Open House: Steve and Tracy Fox on building a family home from scratch on a disused yard in Dulwich
In our ‘Open House’ series, we meet the owners of our most exceptional homes ahead of their sale. Here, The Yard House owners Steve and Tracy Fox tell us about building a family home from scratch on a neglected yard in Dulwich, what it was like to be featured on ‘Grand Designs’ and their next project in the pipeline.
Tracy: “We bought our first house at auction, before that was really a thing. But that’s how we started on the property ladder; for a long time our children were bought up on building sites.”
Steve: “Until we moved into our last place on Overhill Road, which was a kind of radical DIY project. It was a 1920s semi, quite boring, but we made it into a really nice space.
“The process got under our skin and so we sold that place via The Modern House and were left with enough money to build something from scratch.”
Tracy: “We moved into rented accommodation and waited for something to come up. I was going through an ‘I’m leaving the film and television industry because I can’t bear it’ phase, which I experience a lot, and was working at my friend’s farm shop on the high street.
“The landlord of the shop, who also owned the yard behind, came in to put the rent up or something. I just asked if I could buy the yard, and he said yes.
“We moved in and lived on site in caravans with our children and the dogs.”
Steve: “The children were doing their GCSEs at the time.”
Tracy: “God, it was the worst time to have done it; we’re terrible parents!
“Then, our eldest daughter, who had been living in Peckham, borrowed an old American fire truck and moved on site too. We looked like a complete and utter set of raggle-taggle gypsies, like something out of a kids’ storybook.
“Anyway, we found the architectural designer Jonathan Tuckey through an old college friend. He came by and we gave him a list of things we liked and wanted. Privacy was a massive thing because when the site was empty, everyone knew it was here and the flats behind used to look directly down into the yard.”
Steve: “I remember giving Jonathan a really bad sketch of what we envisioned. He talked to us about things we liked – sheds, agricultural buildings, a brutalist aesthetic that wasn’t necessarily minimalist – and in response he showed us an extension of a studio in King’s Cross he had done using polycarbonate panels.”
Tracy: “I remember thinking it was so beautiful, and that we had to have some of it, somehow and somewhere in our home.
“It was also important that the design reflected the fact that there was a yard here before in some way. We wanted to use really pedestrian, every day, honest materials, but in as beautiful a way as possible.
“We didn’t want the house to be tricky or complicated; just a few materials coming together in a really nice way.”
Steve: “Working with Jonathan was a great, exciting process and he got us to a point that we would never have reached ourselves. Even if you think you can do visual stuff, it doesn’t compare to someone who can think in such a clever way about spatial arrangements and how materials will work together.”
Tracy: “We approached the television programme ‘Grand Designs’ as a way to save money, I guess, but also because we really wanted to document the building of the house.”
Steve: “They don’t pay you to go on, but the idea is to go to suppliers and ask for discounts on the premise that they’ll be featured in the programme or the magazine.”
Tracy: “It was really good fun, and I’m so glad we did it. There were times towards the end, though, when they were scheduled to film the final result and we were living in a tent in the studio, when I was crying, asking why we had ever done it!
“But it made everyone work like demons to get the house ready because no one wants to look bad on national television.”
Steve: “It was great to move in and we have loved living here. It just works and functions so well.
“We got an M&E, or mechanical and electrical, guy around before the design process started. We didn’t even know it was a thing but he worked out how the light behaved throughout the day, told the architects where to put the kitchens and bathrooms and advised where the internet should go and how many sockets we should have.
“It was so worth getting that stuff right from the beginning because we made a house that is so easy to live in.”
Tracy: “If we could take this house and put it in seven acres of land, we would.
“I have definitely left the film and television industry for good now, which means I’m kind of treading water. I want to do another big thing, just not from scratch this time.
“We want a plot of land in the darkest, deepest countryside. We still don’t know where, but I’m looking constantly and have seen a couple of interesting things, from a literal pile of bricks on Bodmin Moor to a place in the Peak District with a couple of lakes.
“I made the mistake the other day of Googling ‘French chateaus’. I started rationalising it in my head: ‘well, that’s not so far for the kids to go’. I’m just trying to push that one out of my head – once you start searching it can be dangerous.”