‘Do not buy this house’ — Lucy Kellaway bought it anyway
Nearly three years ago I took the decision to sell our Victorian family house, uprooting four children and ending a long, stable period of their lives — all for a 20ft stretch of orange Corian worktop with a moulded curve at one end containing punched holes in which to store wine bottles.
It started innocently enough with a bit of property pornography. Since my early twenties I have been a user of property porn. Back then I made do with grainy black and white pictures in the local paper, one inch by two. After that I graduated to glossy colour ads in Country Life, followed by the orgy offered by Rightmove and Zoopla — a million-plus properties, each with multiple photos, videos, maps and floor plans, right there on your phone. But in the past few years I have found the real hardcore stuff for property porn addicts: The Modern House.
It started innocently enough with a bit of property pornography
One afternoon in the spring of 2015, at the end of a long session in which I had binged on polished concrete floors and mid-century furniture, and was reaching the self-loathing stage, I saw the orange worktop.
It was contained in a wooden house in Hackney shaped like a right-angled triangle. There was no concrete, polished or otherwise, but there was a lot of wood, including a wood balcony running from outside to inside, and right under it a goldfish pond. This wasn’t London; it was more like Japan or Scandinavia or California. I’d never seen anything like it.
Look at this, I said to my son, pushing my laptop under his bored nose.
He gave it a cursory glance and said: I know that house. It belonged to someone he’d known at primary school whose dad was an architect and he’d once been at a birthday party there.
What was it like, I asked.
Yeah, cool, he said. Coolest house ever.
And so, just for fun, without the slightest intention of doing anything other than waste the estate agent’s time, I made a date to see it.
On the appointed day I turned into a lane which appeared to be entirely taken up by a car body shop. At the bottom, hidden from view, was the odd-shaped wooden house, stained and scruffy with a down-pipe broken in the middle discharging water through an old basketball hoop.
The photos on the website were a lie. The Framehouse was shabbier than they let on. Equally, the pictures failed to describe the magic of the place. The way the light shone through the branches of the sloping glass roof. The height of the ceilings. The quiet.
I stood at the entrance, with the orange worktop stretching ahead towards the pond, and felt entirely certain. I had to live here.
Looking back, I don’t think it had much to do with beauty. Instead it was a dubious and surely dangerous conviction that this house would make me both happier and more interesting. If I were freed from the Georgian and Victorian up-and-down spaces that had defined family existence, this place would be a new start. Not only would life be more exciting among the bright orange, I would be more exciting too.
I don’t think it had much to do with beauty. Instead it was a dubious and surely dangerous conviction that this house would make me both happier and more interesting
In the days that followed, I considered the excellent reasons for staying put. Moving away from friends and two Tube lines to a place off the Tube network and requiring an extra 15 minutes on a bike to get anywhere was silly. It was also financially ruinous. Though Hackney is still one of the poorest boroughs in London, the hipsters got there 10 years earlier and had pushed prices up to the point where it was more expensive than more salubrious boroughs.
The sensible thing would be to wait until the children had left university and then move myself into something small and cheap. But I had no intention of being sensible. I wanted to own the Framehouse but so, alas, did about half a dozen rich young hipster families — which meant sealed bids, which in turn meant committing not only half my share of the family house but almost all my savings.
I have just searched for the surveyor’s report that I conscientiously commissioned, but I seem to have thrown it away. No matter: I remember well enough the damning words and close-up photos of places where water was getting in. When I rang the surveyor to remonstrate, she could not have been clearer: Do. Not. Buy. This. House.
I showed her report to Marcus Lee, the architect who’d built it, collected a Riba award for it, and spent eight years in it with his family. He wasn’t at all put out. Surveyors didn’t understand.
My first couple of months in the house were worse even than the surveyor had predicted. The week I moved in, there was a heavy summer downpour that caused water to run down the inside walls at both ends of the house, coursing through three storeys. Then, to complete the soggy theme, I got a water bill for £1,000 as water appeared to be leaking from a pipe somewhere under the house. Not even the architect seemed to know where the stopcock was.
