CREDIT: NICK KANE
If you go down to Highgate Wood today you’re sure of a big surprise. On a leafy lane just behind the Tube station it looks as if a spaceship has docked in north London, wedged in between the houses on either side. The curved, steel-grey hull seems to float above the pavement, while a sloping metal gangway allows passengers on and off the vessel.
This is the home of Mike Russum, an architect, and his partner Sally Cox. It has been longlisted for the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) House of the Year award, which is the subject of a four-part series on Channel 4; the winner will be announced in the final episode on Nov 28.
It’s the sort of house that makes people stop and stare. “If I see someone standing outside looking, I invite them in and give them a tour,” says Russum.
The couple were living in nearby Highbury when they both inherited some money and decided to build their own home. Plots are in very short supply in the area, so when this one came up – originally the side garden of one of the neighbouring houses – they put in a successful bid of £276,000 at auction.
That was in 2006. It took the best part of a decade – via planning hold-ups (it took two years and an appeal to get permission), neighbours’ objections and construction delays to finish the job.
The tiny plot, just 22ft wide, dictated the shape of the house. “We had to have a parking place at the front, so to compensate we extended the upper floors out towards the pavement, which gives it the appearance of a vessel in dock,” says Russum. The whole of the upper two floors was constructed in a factory and the pieces craned into position. The lower section, built from grey engineered bricks infilled with concrete and supported by steel beams, acts as a plinth for the upper storeys.
“I like houses to be a series of unfolding surprises,” says Russum. The first is Sally’s study on the upper ground floor, with a glazed back wall that opens on to a full-width terrace overlooking the garden and trees beyond. Sally, a retired interior designer, creates designs for her wood sculptures here.
They had to dig into the hillside of the sloping plot to create their fourstorey home. Two en suite bedrooms are “below decks”, on the lower ground floor, and the main bedroom is flooded with morning light from sliding doors that lead straight on to the garden.
The nautical theme spreads through the house, with design details such as steel wiring along the stair balustrades and a porthole window in the cloakroom. The wow factor really kicks in when you emerge into the main double-height living area, suffused with light from both ends. On the street side, the stairs continue up to full-height glass doors opening on to a roof terrace, but the garden side has the pièce de résistance.
A floating conservatory is suspended above the living space; it has a circular yellow floor and a curved blue structure that is part seating and part planter filled with tropical foliage. The glazing curves up into a dome ceiling, with views over gardens, trees and the city.
“It’s like sitting in a tree canopy up here,” says Russum. “It’s a great place to come for a sundowner, and at night you can see the moon very clearly. This is a small house – 1,345 sq ft – but I wanted the main living space to be as grand as possible, so we devoted the two upper floors to open-plan living and made it double height.”
The furniture in this space is bespoke, designed by Birds Portchmouth Russum, Russum’s firm, with ideas from Sally. A window seat curves against the wall, as does the sleek white kitchen, and hidden storage is incorporated neatly throughout the house. The bench near the front door doubles as a storage box and an ice bucket is built into a side cupboard.
“This is a great house for summer parties, everyone spreads out onto the terraces and up into the conservatory,” says Russum. The final outdoor space is a balcony jutting out from the living space, suspended over the garden like the prow of a ship.
“We call that the Kate Winslet balcony,” says Cox, “as in Titanic.”
This house features on Grand Designs: House of the Year at 9pm on Tuesday Nov 14 on Channel 4