Back to school: Paper House Project makes a Hackney schoolhouse a home

Gridded steel frame windows and an inner courtyard
Architect James Davies, founder of Paper House Project, was his own client for this two-bedroom house in Hackney, London.
(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

Living in a trendy high-ceilinged, two-bedroom home in a converted derelict building in Hackney is an inevitable dream for many young, creative Londoners. But for James Davies, founder of Paper House Project, the architecture studio he set up in 2014, it's now a reality.

‘It's fascinating watching a project you've poured your heart and soul into coming together on site,’ he says of the new house on Defoe Road, a brick building which he restored and renovated, adding new gridded steel frame windows and an inner courtyard.

Paper House Project


(Image credit: TBC)

Take an interactive tour of the Defoe Road house

But he didn’t just wake up one morning inside this lofty, concrete-floored residential reverie and stroll into the open-plan kitchen to make a coffee – Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was this challenging, former schoolhouse property. ‘I don't think you could get a more complicated residential site in central London. Landlocked, no services, and surrounded by angry neighbours,’ says Davies.

‘Negotiating access with freeholders and leaseholders and bringing new electric and water connections to the property via a 90m service trench across third party land presented problems that I'm sure would have put most people off.’ Yet the project was a labour of love for Davies, who saw problems as challenges instead of obstacles: ‘Patience, dogged determination and unwavering confidence in what we were doing got us through these issues.’

The large windows, Davies created an interior volume that is unique to a London home

Through the large windows, Davies created an interior volume that is unique to a London home.

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

Unlocking the potential of the site, Davies’ plan saw the restoration of the original brick envelope of the building, retaining the historic design while working with an engineer to minimise the visible interior structure, opening up the double-height space. ‘It's incredible how natural light, height and volume can improve your mood and general well being,’ says Davies. ‘I really enjoy the views onto the internal courtyard, especially in the mornings as the sun breaks over the surrounding building. It's very peaceful and tranquil and quite easy to forget that you're a stone's throw away from two of Hackney's busiest high streets.’

Personally influenced by buildings such as the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, Liverpool's Albert Docks and warehouse living in New York City, Davies selected concrete and steel surfaces for the interiors, creating a smooth and stylised industrial aesthetic.

A residential area off a busy high street

The conversion saw the transformation of an abandoned building, in a residential area off a busy high street

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

Steel frame windows and an inner courtyard

New gridded steel frame windows and an inner courtyard were added to the design

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

Made light enough for two people to carry through the courtyard

Reduced access to the plot required parts to be fabricated off-site, and made light enough for two people to carry through the courtyard

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

Steel A-frame trusses with cable rod connections

Steel A-frame trusses with cable rod connections were embedded to support the new slate roof

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

The interior palette with stairway

The interior palette was limited to keep the aesthetic industrial

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

Bedroom with large mirror

Asked to describe the feeling of the house in one word, architect James Davies picks ’calm’

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

Wooden interior panels soften the white walls

Wooden interior panels soften the white walls throughout

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

Wooden desk with wooden chair

Floors are made of polished concrete

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

Large windows on bedroom

Large windows were added to bring light into the space

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

The downstairs living spaces

The downstairs living spaces are subtly divided by the stair

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

A black marble splash-back and matched oak veneer door fronts combine

A black marble splash-back and matched oak veneer door fronts combine with the spruce-panelled staircase to create moments of contrasting materiality

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

Warehouse living in New York City for the project

Davies was personally influenced by buildings such as the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, Liverpool’s Albert Docks and warehouse living in New York City for the project

(Image credit: Rory Gardiner)

INFORMATION

For more information, visit the Paper House Project website (opens in new tab)

Harriet Thorpe is a writer, journalist and editor covering architecture, design and culture, with particular interest in sustainability, 20th-century architecture and community. After studying History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Journalism at City University in London, she developed her interest in architecture working at Wallpaper* magazine and today contributes to Wallpaper*, The World of Interiors and Icon magazine, amongst other titles. She is author of The Sustainable City (2022, Hoxton Mini Press), a book about sustainable architecture in London, and the Modern Cambridge Map (2023, Blue Crow Media), a map of 20th-century architecture in Cambridge, the city where she grew up.