What can you do if building codes prohibit you from constructing anything taller than a single-story house on your property? Then, of course, you build an underground house. DSDHA Limited’s Deborah Saunt and David Hills’ home is in Clapham Old Town, in the heart of a Conservation Area in South London. It is located two miles from Parliament Square and the West End of London. It was an overgrown garden of sycamores and ivy in the backyard of an existing 19th-century home.
Buildings in the conservation area have a height limit and are surrounded by 23 other households, so the architects decided to be creative with their new home. In 2007, the project started with the purchase of an old house with a large overgrown garden. Saunt and Hills also decided to use their home to test their ideas about sustainability and how to build homes close to city centers without violating conservation restrictions or encroaching on other private gardens.
The construction began in 2010 and was completed in 2014. Because of the sensitive setting, the house was designed to blend into the background. “The challenges of designing and building in a conservation area are primarily concerned with how to build something new while not having a negative impact on the character of the setting,” Saunt stated. “First and foremost, you must understand the setting from a conservation standpoint,
and then you must be able to argue that the contemporary element you are bringing will add to the history of the area over time, rather than distract from its inherent beauty.” To reduce its height and create some privacy, the couple decided to sink the 135-square-meter house into the landscape. The project was dubbed the Covert House because one floor of the house would be above ground and one sunken beneath it. They began with a concrete box in order to build a safe and simple structure for an underground house.
“We dug a big hole to build the house in,” Hills explained. It’s simply a square box. That is also less expensive. Every time you have to push in and out, you’re constructing extremely complicated shuttering. So, the simpler you can make it when you go down, the better.” They dug sunken courtyards around the home to act as lightwells for the downstairs to allow as much light as possible into the underground house.
These allow light to enter the three subterranean bedrooms. “As designers, we always hope to set new standards, even in the dense centers of our cities,” Saunt explained. So we knew from the start that it was critical to make the rooms feel open and unconfined, and that in order to do so, we needed to create proper courtyard spaces.”
To avoid the underground house feeling like a bunker, the couple raised the ceilings as high as possible. A white cast-concrete staircase with resin flooring connects the two floors.