WORDS BY WILL BEDINGFIELD
PICTURES BY TOM JAMES
“Brockwell Park is the best park in London as far as I am concerned” says architect Zac Munro, whose latest work, located on the park’s northern fringe, featured on the Channel4 show Grand Designs tonight. A “modernist masterpiece”, it is built to draw in the atmosphere of the surrounding park. “From the ground floor you have this huge expanse of uninterrupted glass giving on to the garden,” says owner Rachel Hammond. “It will move with the seasons, as the sun comes through the trees it will make patterns in the house.”
Rachel has also noticed the park’s new involvement in their lives in the six weeks she and her husband Ben and their two daughters Lola and Sylva, 11 and 7, have been living there: she says “we are in the park… people chattering, playing football, the sounds of the wildlife, the birds, the squirrels, the foxes.”
It is the second home in the area to be on the TV show, the first being the Slip House, or ‘ice cube’, in Lyham Road. Rachel explains the project’s history; “We’ve lived in Brixton since 1997, so we knew the area, loved the area and were attracted to this unique location when it became available.”
When he saw the plot of land Zac was effusive, “I said you have got to buy it. You have to buy it whatever it costs, you’ll never see this again, and I would sell everything to get it.”
The plot is literally in Brockwell Park. Originally built as a vicarage in the 1950s, it is accessed off Dulwich Road down a lane by the side of St Jude’s Church. As the building work began, gossiping dog walkers watched the house go up with interest as camera crews came and went. Even now bemused joggers peer over the fence to get a glimpse of the sleek new house, or stick their iPhone through a gap in the fence.
The house is a modernist renovation of the existing red-brick structure, with the addition of two more blocks. Zac explains, “It was a kind of 1950’s house before, but there was a craftsmanship to the original building, so we wanted to nod to what the house could be.
“We broke it down into three sets of volumes. The existing house’s energy use was obscene so we overclad the whole thing in clay tile bricks to super insulate it, making it sustainable, and to re-skin it to a new look that mirrors the urban context. We built the new part (visible from Dulwich Road side) of timber frame, the vertical slats mirroring the surrounding natural environment, and the third part is the white rendered volume.”
His friendship with the owners was key to the entire projects success: “Rachel and Ben are friends so it was different from other jobs because we were on the same page, and did it exactly how we all wanted it… they have the same taste, had it been my house this is how I would have done it.”
That they were renovating an existing home rather than building one from scratch led Rachel to get in contact with Grand Designs, around three years ago, “we thought it would be an interesting story. They prefer a transformation over a new build because there are millions of houses like this that can be transformed.”
Zac was pleasantly surprised by the filming process, “Architects love to hate Grand Designs. It can seem like there is a manufactured drama. Yet Kevin totally got it, he’s an incredibly knowledgeable architectural historian. He comes out with brilliant anecdotes about other buildings, and he was very complimentary about ours!”
“He was lovely,” Rachel confirms, “the good thing about the programme actually, it made us bring everything together, to get it all sorted for the big reveal.”
But the entire project almost didn’t happen thanks to Lambeth’s planning department, who came to check the bricks for one of the walls to find they were “not natural” enough. “It was a disaster we had ordered them all, they were all on site, they’d been agreed at planning. Even the grand designs guys were like how can they not like this?
“We said no you haven’t read the planning document, it’s a natural material, the scheme has already been granted, so if you want a fight we’ll give you a fight.”
Fortunately for the family and for Zac the council eventually gave in on the materials and, on the words of Rachel: “The result is so much more beautiful for it.”
Brixton-based architect Zac Munro is clearly proud if his achievement, and his local credentials are clear. He is a director of Brixton Pound and his architect firm is based in the Eurolink Business Centre, Effra Road. A quick glance at his website reveals sketches of plans for Windrush Square and a Brixton Road kiosks.
Summing up his project, Zac says: “the movement through the house is how spaces should work, there are lovely big openings in every room. Space in this house works beautifully, and without a crazy budget.” Beyond its architectural harmony, another benefit of this open plan is shown to me by Lola, who skilfully wave boards from the sofa to the kitchen and back again, reappearing with dinner now coolly balanced on her arm.