The Modern House: Q&A with an estate agency that lifts the spirits

A Grade-II listed tin church, bought flat-packed from a catalogue in 1880.

LONDON – The Modern House is a real-estate agency of a different sort. As the name permits you to assume, the properties which are changing owner are modern. As much as that could mean, the one thing it does mean with certainty is that the houses in the agency’s repertoire are carefully chosen. Even if purchasing a house on England’s rainy grounds may not be what you envisioned for yourself, visits to The Modern House’s website can become reasonably compulsive. With regards to the quality of the architecture and interiors, clicking through the images evokes the air of flipping through the pages of an editorial magazine – a desired side-effect, as the imagery is indeed shot by editorial photographers. Consequently, the agency’s team is more versed in art history than in sales and the recent refurbishment of the firm’s own office was designed in fine style by a member of architecture collective and Turner Prize winners Assemble.

Since Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill founded The Modern House in 2005, the duo have sold some of the UK’s most exceptional properties like the Ahm House by Jørn Utzon and Povl Ahm and the notorious selling-like-hotcakes flats in the Barbican Estate.

Looking back at more than ten years, the two Brits share some of the backgrounds, experiences and privileges stemming from dealing with special houses.

Burnham Market, Norfolk by Lynch Architects
You seem to have a good eye. Did you ever aspire to have a career in architecture?
MG: Both my grandfather and father were architects, so it’s very much in my family. However, the one piece of advice my dad gave me was: ‘Whatever you do, make sure it’s not architecture’! Initially I took this at face value, but I had a moment of weakness in my late twenties and got a place at the Bartlett. It was around this time that Albert and I were also setting up The Modern House, and the two options very much left me at a crossroads. Pursuing The Modern House was absolutely the right decision; it allows me to immerse myself in extraordinary buildings without the frustrations of practising as an architect.

AH: For me, I was always more interested in looking at and writing about great design. I’m always impressed by the skill and continuous innovation of architects, but it’s never something I considered as a career.

You both have backgrounds in journalism. Do you still write?
MG: I still write for The World of Interiors magazine, where I first started my career, and Albert and I had an architecture column in The Telegraph for a while. We also published our own book recently. We wish we had more time for it! 

Burnham Market, Norfolk by Lynch Architects

How did the idea to open a real-estate agency come into being?
AH: When we founded The Modern House in 2005, we felt there was a gap in the market for an estate agency with a real understanding of the value of good design. Modern design, in terms of the property market, was generally treated with uncertainty and a level of suspicion, and we wanted to change the way people approached it. We wanted to create an agency that met our own expectations in terms of service, integrity and a genuine appreciation of architecture, and we looked towards the art and technology industries to create, what we hope, is a much more powerful way of selling property.  

How does it work? Who approaches you? Only private owners or also other real-estate agencies? How do you know about an interesting house coming on the market?
AH: When we started out we put together a database with details about the majority of architecturally significant housing across the UK, which we’re continuously adding to. The owners of many of these properties know about us, and we get the majority of our work through recommendations. Our agency really relies on word of mouth, and we’re very much judged on the service and expertise we’re able to provide. The majority of our clients are private sellers and developers, but over the years we’ve worked with an extraordinary range of both properties and clients.

Waldo Road, London by Munkenbeck & Partners 

How do you determine the price of a property?
MG: It’s really based on the knowledge we’ve gained over eleven years specialising in the market. We undertake at least 50 appraisals each month, so over the years we’ve valued a huge number of buildings. We have to take all factors into consideration, from quantifiable things like the size and location of a house or apartment, to more subjective factors like the importance of the design, which is where our expertise really comes into play.

Owning a real-estate agency that focuses on architecturally relevant properties gives you the privilege to visit a lot of buildings which are not accessible to the public. What do you take from these experiences?
AH: It’s a privilege to be able to go behind the closed doors of some of the best houses and apartments in the UK. We engage with an extraordinary range of homes, as well as clients and characters, and for me it’s the human side of the business – being trusted to be discreet and professional and being allowed into people’s homes – that’s the most exciting thing.

MG: I think also the diversity of design ideas we get to see in properties across the UK is really exciting. We’re in a rare position in that we’re seeing the evolution of residential design as it happens.

Harrietsham, Kent by Brinkworth

Has the amount of beautiful properties you have seen set a different ideal for your own idea of home?
MG: Seeing all of these extraordinary houses inevitably influences you. That said, my wife, Faye Toogood, is an interior designer and she has her own strong ideas - much better ideas than me in fact. What I would say is that seeing so many properties has made me more of a classicist; I really appreciate the longevity of things more. It’s a kind of reaction against the conceits and quirks, in favour of a real honesty of materials.

