Learning London’s Lengthy Flat-hunt

IMG_7541 2As I peered over my Asian-style crispy chicken burger–the healthiest lunch I could find in the time ticking down to my afternoon workshop on supervising PhD students–I was reminded by my view of my extensive London-flat hunt.  I was enjoying the moment as well as the view and the new-found flavors. It’s not uncommon for burgers in London to include kimchi and I was developing fondness to the new taste. Like these Korean-infused breaded-chicken-fillet sandwiches, London flats have distinctive qualities all their own, I realized.

Flats in zone one and two seem darker, on average, than flats in other cities.

Hunting for a place to live in this massive and densely-occupied city has its own unique joys and challenges. I think it’s helpful to share pointers–I reviewed multiple YouTube videos during my three-month search. This blog explains some of what I learned and experienced during my search to help other roving scholars looking to settle here.

IMG_7544 2As I munched, I observed one of the apartment buildings I visited, across the leafy green Tavistock Square, over in the very far corner. The place was lovely. At the top of the building with a sweeping view to the north, it was served by multiple stairs, elevators, and even a porter. But it had just one room. One very expensive room, at that.

All the places I visited were expensive. Most cost above £1500 a month (that’s $2800), PLUS utilities and council tax. Such was the case for either a room in a shared flat or a studio apartment. In a shared-flat where you live with roommates, there’s a surcharge for having two people in one room. That seems fair enough, but the surcharge goes on top of the publish rate, often catching me by surprise. It can run £300, plus increased council tax (a per-head charge based on the estimated value of the property), and a larger (per-person) share of utilities.

IMG_7552Most surprising to me: (1) many flats had no living room since it had been converted to sleeping space in order to bring in more rent money, and (2) even very expensive flats had no views out. Sometimes the entire flat received no direct sunlight.

One room that had light and views came with five energetic dogs of all sizes but similar make and model. *Five.* Imagine five dogs in a small townhouse… and that townhouse had six sleeping rooms, so who knows how many roommates you’d end up tolerating in addition to the dogs?

I couldn’t imagine. I wouldn’t.

I had searched for months online and I visited London multiple times during my search. I found a number of online search platforms helpful:

UCL’s accommodation site is intended to help incoming staff, and accessing it requires a staff identification number. It was a good place to start, although I found its listings to be outdated. A majority were not available at the time I was searching. (They seem to be listed in perpetuity?) I believe this resource was developed before there were so many other options available for searching online. Nevertheless, I was grateful to have the resource as a point of comparison of what a traveling scholar could expect.

Sabbatical Homes is a great resource–especially for scholars needing short-term lets, long lead-times, and tailored dates. But the listings are very, very costly! We did view one Sabbatical Home that was in our price range, but it was underground. The hosts were super interesting and fun to talk with–an academic set–but the main window faced north (toward the garden wall) and was covered with a decorative iron grate. All the other windows were too small to crawl through. Plus, the furniture was depressingly old-fashioned. I just couldn’t get past that. I could have handled crawling out the end of the bed, since the mattress filled most of the room, because at least the mattress was not in the living room. Overall, we decided we had to find some light. Sun-filled homes on this site would cost at least twice what we would eventually pay.

I found Gun Tree to be too confusing–it’s not designed specifically for property searches and leaves many unknowns. The map locations are not precise and any transaction appeared to have a high level of risk involved. An AirBnB host of mine, who had used it to locate his own place, provided words of caution. If I need to move again when I’m more familiar with the city, Gum Tree might be more help.

I eventually viewed a number of flats in person. The ones I visited had been located using: (1) UCL’s staff accommodation website, (2) Sabbatical Homes, and (3) Spare Room.

I ultimately found our new place via Spare Room.

After uploading a profile about my partner and myself on Spare Room, offers actually flooded in. It appears many people want mates who they can count on to be courteous and pay the rent! Many are looking for older, established professionals with dual income. I’d had trouble early-on since I’d locate a possible flat and later realize the residents were all 20 and wanted young flatmates. You can input your age and other parameters into Spare Room to help with matching.

