Mechanic's Workshop

This case study is from SelfBuild & Design August 2020 | Buy this issue | Subscribe

Black Out: Amie Oyston’s converted mechanic’s workshop may be black outside, but a glazed internal courtyard ensures the interior is flooded with light.

Story: Debbie Jeffery. Pictures: Peter The Modern House

Exterior: The three-bedroom house, designed by architect Stuart Hatcher, occupies a plot in east London and has been built inside the shell of a former garage workshop.

In Brief

Project Conversion Location London
Cost £400,000 Spent £500,000 Worth £1,495,000

Built within the shell of an old garage, an unusual new east London home has been created with split levels across three storeys, centring around a private courtyard lined with glass.

“I first got the building bug when I completely gutted and extended our Victorian terraced house,” explains Amie Oyston. “I enjoyed it so much and got on really well with the building company, so we decided to team up again for this project, too.”Amie lives with her family in Hackney, east London. “I previously worked in recruitment and then set up my own massage company, but once the boys started school it gave me time to get my teeth into another building project,” she recalls.

Amie had a strong relationship with builders Future Structural Solutions, which had also worked on her father’s house. “It was our builders who first told us about this garage, which was next to the brickyard they use,” she says. “We thought about the idea for a while and felt it would be a fantastic challenge to make the old workshop into a really cool home.”

When Amie realised that the garage was about to be sold off she and her father stepped in and purchased the brick building. “Dad worked in engineering and has done a lot of builds before, including our family home, but this time he ended up financing this project and left the overall management to me,” she says. “We set up a little company with the builders, called Williams Hall Developments, and worked with an architect to design a house for the site.”

Built in 1924 as part of a steelworks on Bow Common Lane, a short walk from Mile End Park in east London, the single-storey workshop had a pitched roof and was open plan inside – lit from above by roof glazing. The industrial space had been used to repair cars and was crammed onto a small site between Victorian terraces. “It’s a tiny Conservation Area plot, right next to a listed building, and had no planning permission at all when we bought it,” says Amie, who received positive pre-planning feedback from the local authority.

“We wanted to build up another storey, but the council insisted we could only work within the existing garage. Fortunately our architect, Stuart Hatcher, came up with a brilliant scheme incorporating a new basement, which was granted planning permission.”

Stuart’s 145sqm design exploits the dimensions of the existing workshop to create a striking set of contemporary living spaces, configured across three storeys, including a secluded roof terrace and a private courtyard lined with steel windows.

“We weren’t allowed any external opening windows so the central light well brings ventilation and light into the building, all the way down to the new lower ground floor.”

The kitchen/diner

A glazed courtyard and light well ensure the heart of the building is flooded with light. The living room is stepped up from the kitchen, and has an oak floor. The roof windows are fitted with rain sensors and blinds.

The compact house is slightly set back on the peaceful residential street, its facade characterised by black-painted brickwork, with newly installed industrial-style wooden doors and sections of frosted glazing to draw light into the front of the plan.

“We weren’t allowed any external opening windows, so the central light well brings ventilation and light into the building, all the way down to the new lower ground floor,” Amie explains. “I’d struggled to imagine how the design could work, even until the staircases were going in, but Stuart knew exactly how all the spaces would connect.”

Designing a full basement level with a large family bathroom, a plant room for the underfloor heating controls, and a utility room with storage, circumnavigated the problem of retaining the existing single-storey garage.

“It was part of the planning permission that we keep the same building, so we dug a new sub-basement and a full basement level, which involved excavating around 600 tonnes of earth beneath the garage and building concrete retaining walls, with a slurry and membrane tanking system,” explains Dave Murphy, director of Future Structural Solutions.

“In addition to underpinning the garage we also had to underpin the houses to either side, and there’s a 50mm gap between them, which means that the new house is technically detached.”

Previously, there was no external drainage, as the roof drained inside the building, so a new system needed to be devised. A septic tank has been installed to serve toilets below drain level, pumped through an existing pipe at the rear of the building. Solid brick walls were repaired and finished externally with black masonry paint, which helps to give the house its dramatic appearance. “We couldn’t change the materials externally, because of the Conservation Area setting,” says Amie.

The original 1920s corrugated metal roof covering was stripped and a new timber roof structure built to the same pitch. This has been clad in natural slate, with zinc trims and gutters. “Despite all the challenges it was quite good fun, although working in the snow wasn’t ideal,” says Dave.

