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INCH PERFECT

HOW EXPANSIVE IDEAS CAN TRANSFORM A SMALL SPACE

{EWAN ARMSTRONG : THE WEE HOUSE}

This is my first-coffee-of-the-morning chair,” says Ewan Armstrong in his Scottish accent, about the big chair on the very top floor of the well named Wee House. The glass ceiling is letting in today’s winter blue sky and there’s another view of Clerkenwell to enjoy out of the window opposite. Next to Ewan’s chair is an espresso machine and a shelf full of titles – both Cabins and Japanese Houses look tempting – but right now Ewan, who originally trained in medicine, is reading a friend’s book, Light into Dark Places, about women sanitary inspectors in Sheffield. There is another library nook opposite where Ewan’s books are colour-coded and arranged alphabetically. This is definitely an organised home: full of tiny house living ideas and colourful art.

Although The Wee House is only 8 feet wide and one room deep it has the Tardis like ability to feel bigger on the inside and that, 61 year old Ewan claims, is down to Joe Wright’s skills at envisioning a home. 

“One principle was that I didn’t want any trickery with tables coming out of walls, like maybe you’d have on a boat or caravan. I wanted it to feel like a normal-sized house,” says Ewan firmly. In part that’s down to his choice of décor. For example, his bedroom has a small double and the dining room has an oval table which fits six small chairs. But to get to that point he needed help to reconfigure the floor space over five floors, each just one room wide. And what might have been stressful was collaborative and fun with Joe.

↑ Ground floor kitchen and oversized entrance door 

↑ Lighting detail over the kitchen

“I liked the fact that we were able to play with ideas and that we could end up agreeing ‘no’!”               
Ewan Armstrong

↑  Joe and Ewan discuss the Wee House

↓  Daylight maximised to the basement

Ewan had known the building for some years before he bought it. He’d lived opposite in a one-bedroomed ex-local authority flat at Cavendish Mansions when the tall infill building was a cycle couriers base. And when he moved in, elderly neighbours told him they remembered 8 Laystall Street as a sweet shop. No longer a shop, when he made it his ‘Wee House’ it was in a poor state of repair with damp problems.  

First task was to sort out the façade.  

“I enjoyed working on the shop front window design.  One early question was could we turn that basement into a bedroom and, if so, how could that window work? Could there be a section of window aligned under the level of the kitchen counter to bring light and ventilation into the basement? We did play with a few options,” says Ewan, who clearly enjoyed the way Joe posed what-about questions in response to his ideas, asking ‘if this, then this, but what about that?’ Joe nods in agreement. “I don’t want to impose things or for it to be a test in real time on the build!” This sympathetic ability to play with ideas and then steer to a conclusion helps makes sure that Joe’s architected space can quickly become a home.  

Although Ewan is confident about design: “My head is built in a way that I understand 3D spaces and I have a quirky feel for colour.” Nevertheless, he took little convincing that he needed an architectural professional. 

“I could have employed a good joiner to make the shop front and basement lightwell but you need planning permission to change the frontage…” says Ewan thoughtfully. “I could have got a damp proofing company to tank out the basement… but it is such an awkward site. Actually, just talking things through with Joe expanded the possibilities. And Joe recommended a brilliant, like-minded builder which led eventually to us doing London’s smallest extension by filling in the back triangle,” he says. 

“Part of Joe’s skill is having a feel for what you want – some architects don’t have the muscle to find that. “I liked the fact that we were able to play with ideas and that we could end up agreeing ‘no’!”, he adds.

Newly created third floor space with glazed roof

At the oval glass dining table on the first floor, Ewan stretches out one arm towards the front window and its Clerkenwell view and the other towards the stair and the triangle of the back of the building. This tiny extension, completely hemmed in between neighbouring buildings, was the architectural masterstroke despite being so awkward to complete that the builders had to abseil into the space. 

“Sitting here, you get can see several metres front to back, making you think the room’s quite big, but the whole house is only 70m2. These little half landings between floors give The Wee House a boiler room with washing machine, internet stuff, electrics and toilet services, another shower room on the next level and then the top floor reading nook… I’d never have been able to realise this on my own,” says Ewan. Originally from the Ayrshire coast, Ewan came down to London in the early 1980s to do postgraduate studies in Health Education before working in Community Medicine, GP development, running a Masters course at South Bank Polytechnic and HIV training for charities including PACE, a lesbian and gay counselling organisation.  

Combined with long experience in Jungian therapy, Ewan has spent a lifetime working in education and professional development – and then with unexpected spare time during lockdown also finished writing a crime trilogy starring a gay police detective, set in Glasgow. No surprise then that you’re likely to find Ewan working from The Wee House in his light-filled office on the floor above the dining room.  The room has space for a big desk below rows of shelves. There’s also a neat sofa bed that enables it to double as a guest room.    

The work on the house happened before the pandemic and has proved that it can shape itself to different possibilities. Ewan, who loves a run down to the river, around the Thames embankments and back, enjoys the way Joe’s design has created, “different spaces each with a different feel – I don’t have to be in one room all the time. There’s my comfy reading space on the top floor, and dinner on the kitchen table or in the dining room with friends – like tonight where we’ll have a wee champagne gathering for my nephew who is being inaugurated into the Royal College of Surgeons today.”  

It’s clear that Ewan gets on really well with his architect as they give an impromptu joint tour of the house.  As Ewan says, “the big thing with Joe is the good working relationship, the collaborative development of ideas and testing out, refining and changing. The finding of the builder with him – that triumvirate worked really well. The enclosing of the back triangle was a bit of genius and the sense of mutual respect that we all seemed to have – architect, builder and client – was nice. Which is why I’ve approached Joe again to revisit his earlier idea of taking off the glass roof so I can grow more plants in an outdoor space.” 

Ewan’s conversation is peppered with wit but he’s not joking this time. Following his experience in lockdown, The Wee House is ready for a tiny terrace on its top floor, reflecting how versatile homes need to be as our lives change. And that is where Joe’s architectural future proofing skills come in.  

With Ewan, it’s been a pied a terre, a sanctuary during the pandemic and has been listed on One Fine Stay for short-stay guests. “Home is really, really important to me, I talk to the house, I thank it for keeping me safe and secure. If I accidentally knock a wall I even apologise to it! It’s home. It’s lovely, although I don’t think it will be my last place. Partly, because I’ve still got a mortgage but more because I think my knees will probably give up before I’m 70! I was brought up at the seaside so, by then, it may be time to return to the coast.”

Joe describes a detail of the build 

↑ The landing became part of the dining room at first floor

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