Spare Room’s matching may have entered the realm of creepy, however. I just today received this email message:

Hi Shannon,

Looking for the perfect flatshare? We’ve got the answer for you: science.

Yep, that’s right. We’ve dusted off our lab goggles, found a few test tubes and even got ourselves some lab coats – all to ensure you find flatmates you really click with.

According to Swiss science boffins at Karmagenes, your DNA influences as much as 60% of your personality traits. So we’re joining forces to create a DNA Flatmate Matchmaking Service – giving you the chance to reveal key insights into you personality that will tell you which characters you’d blend well with in a flatshare.

In other words: your DNA + saliva swab = new BFF.

Sound interesting? We’re giving kits away on Facebook – just head to the page and follow the instructions for your chance to win.

Find out more »

Good luck!

The SpareRoom Team
0161 768 1162

My trouble hasn’t been with roommates, thankfully! I read on-line, though, that various spots such as the nearby Shoreditch Library offer ideal get-aways from troublesome flat mates.

What was hard for me was being able to get a feel for any given advertised flat from its online profile. The actual spaces weren’t at all like the ads seemed.

But leasehold can also be stressful and complex. There’s high turn-over in residence in the London flat market. Young and/or single people seem to apartment-hop (move residence) quite often around London. It’s common for a person, for example my osteopath, to describe living 4-5 different places in as many year.

The market churns. Buildings get sold to the highest bidder, and apparently these situations — of sharing with many, many roommates and renting from the leasehold — are fraught with complications. Adam Smith’s invisible hand lands people out of home and, sometimes, on the street. There’s more non-drug-related homelessness evident here than in Dublin. Overall, though the social support system seems more caring here than in many other places. Doctor’s visits are free (though I had to pay an entry tax to the health system) and the mail gets delivered to my door–up four flights of stairs. Residents of public/social housing are far more diverse than in the States and much less deprecated. Taxes are higher but provide a greater range of housing possibilities, with varying levels of support.

Incidentally, when traveling to London to view apartments, I used AirBnB and Hotels.com. Of these, Hotels.com provided the best value for money. That surprised me as I am a lover of AirBnB. Aongus and I used AirBnB to get a feel for a variety of neighborhoods, which was good in many ways.

However, I have found that quality control related to AirBnB in London is not high enough. we ended up in a very bad situation one night, when I’d needed to re-book due to the host’s change of plans. I selected a cheap place that lacked ratings from past guests. Of the 60 or so places I’ve stayed on AirBnB, this was truly the worst. Apparently, the superintendent of a campus of council flats was renting rooms out between formal rentals. Most likely he was pocketing the money himself.

Come to think of it, the manager of an international student house I’d used with AirBnB, also here in London, was doing something quite similar, by forcing people to book through his personal friend in the Mediterranean rather than through the house directly.

In both cases, I should have known better. The room was cheaper than market rate. To avoid such problems, read the AirBnB reviews carefully and heed the ratings posted by prior users! Do not cut corners when reviewing rooms prior to booking. I only go with hosts who have earned four or more stars from at least ten people.

In searching for flatmates, one perspective host had us over for a night so we could gauge what the experience of living at his place would actually be like. That was great! The host was amazing–such a great connector and a get-it-done, can-do kind of guy who mentors dozens of young musicians and performers. But the room was also very, very expensive (ringing in at £1770/€2000/$2500 per month, youch!). The estimated commute for Aongus from that flat was over an hour. Moreover, the owner’s ex-wife was to conduct workshops from the flat rendering it off- limits several days a month, and the sound system on the TV was extremely loud. And so we continued our search.

IMG_7594Subsequently, we visited a beautiful red brick building at Old Street Station, but the flat received no direct light whatsoever. And we’d have had to be more tidy than we could imagine in order to suit our very refined 23 year-old lawyer host.