AH: I also find it really inspiring to see a lot done with a little, whether it’s a small space which has been made really remarkable, or a modest budget which has been used in a really considered way.  

Have you ever been tempted or considered to buy one of the houses on offer?
MG: Yes, I’d say maybe three or four times a year I see a property which is really tempting. I think you have to be interested in the idea of a house or apartment as a commodity, and obviously seeing properties which are really investable is exciting. But, if you’re aesthetically minded, as we are, certain houses definitely pull at the heartstrings too.

AH: The properties we represent are spread across the UK, and a lot of our clients aren’t afraid to move to new areas. One of the highlights of the job for me is finding an undiscovered gem at the end of a forgotten track somewhere, and it’s these unknown properties that pull you into new areas which are often most tempting for me.

Which were your favourite properties of the last years? Do they automatically equal the most noteworthy sales?
MG: For both of us, there are a few properties that really stand out, all for quite different reasons.

Amyas Connell’s High & Over in Buckinghamshire – this is widely recognised as the first modern house in the UK.

Photo The Modern House / French + Tye

Ahm House by Jørn Utzon and Povl Ahm: This is a beautifully preserved Scandinavian-style house set in very English countryside, by the architects who were also responsible for the Sydney Opera House.

Photo The Modern House / Tim Crocker

Photo The Modern House / Tim Crocker 

MG: We’ve sold lots of flats across London, but the Barbican Estate is the ultimate. It’s unrivalled for the completeness of the design; every detail is really considered and refined. 

Photo The Modern House / Neil Perry 

AH: I think our favourite properties do tend to equal the most noteworthy sales. For both of us, we get a kick from engaging with these great properties, but also from achieving great prices for our clients who we work closely with.

How do you decide which houses are relevant enough for you to sell them?
AH: When we’re selecting properties to sell, we don’t discriminate on price or location, nor on a strict academic definition of modernism. Modernism for us has an increasingly broad meaning, it covers good design in all its variants. We’re currently working on a feature for our website to really clarify this expanded understanding of what a ‘Modern House’ is – whether that’s a one-of-a-kind house like High & Over, an apartment in a converted factory, or a period house with a superior design-led interior.

MG: Ultimately, we select properties based on our personal aesthetic response to them. The central themes of modernism are at the heart of all of the properties we sell: flowing space, natural light, truth to materials, and the relationship between architecture and its environment. In many ways we treat our website like a magazine, and we are editing all the time.

Harrietsham, Kent by Brinkworth

Your team has backgrounds in relevant academic fields rather than in sales. Are potential buyers of modern houses different?
MG: I think it’s always dangerous to stereotype who our clients are. It’s really difficult to predict who will buy what, and we sell to an amazing range of people. Our team, like our clients, come from a range of different backgrounds, but I think what unites everyone is an appreciation of good design. We need our team to converse in a sales aspect but also, importantly, on a design level.

AH: We deal with a lot of people working in the creative industries for whom design is a way of life, but equally we work with a lot of people, be they doctors or bankers or anything else, for whom design is a more personal passion.

What has changed since you first started out?
AH: We’ve definitely witnessed a more mainstream appreciation and enjoyment of the value of modern design in the property industry in general.

MG: The company has also grown internally both in size and scope. I think the main evolution of The Modern House is the transition from our relatively purist starting point of selling one-off modernist houses, to now encompassing good design in all its guises, from a converted concrete reservoir to a Georgian house with impeccably designed interiors.

AH: The rise of flexible working which has come about with developments in technology has also increasingly allowed our clients to choose houses based on the property itself, rather than the specific location it’s in.

St. Saviour's Church Faversham, Kent by Nick Kenny

Classic last question: what do you anticipate for the next ten years to come?
AH: It’ll be interesting to see how the real-estate industry as a whole develops in relation to continued advances in technology and communications. Tech innovation undoubtedly will continue to shape all industries, and I’m excited to see what this means for us. We’ve led the way with tech developments in our industry for the last eleven years, and we’ll continue to work hard to operate at the cutting edge.

MG: I think we’ll also see increasing numbers of developers and self-builders becoming engaged with a design agenda. We’re being approached by more and more large-scale developers who can’t ignore the fact that good architecture adds value.

Thank you Matt and Albert – we look forward to both more modern houses and design-conscious developers.

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