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Peckham House: A Testament to Skill and Hard Work

Peckham House, London, UK / Surman Weston

The successful completion of this urban infill project in Peckham serves as a remarkable testament to the combination of skill, patience, and hard work. Architects in densely populated and expensive cities like London often consider mastering this type of project as a significant milestone in their careers. Surman Weston, a firm established by Tom Surman and Percy Weston in 2014, not only designed the Peckham House but also took on the role of developer, funder, and builder.

The motivation behind this particular project was to challenge themselves by undertaking a project without a specific client. After an exhaustive search through numerous property auctions yielded no results, they stumbled upon an end-of-terrace plot of land that had been neglected amidst the development of two-story 1970s terraces. This plot, owned by the council and lacking planning permission, required the team to swiftly design and submit their plans within a tight 30-day timeframe in order to secure funding.

Peckham House, London, UK / Surman Weston

Five years have passed since then, during which the project faced various challenges, including the onset of a pandemic and the arrival of a new baby. The architects’ decision to personally oversee much of the construction, relying on trusted friends and sub-contractors, further extended the timeline.

Nevertheless, the end result proudly reflects the extensive effort invested in the project. The meticulous attention to detail, choice of materials, and spatial arrangement all bear witness to the architects’ unwavering commitment to quality control and thorough preparation.

Peckham House, London, UK / Surman Weston

Weston acknowledges that completing one’s own house is more challenging than working on others’, as he stands in the impeccably designed new kitchen, constructed from varnished and polished green moisture resistant MDF. The ground floor consists of only two rooms, along with a spacious hallway and cloakroom. The house aligns with the existing terrace, featuring a rectangular layout within the pronounced curve of the garden fence, which follows the path of the pavement.

Upon entering through the front garden enclosed by planted bin and bike stores, one immediately notices the distinctive front façade. It showcases expertly executed hit-and-miss bricklaying that gradually transforms into an airy latticework at its highest point, with plants already emerging through the gaps and cascading down the walls. A tidy arch conceals the inset front door, adorned with a curved fanlight and illuminated house number. The architectural precision is evident, yet it never veers into ostentation.

Peckham House, London, UK / Surman Weston

The living room exudes a warm and inviting ambiance, featuring timber joists and a floor crafted from end-grain timber blocks, which are off-cuts from the structural works. A step leads down into the dining room and kitchen, cleverly utilizing the site’s slight slope to maximize the ceiling heights. Weston explains, “We aimed to create a sense of spaciousness in the living areas,” as he points out the substantial timber beam that spans the opening between the two rooms – aptly referred to as “the spine of the house.” With the expertise of Structure Workshop engineers, the walls were specially reinforced to accommodate this monumental piece of wood, which still retains its original bark.

Peckham House, London, UK / Surman Weston

The primary timber utilized in the construction was English larch, which was carefully cut and sawn in Devon. The architect describes the house as a blend of contemporary design and traditional craftsmanship, highlighting the use of scarf joints and dowels to secure the timbers without relying on metal fixings or bolts. To ensure privacy while allowing for adequate ventilation during the summer, the ground and first floors feature brick lattice coverings on certain windows. The rear garden mirrors the front, showcasing the exquisite custom-made doorway with its large circular windows, which offers a glimpse of the meticulously planned planting scheme by Lidia D’Agostino Garden Design.

Peckham House, London, UK / Surman Weston

The staircase, crafted from pine, was precisely CNC-cut to perfectly fit the curve of the lofty rooflit stairwell. To provide a unique texture and enhance fire resistance, the rear side of the wood was treated with a Tyrolean Flicker Machine, a handheld device that imparts a coarse, natural finish. A striking blue banister, painstakingly fabricated by a local steel expert after careful deliberation, guides individuals to the first floor.

On the first floor, one will find three modest bedrooms and a family bathroom, all adorned with lime plaster walls. An unexpected touch is added by the raised, curved ceiling with a high-level window. In the main bedroom, the plywood wardrobes are skillfully stained with indigo to accentuate the natural grain.

Peckham House, London, UK / Surman Weston

Ascending another flight of stairs, passing by a repurposed old construction hoist now serving as a dumb waiter, one arrives at the roof terrace. Accessible through a sliding hatch covered in cork and housed within an off-the-shelf aluminium greenhouse, this playful do-it-yourself interpretation of a traditional roof lantern leads to a spacious roof garden. The garden features a photovoltaic array for harnessing solar energy and a rainwater collection system. Across the street, the imposing concrete and brick brutalist architecture of the Peckham Levels stands tall, but the new structure undoubtedly holds its own.

Peckham House, London, UK / Surman Weston

In Peckham House, meticulous details and finishes are evident throughout, a result of being present on-site throughout the construction process. Weston acknowledges the temptation to overdesign, but the experience gained and the boundaries pushed in working closely with tradespeople were invaluable.

While design and build approaches are becoming more popular among young architects, the trade-off between hands-on design application and construction experience versus time is significant. Weston estimates that the design phase for the house took three times longer than a similar project for an external client.

Peckham House, London, UK / Surman Weston

Despite the meandering process and frequent changes, the focus on sustainability remained constant. Waste was minimized through reuse of offcuts, and energy-efficient features such as triple-glazed windows, high insulation levels, a PV array, air source heat pump, and mechanical ventilation heat recovery were incorporated.

Weston and his family now reside in the house, providing a moment of reflection before their next endeavor. Regardless of how Surman Weston chooses to utilize their self-build expertise in the future, the architects are unlikely to relinquish the creative freedom and intricate detailing and materials showcased in the Peckham House.

Images courtesy of Jim Stephenson and Jim Stephenson