Rigid insulation was used for the roof, walls and floors to meet Building Regulations, and Crittall-style steel glazing was installed, together with a large roof lantern and remote-controlled Velux roof lights. An iroko grid frame, made for the front facade, is inset with four doors below frosted glass panels. One of the doors also has frosted glass, while the other three are oak, opening into bin and bike stores to either side of the main entrance. “We tried to keep everything low profile, so there are secret hinges on the side doors,” explains Dave.

Upon entry, the ambitious nature of the design is immediately apparent. Split levels seem to rise at staggered junctures, beneath large sections of glazing and open-tread staircases, creating a dramatic sense of scale and volume, while promoting the flow of natural light throughout.

“It’s a bit of a Tardis,” says Amie. “The outside seems small and quite enclosed, but when you walk indoors it opens right up. There are no overlooking windows, so it’s a completely private space and so bright.” A judicious material palette includes polished concrete floors, engineered oak parquet, black steel, exposed brick and extensive sections of glazing. “There are four flights of stairs, with welded steel bars running continuously up through the building, and softwood treads clad in oak,” says Dave.

Underfloor heating was laid beneath a polished concrete floor in the kitchen, where a small glass floor panel drops light into the space below. A pocket sliding door leads into the bike store.

The ground floor contains a double-height kitchen/diner, positioned beneath two large skylights inset in the vaulted ceiling. A glass panel in the kitchen floor creates a talking point and ensures even more light can pass between levels.

A short staircase leads down to the large light well, forming a courtyard with glazed doors on three sides, and the master bedroom with en suite is positioned on one side, with a guest bedroom to the other.

On the first floor, a living room overlooks the kitchen at one end, with views down into the light well at the other. This brightly lit space forms the heart of the house and leads on to a third bedroom (currently configured as a study) and an en suite shower room.

One of the bedrooms is used as a study and features a sculptural light fitting.

Stairs rise to a private roof terrace with views over the rooftops towards Mile End Park.

“The build itself ran really smoothly,” says Dave. “The hardest part was probably the finishes – things like the painting and creating shadow gaps instead of skirting, because we wanted to get a really high-quality result.”

Amie was responsible for choosing fixtures such as the kitchen and bathrooms, ensuring items were ordered in time without needing to be stored for too long on the site, where space was at a premium.

“I wanted a matt black kitchen, to complement the steel staircases and glazing,” says Amy.

“Dave installed the cabinets, and we had the hardwood doors sprayed, fitted Dekton worktops, and installed black appliances.”

Wet rooms are finished in a grey micro-topping, installed by Polished Concrete Specialists, which applied the finish to floors and walls for a dramatic, industrial look.

“We had enough space at the front to dig out a really large family bathroom so we installed an enormous boat-like bath, with a walk-in shower and double sink,” says Amie, who completed the project in April 2020. “Our main aim was to show that a tight site can still give scope for a really exciting design.”

The Final Word

Describe the high point

Watching the steel being craned in and windows installed was exciting, as everything came together.

…and the low points?

We weren’t rushing for a deadline, so it wasn’t particularly stressful, but the builders dug out the basement in winter, which wasn’t ideal.

Your best buy?

We were quoted £50,000 for the stairs, but our carpenter worked with a steel fabricator and made it for a third of the price.

Biggest extravagance?

Installing steel windows instead of timber and choosing shadow gaps instead of skirtings meant we did go over our original budget, but we felt the house deserved high-end finishes.


The floorplan

The split levels make the most of the space, with a bathroom, plant room and utility in the basement. There’s an open-plan kitchen/diner on the ground floor, plus a guest WC and internal bike store. Steps lead up to a guest bedroom, the master bedroom, and en suite, beside a courtyard light well. On the first floor is a living room, a third bedroom and en suite, with stairs to a roof terrace.

See Beginners Guide to Basements

See Beginners Guide to Conversions




Builder Future Structural Solutions Ltd

Architect Stuart Hatcher

Structural engineer Anderson Consulting Engineers


Solar roof lights Velux

Steel ESS Steel

Steel light well windows West Leigh

Timber windows Caledonian Joinery

Bespoke roof lantern Bi-Fold Door Factory

Insulation Kingspan


Concrete finishes Polished Concrete Specialists

Dekton worktops Cosentino

Furniture Mad Atelier

Showers and taps Hansgrohe

Parquet flooring The Wooden Floor Store

Spray paint for kitchen doors Paintworks UK Ltd

Mist sprinkler system Plumis Mist System

Cast iron radiators Cast Iron Radiator Centre

Double sink Lusso Stone