An Underground Public Loo that is now a Bright and Airy Home

When architect Laura Clark told friends and family that she was planning to live in an underground ex-public lavatory in south east London, their responses ranged from hilarity to horror along with quite a few polite enquiries as to the state of her mental health. “I was known as Laura Toilets for a while,” she laughs. And there were moments during the project’s lengthy gestation period when Laura questioned her own sanity as well. For a relatively small renovation, barely 600sq foot, the project faced far more than its fair share of delays and planning wrangles.

Laura first spotted the loos - with their chained gates and boarded up stairwells - back in 2005, when she moved to London having completed her degree at Glasgow school of Art, and this was exactly the sort of challenge she was looking for. “I’ve always loved the idea of micro-regeneration,” she explains. “For me that’s about saving sites with an interesting history, but which have been abandoned and forgotten.” Her initial plan was to transform two adjacent ex-lavatories (men’s and women’s) into a groovy bar or tiny cinema.

However, bringing this particular site back to life was very nearly a lost cause: the loos were built at the point where three council boundaries met, and it took the best part of two years for Lambeth to establish that it was the council responsible for them.

And then, having cleared this hurdle, the bleak state of the economy by the end of 2008 meant developing it into a commercial premises was no longer viable. Just as she was about to draw a line under her scheme, Laura realised she could rework her designs into a sleek one bedroom apartment.

Up until this point Lambeth council’s regeneration department had been very positive about her proposals, but as soon as Laura revealed that she wanted to live in the loos, concerns were raised about pretty much every aspect of the build, from lack of light to lack of a view. It took Laura many months, during which light levels were monitored and measured, to convince the planners that the space was habitable. When she had, Lambeth then discovered that the toilets weren’t listed on the land registry. Suddenly the whole sale was in doubt: despite being responsible for them, Lambeth wasn’t sure if it actually owned the loos and so couldn't be sure that it had the right to sell them.

It took nearly another three years before Laura found herself the proud owner of the underground public conveniences, built in 1929, last used some time in the 1980s and now filled thigh-high with rubbish.

She lost no time getting stuck in, working alongside builders and labourers in order to transform the dank and frankly creepy space into a bright and airy home.  “I ended up doing a lot of the labouring work myself, mainly because it was such horrid, hard work that I struggled to keep people on the job,” she says.  Remarkably, the entire project cost only £65,000.

Today it's hard to imagine that the light-filled one bedroom flat, with its streamlined shelves, glamorous gold-leaf bathroom and subterranean garden, was once a derelict public toilet. There are clues though. The tiles that form the splash back in the kitchen were reclaimed from the site’s original use, as was a mirror in the living room. And propped on a kitchen shelf is a small public health poster warning of the perils of VD.

At long last for Laura, this is home. And it is entirely due to her vision and tenacity, not to mention some impressive lateral thinking, that it is a home at all. The fact that she is no longer called Laura Toilets, or at least not that often, is testament to the success of the transformation.

Photographs: James Balston   Words: Charlotte Packer

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Heart Home magazine.