In retrospect, the north-facing studio at Tavistock Square presented the most viable alternative to what we found, despite charging NYC rates for a single room. The membership fee for the homeowners association was unknown and the association was in the process of setting new rules. But the place was very clean and provided multiple routes out, in case of fire. What a luxury!

Sitting here, eating my pickled-cabbage fillet-on-a-bun, I felt a sense of fondness for the studio at Tavistock.

Aongus and I did succeed in finding a comfortable and happy home. It has plenty of space to work and read and learn and cook. Nice light, with beautiful views day and night. Friendly hosts who come and go, but travel a lot. It’s a half hour commute for me using the tube–longer than most other places I visited but still far less than the average Londoner’s commute. We’re grateful for our hosts who let us flat-sit here and for the search features provided by Spare Room that helped us connect with them. We found a cozy place to call home.

Seems like filming crews are forever setting up to shoot in the surrounding area. The neighborhood’s timeless charm holds great appeal. In two months here, I’ve observed three multi-day shoots in just four-block leading from our place to the tube. I only learned the name of one of these, to become a BBC TV series here in the UK. Perhaps buying a TV is in order, to view their results?

Learning London: Science Museum


The Mathematics gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid and partners.

London’s Science Museum is so interesting that we went two days in a row. We hadn’t had our fill after just one visit, so we woke up Sunday morning and said “Let’s go back!” Incidentally, entry is by donation, so you can give what you like.

In the photo gallery below, you’ll see the Science Museum’s spacious entry hall and some images on the display about space exploration. You’ll see images from other parts of the museum that cover technological developments over time (related to transportation, homes, and appliances).

There’s special exhibit on Mathematics that includes visualization of air flow around a small aircraft (a display designed by the late/great architect Zaha Hadid) and there are displays about bridge and tower design.

I’ve included a few images from the special exhibition on technology in India–feeding my fascination with step wells. We also visited the exhibit on “Superbugs” to better understand the evolution of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

Learning London: Tower Bridge Museum


Defying gravity at Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge is well worth a visit. A long visit at that!

Last weekend’s weather was dreary in London and we almost passed on the activity–a result of not knowing what we’d see inside and an entry fee of nearly 10 pounds sterling each. Missing this experience would have been quite a mistake!

Our visit to Tower Bridge and the museum that spans the overhead walkways and plunges into the engine rooms far below, lasted far longer than we’d expected.

Aongus and I explored had the surrounding area a bit first, after walking to Tower Bridge from Shoreditch. We’d found Dead Man’s Hole but had failed, for the time being, to locate the entrance to the “subway” that, once upon a time, facilitated walking by foot under the Thames from the north to the south bank.

The bridge lured us away from that pursuit.

We’d read about its gear system and, well frankly, at least one of us is a gear-head. Although we had expected see a steam engine, we had not expected to walk along the top of the bridge–the part that stay stationary when the drawbridge below is opened. But, happily, both sides of that walkway are part of the museum and open for exploring.

We spent a couple of hours studying the signs about bridge design and construction, this bridge’s history, and famous bridges from around the world (many of which I’ve visited). The mirror above the glass floor (of the walkway soaring high above the river and street) proved to be a delight. It’s a great source of entertainment and photo fun.

The museum also provides a short historic film, an animation of this bridge’s construction, and many alternative bridge designs that didn’t make the cut. There are informative plaques and drawings of the design that was ultimately constructed. There are also plaques and taped interviews with folks who built and operated the bridge.

The tour ended in the engine room on the south bank, where we learned about the giant steam engine that once powered lifts and lowerings of this formidable drawbridge.

We had hoped to visit the bascule chamber and witness the gigantic gears ourselves, even though we knew the drawbridge would not be opening that day. Unfortunately, the chamber isn’t open to the general public, so I’ll have to investigate how to get in with a group some day. It seems you can book in for a group to visit, but I’ll probably look for a group of engineers to join.

The photo gallery shows the surrounding area and parts of the museum itself.

Learning London–one month in!


Tower Bridge selfie in the mirror above to the bridge floor and Thames River, far below.

