Gross internal floor area: 79 sq m
  •  Form of contract or procurement: Self-build
  •  Overall cost of land: £95,000
  •  Total construction cost: £210,000­
  •  Value of property now: £649,950


Project team:

  • Architect: Liddicoat & Goldhill LLP
  • Contractor: David Liddicoat & Sophie Goldhill
  • Structural engineer: Peter Kelsey & Associates
  • Building regulations: Assent Building Control


Fixtures and fittings:

Furniture & accessories: