The beauty in everyday things
Building a family home full of integrity.

Sairom and PJ Lee’s outside their family self-build home in South Korea.
Photography: PYODesignWorkshop

Words: Leanne Cloudsdale

Photography: PYODesignWorkshop

“Some people would say there is nothing special about our house. But in a world so full of design, we wanted to create something honest, useful and ordinary. The fact that we built a home that is perfectly suited to the needs of our family was the best decision we could have ever made. We believe that ‘nothing special’ can eventually become something very special indeed” said PJ, grinning with pride, seemingly unscathed from the completion of a self-build project he’d undertaken with his wife Sairom, on the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea.

Sairom and PJ Lee’s home façade in South Korea.

With careful planning, the young couple have managed to turn the dream of living in a space that’s tailored to their needs into a reality. They met at university in New York, where they were both studying architecture, and bonded over a mutual ambition to settle down in a home that didn’t follow the rules of a typical Korean apartment. Sairom explains, “There’s a real lack of housing typology in Seoul, which I think is a cultural, social history-related problem. When you meet anyone from South Korea, 80% of them will be living in properties that have a similar layout – the apartments here are basically all the same, except for the number of bedrooms. It’s always 2.2metres floor-to-ceiling height, wallpapered walls, two bathrooms, a balcony and harsh white lighting that hurts your eyes because the ceiling is so low! When we got married, we knew that although we’d grown up with that formula feeling very normal to us, we wanted something very different, but weren’t sure how or when we could make it happen.”

The process began much sooner than they’d imagined, after PJ watched a television programme about a German journalist who had built his own house in South Korea. Listening to him speak about his experience, PJ recalled, “He said that Koreans delay their hopes about the future. They work hard and love to hear about others working hard too, but that’s precisely the problem. There is no time like the present, so even by taking small steps towards something – at least it’s a start. It really triggered me, so the next day we drove around some of the more suburban, rural areas of Seoul looking for the ideal spot. After three months of searching, we finally found a small plot of land that we loved and knew that it was the right time to seize the opportunity.”

Sairom and PJ Lee’s kitchen minimalist design with Vitsœ shelving over the countertop.

In order to reduce the inevitable stresses and strains that building your own home can bring, PJ and Sairom knew meticulous budgeting would at least help to alleviate any disagreements about finances and prevent the project costs from spiralling out of control – a common problem for self-builders. Like a good marriage, a house must be built on firm foundations, so with a young family to support and limited funds, the pair combined their architectural knowledge and kick-started discussions about affordability and non-negotiable aspects of the design, furniture and interior decor. Everything was accounted for, including renting a temporary base that was closer to the site to ensure they could visit each day to monitor progress.

Sairom described how it all began, “We did it the opposite way – by working out and agreeing on everything we didn’t want. Knowing our restrictions beforehand made everything so much easier. Luckily, we share the same attitude, in that neither of us like things that are flashy or ornamental. In our minds, objects should have a purpose and a strong identity. Simple and straightforward things are what we gravitate towards; things that are considered, that have a designer’s story behind them. We’re always looking for an internal quality, not something flamboyant. These values informed how we designed the house.” PJ laughed and added, “And believe it or not, we didn’t have one single fight! Maybe that’s what happens when you respect each other’s preferences – it creates harmony.”

Sairom and PJ Lee’s living room minimalist design with Vitsœ shelving for bookcases / library

Within six months of purchasing the land, they were already moving in. Gesturing to the large window behind them, PJ noted, “This is the largest one in the house. We didn’t see the point of spending money on huge windows for every room when the views aren’t great from every side. The bathroom doesn’t even have one because we knew that a good ventilation system is far more efficient for getting rid of hot steam and helping to keep the room clean.

The idea of finding beauty in everyday things really resonated with us. Having a clear understanding of our family routines: how we eat, how we gather, and how we sleep were the most important factors. We didn’t feel the need to include the luxuries most people would expect, such as a home gym or cinema room because most of the time they would be empty. Our plans centred around it being a house where nothing is over-designed, and everything gets used every day. Sometimes we’d refer back to the theory behind the Jasper Morrison ‘Super Normal’ exhibition to remind ourselves of how practicality can sometimes be the most beautiful thing. It’s the reason we installed the Vitsœ shelving. The system works with our possessions the same way as the house works for us – sitting there in the background like a blank canvas. It’s only when the artist starts to paint that you can learn more about their ideas and their identity. Sairom and I both agree that a house should express something about the lives and stories of those who live there. For us, we have nothing to hide, so by keeping everything simple, we’re able to really appreciate the things we love.”

Sairom and PJ Lee’s dining space, minimalist design.