Learning the lay of the land in London—the best way to spend the cold, wet month of January. I’ve been in my new position as a Marie Curie Research Fellow at University College London’s Center for Engineering Education for one month.

In this time, I’ve also settled into a new apartment, where I’m flat-sitting for some friends. They travel quite a bit, so it all works fine.

I’ve been getting to know Shoreditch and its surrounding areas. Turns out, Shoreditch is one of London’s hippest addresses and my place is surrounded by local markets, many dozen vintage clothing stores, and Boundary Estate, the world’s first social housing community, which is architecturally stunning. I’ve joined Nuffield Gym and have been enjoying its pool and yoga classes. I got a wonderfully positive health screening when I joined and will soon meet with a personal trainer to get anti-aging tips!


One of the many vintage shops off Brick Lane, buzzing on Sunday afternoon. Surprises at every turn–here a photo booth at the back of the shop and selling vintage clothes by the kilo downstairs.

Mostly, though, I’ve focused on making headway with my fellowship work. In the four weeks I have been working at UCL, I have:

Completed UCL induction/orientation

  • Got my employment contract, work visa, and bank account set up and obtained my British Residency Permit
  • Completed including face-to-face and on-line training and earned certificates in (1) Safety, (2) Green Awareness, and (3) Green Champion
  • Updated my research profiles, including UCL Engineering, IRIS, and LinkedIn

Contributed to peer reviewed conferences

Provided leadership in evaluation

Made two research trips to Dublin

  • Conducted four research interviews, and successfully scheduled five more for February
  • Was invited to collaborate on a policy project with 6 civil service professionals in Dublin
  • Met with several dozen DIT colleagues about current and future projects
  • Transcribed two interviews
  • Was invited to present at DIT research event on March 2nd

UCL workshop on “Leading Collaborative Projects.”

Completed researcher development workshops at UCL


A slide from architect Ken Yeang’s lecture on eco-architecture, delivered at the Bartlett.

Attended lectures at the Bartlett School of Architecture

Scoped research funding programs

  • Attended an information session on opportunities to collaborate with UK-based researchers, hosted in Dublin by the Irish Research Council
  • Identified promising funding program for gender studies and downloaded guidance materials

Reviewed literature pertinent to my research projects

  • Three PhD dissertations using phenomenology
  • Seminal texts in epistemological development

Professor Nick Tyler (left) at PAMELA (Pedestrian Accessibility Movement Environment Laboratory) aiming to improve transport and access to transport for people with barriers to mobility.

Studied art and design

  • Met twice with Kindall Brantley, NYU grad student in sustainable urbanism
  • Attended transportation design class at PAMELA, UCL’s transportation research hub
  • Joined the Tate and visited three times
  • Studied the special exhibition on Modigliani
  • Studied the special exhibition on “Impressionists in London” at Tate Britain
  • Studied bridge design topics at Tower Bridge Exhibition
  • Studied transportation and product design topics in two visits to London’s Science Museum
  • Even learned a bit of history by watching The Post at the RichMix cinema near my home, with a new membership to help support local culture and arts.

Tower Bridge as see from below. The glass-floored walkway joins the two, tall middle tower (nearly visible to the left of this image).

Met with colleagues at UCL

I’ll say that of all this, the interviews I conducted in Dublin were probably the most fun. Two of the participants provided two-hour interviews that were chock full of insight. These are follow-up interviews with students I’ve previously interviewed. They are women studying engineering at DIT and hearing how their stories unfold from year to year is fascinating.


A reflection from the Liffey River in downtown Dublin, taken during one of my two January overnights to the city.

I’m working hard to get participants in Dublin scheduled for follow up interviews in February — before the final-year students get too busy with final exams and graduation.

Stay tuned for more work photos from the places I visited this past month.


UCL’s central library building.

Getting to Know London

img_5553The time has come to start moving over to London since my new research fellowship starts with the new year, so I flew across last weekend to finalize our apartment choice and leave some luggage with friends for safekeeping.

