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Jane Hughes Writer, editor, yoga teacher

Brownfield Sites

Mail on Sunday, March 2006

They're far from conventional building plots. But walled-in car parks, concealed sites and even patches of landlocked virgin scrub are increasingly prized as unique locations for modern showpiece houses in London.

Passed over or undiscovered until now, such backland sites are being hunted down as undeveloped plots become scarcer and planning laws are relaxed. "Developers are always pouring over ordinance survey maps on the lookout for empty spaces with potential," says Richard Brindlay, of the Royal Institute of British Architects. "But the government's push for higher density housing means that it's now far easier to get planning permission to build on them."

And while street front development usually has to fit in with existing housing, the same is not true for sites set back from the road. Instead, the most ambitious developers are giving architects a free reign to design ultra modern homes that can be cleverly shoehorned within awkward site boundaries.

It's symptomatic of the shortage of development plots that a growing band of professionally trained land spotters is dedicated to tracking down new sites. Sometimes, though, you just have to have your ear to the ground.

Developer Alex Wingate heard about the Wandsworth site where he is building two eye-catching houses from friends, whose garden backed onto it. As soon as he peered over their fence, he realised the third of an acre of landlocked scrub off Lyford Road would be the perfect blank canvas to realise his dream of building something truly unique and modern.

"It's rare to find such an open yet private area of backland," he says. "The site lies between long suburban gardens and a 100-year-old bowling green - and the nearest house is about 80 feet away."

Once he'd bought the site, Alex, 37, purchased an additional strip of land from the bowling club to create an access driveway alongside the green. His intention was to tap into the high demand for large homes in green environs from young families moving out of central London. But his growing attachment to the project coincided with the realisation that he, his wife Sukey, 36, and young sons, Sebastian, two, and Miles, six months, now exactly fitted this profile.

"We live in a four-storey Victorian house in Bayswater with a postage stamp garden, but I was spending so much time thinking about ideal family layouts at the Wandsworth site that it suddenly seemed like a great idea to move there," he says.

Designed by RIBA award winning architect Alison Brooks, the six bedroom, five bathroom houses resemble a series of cubes with a timber herringbone facade and large expanses of recessed glass. On the ground floor, three spacious family rooms encircle a central staircase, with sliding glass panels blurring the boundaries with the surrounding gardens. The houses are expected to be finished by the end of the Summer, when the Wingates will move into one and put the second on the market for around £3million.

Across Wandsworth Common, another, even more secluded home, was recently completed. The contemporary styled two bedroom studio house was designed by architects Tasou Associates and is built into the corner of what was the rear car park of a Victorian pub.

Developer Southern Property Group, which converted and extended the pub into 11 trendy flats and a restaurant, came up with the idea of a one storey house to replace a grotty old building at the rear. "We wanted to create more value from the site but were restricted from building anything higher because of the existing boundaries and surrounding buildings," says director Richard Nevill.

Backing on to garden walls and a two-storey sculptor's workshop, the house has a lovely feeling of space, with light flooding in from a glazed kitchen roof, a small courtyard patio and several skylights. On the market for £585,000, it sits within its own semi-private garden yard. Access is still through the car park though this now has a remote controlled wood panelled entrance door.

Meanwhile, off Marylebone Lane, another vacant plot which had been used as an unauthorised car park posed even greater challenges for the architects brought in to turn it into a luxury home. Enclosed by old walls of more than six and a half metres in height that separate it from the adjacent Oriental Club, Kaballah Centre and the rear of shops on St Christopher's Place, the only access is down a short driveway.

Commercial developer Robert Paddick, of Martins Group, initially bought the 40ft by 50ft plot for an office project before planners encouraged him to plump for a more workable single residence. But clearly this was never going to be a conventional home, says project architect Warren Milne, of M.R. Partnership. Instead, he met Paddick's request for a "gem in a box" by designing a sculptural, inward looking home, built around a central glass atrium and "statement staircase".

Named The Bourne, the £6million three bedroom house will resemble a rounded pod lit by perimeter and central skylights. Spread over four levels, it includes a basement pool and sauna, with curved upper floor bedroom suites under a swirling, green copper roof.

Construction is expected to start within two months and take around a year and a half. With an escape passage from the Kabbalah Club running along one wall, The Bourne could yet be the ideal stealth home for Madonna.