My Modern House: architects Michael Johnson and Deborah Nagan’s converted Victorian warehouse in Waterloo
Deborah Nagan: “Today is the first day we’ve got the paintings up; they’ve literally gone up in the last five minutes! We’ve been trying to figure out where to put a lot of stuff we had in storage while we were building this house, a converted Victorian warehouse.
“It was originally built around the same time Waterloo station was, when a lot of ancillary businesses and manufacturing spaces grew up around the station.”
Michael Johnson: “Eventually it became a photographic studio, in an area used by photographers like David Bailey for photographic equipment, printing and studio space. In fact, people still come down the alleyway asking where Silver Print is.
“It wasn’t a very desirable spot when we first came here, almost 20 years ago. In fact, it was well-known as a no-go area. You could get quite a good deal at that time!”
Deborah: “We first ‘moved’ here in the early days of our business. I had been doing a project for an organisation that was moving to Westminster, and I asked if I could buy the building.
“We almost felt like it was too much, but we had another client who was making his way up Barclays bank, making quite substantial bonuses. We asked him if he would like to buy it to rent it to us, which he did without even seeing it.”
Michael: “We moved our office here and went along renting it quite happily for a number of years. Then, there was a sort of architectural recession and we couldn’t really afford to pay rent, so we just stopped!
“It lasted a few years, but we knew that, eventually, it would all come crumbling down in a disastrous way. One day we got a phone call from a solicitor, who asked if they rolled up the rent arrears into a sale price, would we like it.
“So, we did a super-lucky deal that allowed us to pay our outstanding rent, and buy the office.”
Deborah: “We divided part of it up and rented some of it, which worked for a number of years.
“Then we started thinking about how we could live here as well, and now we have the office and the house in one building, but separated and with their own front door, which was a very deliberate decision.”
Michael: “The planning process took four years. It coincided with the neighbourhood becoming a conservation area, which didn’t help. Then, our neighbours took issue with the rights of light.
“So, after we started building, we had to go back to the drawing board. We knew we couldn’t afford to fight the case in court, and that our only bargaining chip was our design skills. Eventually, we got together a plan that we, and they, were happy with.”
Deborah: “Coming from a place with a garden, which we sold via The Modern House, and me being a landscape architect, it was really important to us to have outdoor space here.
“Originally, we had plans to build a conservatory on the other side of the garden, which is on the roof. We had to agree to place that amount of building on the other side, to comprise part of the floorplan of the top floor of the house.
“But, actually, it’s resulted in this amazing space, which works really well for us. It’s considerably bigger than we expected and, at the moment, we’re using it as a sort of seating area. Even for us as architects, who like to plan everything, sometimes you just need to live in a space and see what happens – it’s part of the process.”
Michael: “The old sofa we have up there was sort of dumped in the move but from where it is positioned you can see the sunset over the London skyline. It’s so amazing that we haven’t moved it, despite not thinking of putting one there before.
“The upstairs is where we hang out most, especially over the last few months when the weather has been nice. It’s great to open the doors and eat outside so close to the kitchen.
“The house is also brilliantly located: we walk Luca, our dog, down to the river to run on the sandy foreshore, and we can be at the National Theatre in ten minutes.
“Strangely, it’s much quieter than our last place in Brixton. The only time it’s noisy is on a Saturday morning when the tourist helicopters are hovering above.
“Through our business, we had been present in the area long before we actually started living here. I’m the chair of Waterloo’s Business Improvement District, and Deborah is a trustee of a local charity, so it’s rare that we leave the house without seeing someone we know.”
Deborah: “The motivation for leaving our last place was that we felt like we had been there a long time, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an architect who wouldn’t build their own house given the opportunity.
“The awkward shape of this building, the fact that’s it’s land-locked, and in one of the most expensive land areas probably in the world made it a difficult build, but it was always inevitable that we were going to do it and we love what we have created.”
Deborah and Michael, how do you define modern living?
“Our home is specific to our modern family and we try to design homes which are bespoke and become much-loved because of it. Ironically, the ones we thought were the most idiosyncratic have always sold the easiest – perhaps because you could sense how easy they were to live in.”
If you were to move, what would be the first thing you would take with you?
“Luca, our dog! Then a 50-year-old family fern of which we are the current custodians.”
Is there a home on The Modern House’s website that has caught your eye?
Deborah: “I’ve had my eye on the Devon barns because I’d love to work with David Kohn. I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing his designs for New College, Oxford, with CABE over a number of months. For architects, the greatest indulgence would be to hire a great architect and become the client!”
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Read more: What to see at Open House London 2018
Want to see Michael and Deborah’s home for yourself? Stop by during Open House London 2018, which runs Saturday 22nd to Sunday 22rd September.