Aongus ended up having to work all weekend back in Dublin so I transported two 20 kilo bags and a little weekend knapsack to London myself. Rolled the bags from my flat to work to the taxi stand, into Dublin airport and out at Gatwick, to the train, into the tube, down a few block to the hotel, into a cab, and up four flights to our new home. I only had to carry them five flights in all–escalators can be a blessing! Note of advice: when transporting two big bags, it surely helps if one has four wheels. It makes the job much easier as you can push or pull, and easily change direction. You don’t have to carry all the weight in your hand, as it can rest on the wheels.

On Saturday morning, with the transport job behind me, I had the rest of the weekend free to visit friends, tour museums (Whitechapel Gallery, the British Museum and the National Gallery), wander the city from Shoreditch to the West End, enjoy good food, and take in a play.

img_5565-1The weather was delightfully sunny and the city felt festive. London was celebrating Armistice Day with a parade hosted by the city’s Lord Mayor. The people wore poppies on their lapels and little parades sprung up here and there in addition to the main event that covered the entire central city Saturday.

And *fall* was in the air! The only drawback to this is that people on this side of the Atlantic insist on calling the season “autumn.” To me, using this two-syllable word is quite a drag.

Loved ones back in the States, do enjoy the colorful falling leaves gracing your streets and lawns at this time of year, the brilliant red maple leaves 🍁🍁🍁, and bask in using the apt term “fall!”

For the flights in both directions, I enjoyed Aongus’ window seat, but await his return to my side for the next trip across. I get a big kick that he’s like a kid in a candy store when he sits by the window–viewing in anticipation whatever delightful new adventure awaits us on the ground. Life gets exponentially better over time and he amplifies my enjoyment of visiting new places.

London, we can’t wait to return!


Back to School: Engineering Induction at DIT

The first year students have arrived at DIT and are getting orientation this week. Today, the whole group of incoming engineering students were at our Kevin Street campus to learn about electrical and electronics aspects of their first year curriculum. Dr. Ted Burke led the introduction.

I really enjoy the chance to teach in various programs and on multiple campuses of DIT. I’ve posted images from my morning walk from DIT Bolton Street to DIT Kevin Street.

Researcher in Motion, in Portugal

Europe’s research framework encourages researchers to move around. The principle  “Researchers in Motion” underlies most of research funded by the European Union through its individual fellowship and its international training networks. For instance, all Marie Curie fellows must move to a country where they have not been living (for at least 24 months of the 36 months proceeding their application date). The EU offers support to researchers in motion through EURAXESS. This includes a database of fellowship and job openings.

Although I am not currently funded by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA) research fellowship, I am still benefiting from support received through my prior MSCA Individual Fellowship (2014-2016) and networks I first established as Fulbright Fellow (2012-2013). These professional relationships help me conduct research and share (or “disseminate”) my results and findings. For both of these fellowships, I moved from my home in the USA to Ireland to conduct research full-time.

My first trip to Portugal occurred during my Fulbright in 2013, when Bill Williams, a colleague I had met at a conference in Greece, helped me secure support from Portugal for Inter-Country Lecturing. Bill organized an itinerary for me where I visited five universities and delivered four lectures and workshops. During that trip, I fell in love with the country.

Now, whenever I have reason to visit Portugal, I find a way to tack on a weekend before or after my business meetings. I’ve also booked an upcoming summer holiday there. Please see my prior post about the research meetings and ASIBEI conference I attended in Portugal during my recent visit.

I research engineering and design education, and I now teach introductory engineering and architecture technology in Ireland. It’s important for me to keep current and build new knowledge related to engineering, architecture, art, and urban design — as well as educational theory and practice. Here are some images of relevant sites in and around Lisbon, taken during my recent trip to the Iberian peninsula:

The following photos were taken at the newly-opened MAAT (Museum of Arts, Architecture and Technology) in Lisbon:

Next to MAAT is the Tejo Power Station museum (a former thermoelectric power plant that once supplied power to Lisbon and its surrounding region):

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum is another highlight of Lisbon: