Surman Weston establishes itself as assured self builder, architect and developer with its creative take on the terraced south London house
There’s a lot to be said for the conventional small terraced house, and in layout terms this one – a self-build project in Peckham, south London, by architects Surman Weston for themselves – deliberately learns from domestic tradition. Living room and kitchen/diner downstairs (with toilet under the stairs), three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, fenced planted yards front and back. But there’s rather more to it than this, as you might guess from its appearance.
Knobbly the York Handmade brickwork may be, but it’s not your cliched ‘burglar bond’. In fact it is flush brickwork up to shoulder level, the headers then setting back 5mm every five courses and finally disappearing to make a ‘hit and miss’ perforated brick parapet to the roof garden, through which trailing plants grow. A barely modified off-the-peg greenhouse on top signals the elevated garden’s garden-ness and doubles as cover to the top of the stairs: you slide back a cork-clad hood from below to emerge into the greenhouse, and the closed hood then acts as a table. The brickwork also dissolves into perforated screens in front of inwardly-opening frosted-glass ventilation panels set next to the windows. The solid corners to the brickwork, where the lime mortar joints are more prominent, act as quoins.
This site would once have been very fringe indeed. It is close to the centre of Peckham, but sandwiched between one end of a council terrace and a busy railway embankment. It also faces the full-on Brutalist rear end of what was a Sainsbury’s multi-storey car park but has now become hip as the ‘Peckham Levels’ culture-food-and-bars venue. Not so hip, though, that when this tiny patch of leftover land on the corner of the street, owned by the London Borough of Southwark, came up for auction, there was a rush. In fact there was only one bidder: Percy Weston. He rang Tom Surman in a bit of a panic. They had a month to somehow find the money to complete the purchase. That was in 2018.
Perhaps luckily, there followed a year’s delay due to the discovery of an unrecorded gas main running beneath the site which needed diverting. Southwark eventually lowered its sale price to compensate for the work, and after a lot of design pondering as the Covid pandemic hit, the pair started in earnest on site in April 2021, acting as their own contractor, building as much as possible with their own hands. The house was completed in early 2023. Weston’s three-strong family moved in, paying a modest rent to Surman who is a 30% owner, and who I met on my visit.
Rather fetching pale-green kitchen cabinets are nothing posher than standard green water-resistant mdf, sealed
The two of them, both friends since undergraduate days at Nottingham and then at the RCA, set up their practice in 2012 and made a mark with such buildings as their homage-to-suburbia house in Surbiton and the joyful retrofit of the Hackney School for Food, winner of the RIBAJ’s MacEwen Award in 2021. It was a natural if quixotic progression to work on the house together. This was not only as an investment (London property prices being what they are, the estimated 5,000 hours total of their time they put into it would be handsomely covered if they decided to sell) but as a deliberate learning process in both design and construction terms. The practice was quiet during the Covid lockdown, there was time and opportunity to experiment, both stylistically and technically. The aim was a very sustainable and practical small family home, of highly insulated cavity wall construction, with both photovoltaic panels and an air source heat pump, involving very little construction waste.
Surman had experience from his youth working on his uncle’s building sites, and Weston turned out to be pretty handy with hammer and saw too. They couldn’t do everything: brickwork, services and specialist joinery, for instance, needed the relevant trades, though they did sometimes find themselves following on to deal with mess and the odd defect. ‘I spent two weeks cleaning the brickwork in the end,’ says Surman. He also kept the studio running, Weston was site architect, and both came together for the construction. The project became all-consuming and did, Surman admits, take a toll on the studio at the time. ‘We just enjoyed being here, hands on.
The singular achievement is spatial: the feeling of generosity on such a very tight plot
For me the singular achievement is spatial: the way they have managed to make a house with a feeling of generosity on such a very tight plot. The brick cube of the house is cut into by arched porches front and back. The little garden yards, cleverly planted, provide privacy from the street, as does the front-yard bike store which, with its green roof behind a curving fenced perimeter, you are hardly aware of. The house respects the street line and scale of the existing terrace, picking up details of that and other adjacent buildings and structures rather as the practice’s Surbiton house did. It has its own clear aesthetic as a slightly taller corner piece but has the good manners to pull itself slightly apart visually from the existing terrace end via a narrow inset pitched-roof section, incorporating a skylight, over the stairs.
Those surprisingly delicate stairs are fire-protected on the undersides with a lime-mortar slurry. The spindly steel blue-painted balustrading is by local fabricators. From the hallway you step into the living room which is floored in Barbican-style end-grain larch bricks. Larch is much used throughout, sourced from a farm in Devon. Where lengths of visible beams connect, they are scarf-jointed and fixed with wooden pegs. The biggest beam still has its bark on the underside.
Two steps down (a slight slope in the land allowed greater ceiling height) takes you into the kitchen-diner at the rear which like the hall has terrazzo floor tiles. The rather fetching pale-green kitchen cabinets turn out to be nothing posher than standard green water-resistant mdf, sealed. The joinery money here was spent on making a large multi-pane circular window oculus out of what would normally be just a pair of patio doors: spatial generosity again. The front door is also a bespoke number while internal doors are basic off-the-peg blanks, enhanced by Surman Weston-designed brass door furniture.
Upstairs, with the tight plan of three bedrooms and a bathroom, there is less opportunity for special effects – although the second bedroom’s ceiling swoops unexpectedly upwards at one end to bring in light from a high-level window.
The roof garden – determinedly a real garden with planted beds running round the corner, not just a terrace with pots – succeeds despite having a third of its potential footprint occupied by an array of PV panels, set flat amid sedum planting on a raised section at the rear. The perforated brick parapet is braced internally by slender tubular-steel angled supports.
It absolutely passes the would-I-like-to-live-there test. So, what next for Surman Weston, self-builders? Perhaps surprisingly after all the work, they don’t rule out a repeat project. ‘But if we ever DID do it again,’ says Surman, ‘we’d probably reverse the roles. I’d be the site architect.’
Gifa 106 m2
Predicted annual onsite renewable energy generation 1,650kwh
Embodied carbon per m² 475.41kg
Predicted potable water use per person per day 110l
EPC rating Management (self-build) form of contract A
Client, architect and contractor Surman Weston
Structural engineer Structure Workshop
Services engineer Peter Deer and Associates
Planting design Lidia D’Agostino Garden Design
External works contractor Magic Projects