When I set about having the wood treated to stop further rot, the scaffolder took one look at the house’s triangular shape, muttered about cantilevers, and charged more than twice what it cost to scaffold a much larger Victorian house.
The builders inspected every join, failed to see where the water was coming in, and advised me to remove the entire wooden cladding, put in a waterproof layer, then put it back on again. I complied — at prodigious expense.
At least we would be dry. Only it didn’t work out like that. The water still comes in at six different places. Most troubling is the drip that starts in my bedroom with the slightest precipitation outside, falling noisily behind the built-in cupboards.
As I can’t stop the leaking, I have learnt to stop minding. When the rain is heavy and falling at a certain angle it still runs down the walls. But it only happens every few months and afterwards I scrub the stains off and everything looks fine. The drip in my bedroom no longer wakes me: I sleep with ear plugs.
In its leakiness the Framehouse joins a distinguished list of beautiful buildings that fail to keep out the weather. I take comfort from the story of a potential client who came to look at a Frank Lloyd Wright house during a thunderstorm, to find a series of buckets into which water was dripping. “That is what happens when you leave a work of art out in the rain,” the architect’s wife explained. The man commissioned the house anyway.
I hope he was as happy in it as I am in mine. I feel a bit of a heel in publicising the house’s shortcomings, as in truth I barely think of them. Leaking is part of the Framehouse’s personality, just as being headstrong is part of mine. It has other shortcomings too: it is cold in winter because there is so much glass, and the air source heat pump is impossible to control. So I sit happily by the wood burner, and hope London mayor Sadiq Khan forgets his promise to ban them.
Sometimes I think it is shallow to love a house so much. Money doesn’t buy happiness. But light and orange and a bathtub that looks into trees can. Even when I’m alone the place keeps me company. I am sitting writing this on the balcony under a sloping glass roof, feeling as if I’m in a tree house, looking through branches to a church tower.
Recently an acquaintance who had also ogled the Framehouse on the Modern House website said the problem with buying such a place would be making it your own. I told him I didn’t even try. I stained the wood black outside; otherwise I changed nothing. The house has taken in my belongings in a spirit of tolerance and hospitality, but its own style is so strong it overpowers any mere object that is put inside it.
This is the first time in my life I have not wanted to put my mark on the place where I live; instead, I hoped it would put its mark on me. This has been my only disappointment in the Framehouse — three years in, I’m no cooler or more exciting than I was before.
There has, however, been a big change in how I live — I have almost become sociable. I endlessly invite people round, as I want — need — them to admire the place. My children exchange weary glances as each new guest is forced on a tour of the house before they have got their coats off. In my previous life I was always tense about visitors.
As a child I worried that the poorer ones would think the house I grew up in was indecently big, while the richer ones would notice its worn-out carpets and tatty furniture. Even as an adult I didn’t like the feeling that guests were inspecting my old kitchen and choice of Farrow & Ball paint colours and finding them wanting.
I knew this was what they were up to, as I did the same at their houses. The places other people live in are endlessly fascinating in their messiness or tidiness; the taste or lack of it, originality versus cliché. You can never know anyone until you’ve given their sofas and kitchen worktops the once over.
My new open-door policy is actually not a change of heart at all. It is a recognition that for once, my house says nothing about me whatsoever.
When I left the FT, instead of inviting colleagues to the pub I insisted the office came over to my house. During the party I overheard one friend saying to a fellow columnist: Isn’t this house beautiful? No, the columnist said firmly. It is not beautiful. Not in the least.
I felt briefly hurt on behalf of my house. But then I looked at its wooden pillars, and the clever, quirky use of space and thought: I didn’t design these; if she can’t see they are lovely, that’s her loss.
I might be three years into an extraordinarily happy relationship with a house but have not quite given up property porn. I still look at the Modern House website, as at some point, when all the children have gone, I’ll be in the market for the practical, small, cheap place I ought to have bought.
Until then I enjoy every day I spend there. Sometimes I see myself less as the owner of the Framehouse than as its caretaker — the house and I have a deal that goes something like this: it provides me with happiness and excitement; in return I provide it with top-of-the-range wood preservative. The arrangement works perfectly for both of us.