The DIY details: Surman Weston’s house in Peckham – ADC

“It’s made us better architects.” Surman Weston discuss with AT everything from buying the site at auction to being a main contractor for the project.



Jim Stephenson

How did you find the site?

Percy Weston We’d been looking since 2016 and been to a few auctions, but had found ourselves being blown out of the water. A lot of them would just go for around twice the asking price. But when we put a bid on this one [being sold by Southwark Council] in 2018 I was fairly convinced we’d get it, because it was quite a low – as in, it hadn’t gone for much beyond the asking price.

Then what?

Percy Weston Then came planning: we had to do a pre-app very quickly, to try and determine whether we could do what we wanted. You have 30 days to complete on an auction, so there was a short window to try and get our pre-app done. Usually, pre-apps can take a couple of months, but we were lucky, a very considerate officer in the council was quick.

There were a few complications with completing, too, like the discovery of a gas mains on site that wasn’t shown in the original drawings in the auction. This led to a few negotiations with the council and we actually ended up fully completing in 2020. And then, in March 2021, we started on site!


Railway arches which can be spied between Peckham Levels and the terraces to the south influenced the language used for the doorway and gateway to the house.

Tell us about the design of the house

Percy Weston There are three things going on here on this site: there’s housing from a ‘70s estate as neighbours to the north, while across the road to the south are Victorian terraces, with a former car park (Peckham Levels) across the road to the west. It’s a corner site, so a lot is happening and for us, it was about playing a game to try and reconcile these three disparate styles.

We also wanted to instil some craft – the bricks were handmade in Yorkshire [from a company called Yorkshire Handmade]. The brick grating reflects patches of the façade in Peckham Levels, but also provides shading and privacy, and at night, it looks rather lovely.

Tom Surman We were quite conscious that it was a pretty exposed plot on the corner and we wanted it to feel cosy and private inside, but not be mean to the street. The living room is stepped down slightly which means that if you’re sat on the sofa in the living room, you’ve got privacy. I’m fairly tall, and I can’t see, from the street, who is there. But at the same time you can see in to a certain extent and see life going on – it’s not saying “stay away.”

The broad idea for the façade, though, is a gradient of hit and miss brickwork. Towards the bottom is more solid while at the top, the header bricks are set back five millimetres every six courses. Part of the mass breaking down means the house gradually dissolves as it rises – and in the summer plants will poke through these holes too.

Percy Weston Inside, we tried to keep it loose; we don’t have loads of fitted joinery for now. We were trying to make a house that feels like it doesn’t all fit. It’s not overly slick. If it gets a bit scuffed, it’s okay – it can take a beating. It’s imperfect, but beautiful.


How did you get it built to this standard?

Percy Weston We managed the construction so we were the main contractor and we did a lot of the labour ourselves.

We had a bricklayer and we had a carpenter who did help, but we installed all the joists inside, we installed the roof, we did loads of the joinery, we did lots of the sand-blown flooring – loads of stuff. I mean, it’s one of the reasons why it took quite a long time to do.

Had you done anything like this before?

Tom Surman Yes! We designed and built our first five projects. We like having the ability to build it also gives you a bit more freedom to tweak things here and there and make some decisions when the materials are in front of you. When you’re in the room, you can sense the scale of it and you can change your mind about where you want to put that radiator or whatever.

What was it like being a main contractor on a project this size?

Percy Weston It’s not a big house, it’s only just over 100 square meters. But I wasn’t quite prepared for how stressed I was going to be.

That said, right at the start, we talked to a contractor that we had worked with a lot and asked him whether he would build it. He was really honest and just said, “look, it’s your passion project not mine. And if I say I’ll build it, you’re not going to want to pay what I’m going to quote.”

Tom Surman What was hard is that you obviously spend ages designing it trying to do it all properly – air tightness was a really good example of that. When you can just see slightly bad workmanship happening, it’s really painful because we’ve invested literally thousands of hours of our lives in this, and they only have to try a tiny bit harder to do it well. But we did also work with some exceptional sub-contractors too, they made a huge difference.


On the roof, accessed via a clever retractable hatch, is a winter garden where there is a PV array and where Percy, who lives here with his family, is looking to grow tomatoes in a conservatory.

Percy was here every day for 18 months. I would come, like, maybe two days a week during that time just here to like build, to be extra hands.

Percy Weston Looking back, it was just the cumulative effect of the stress and everything else that took a toll. That’s what you’ve got to be prepared for. The trouble about managing a whole construction project is you end up doing almost everything and there’s a lot of stuff you don’t want to do that is not perhaps worth your time. For next time, I think it’s about picking what you want to do.

How did you deal with the other aspects of building, like getting tools and waste?

Tom Surman We became very conscious of waste – everything in construction comes in packaging. Then you always have to slightly over because if you run out you have to reorder which is expensive. Which meant we ended up using offcuts of things elsewhere. The downstairs timber flooring pattern looks the way it does because of this; the garden paths are the offcuts of the brick from the façade.

Percy Weston We were surprised by the impact of building even a small project. Where we could, we tried to reuse as much as possible. It’s really made us aware of how wasteful the construction is.

Tom Surman Procuring tools was something we would have done differently. Right at the start we should have invested more in all of that stuff.

Tools, materials… they all require storage. And the lead times, because of Covid, really impacted this. Deliveries could change from being due in a couple of days to three weeks, which was tough because you had lined up people and materials to come after that. Things just changed so quickly. You’d end up trying to pre-empt it and order stuff early but then you have loads of stuff sitting on your site that you weren’t using for another three weeks – it could get damaged.


Do you think you can have better conversations with the main contractor now because of this?

Percy Weston It’s made us better architects and now we’re more understanding of the main contractor role, definitely. We’ve got a much better perspective on what it means. It’s a massive risk for the main contractor, essentially.

Tom Surman Every little change or delay costs them hundreds if not thousands of pounds. Main contractors are very, very good at using like standardized systems. As soon as you want anything done a little bit different, the price goes up a lot. I think now we understand why it’s very expensive and time consuming to do that because you’re suddenly creating something basically from scratch rather than just say sticking up a sheet of plasterboard.

Percy Weston There’s such a difference in the two and yeah, I definitely I’ve got so much respect for good contractors.

Tom Surman It sounds odd, but things like repetitive manual labour carried out on site, can be rewarding. At the end of the day there’s a sense of achievement. You can think, okay, that was a bit brutal, but you know, this floor’s now sanded – you’ve done something. Whereas sometimes in the office, you can spend a whole day just moving lines around.

How did you balance building this with also running an architecture practice?

Tom Surman It was tough, because all this happened during the time when the construction prices were going crazy post-COVID. So to offset that, we put more of our own time in.

Percy Weston Obviously that’s a bit of a false economy because you should be at ‘work’ earning money, but it was just the way we had to do it. At the very end it got really financially tight because at the studio we didn’t have many fees coming in from the architecture side and there was also pressure to just get this done.

There were certain ideas that were in our head that we didn’t follow through with. There were compromises made. Not loads, but there were some made. We’re very happy with how it ended up, though.




Surman Weston


Surman Weston

Structural engineer

Structure Workshop

Services engineer

Peter Deer and Associates

Planting design

Lidia D’Agostino Garden Design

Additional Images

Source: Architecture Today