Nature meets contemporary design at Ken Martin’s stunning home, the Tree House in Sydenham. Isobel Diamond takes a look around this unique residential property and asks the owner why he’s selling up…
Nothing can quite prepare you for The Tree House. Hidden among a huddle of historic properties, the cube-shaped building, clad in black glass, has the dark and imposing glamour of a Hollywood hotel. Owner, Ken Martin, agrees that his home is a rare and rather special addition to its traditional setting within the Sydenham Park Conservation Area.
The expansive series of windows are impressive both inside and out. ‘We wanted to feel like we were living in the garden.’ Floor-to-ceiling panes of glass, nearly three metres high, flood the downstairs living area in light and there are serene garden views at every angle. ‘We bought the property next door specifically to build this house,’ he explains. The plot was large enough for two homes and The Tree House was given an enviable position right next to an area of protected woodland.
Internally, it has all the characteristics of a successful contemporary build: expansive open-plan living spaces, engineered oak flooring and crisp white walls, except for the downstairs bathroom, painted a cheery shade of powdery pink. ‘That’s because it is the powder room,’ laughs Ken.
The ‘big reveal moment’ happens as you ascend the show-stopping staircase, where banisters were jettisoned in favour of a glass partition. The clerestory windows upstairs reveal empty sky, rooftops, and a luxuriant cluster of branches: ‘That’s why it’s called The Tree House, because it’s like living among the trees.’
Ken enlisted sculptor and architect Ian McChesney to design his two-storey home. ‘It was a challenge because it is a Conservation Area.’ In collaboration with the planning office at Lewisham Council, they conceived the black glass cladding, which would reflect the surrounding trees. And the final design, with its modernist influences, was agreed upon.
With a plan in place, it was then left to Ken, a retired lawyer, to manage the build and the interior fit out. He became the ‘ringmaster’ in the project. He managed a series of teams and made all the materials decisions, including the internal fixtures and fittings (‘I sourced everything from specialists’). He even designed the kitchen: ‘It’s not difficult, it’s all just straight lines, isn’t it?’ he says, modestly.
The contemporary layout could feel clinical and sparse, but Ken’s decor decisions add warmth – he’s furnished it with an eclectic assortment of vintage pieces ‘collected over the years’, from Scandinavian design classics to reclaimed antiques. There is no precise colour scheme, but bold shades make a striking contrast against natural wood finishes. The walls are decorated with artworks and treasured photographs.
Sliding doors divide the kitchen and living areas, which when open create one flowing space. The living area is set out in zones. A metallic grey wood burning fire by Dutch company Dik Guerts is the centrepiece. ‘You do different things in different places – I’ll read the papers over here,’ says Ken, pointing towards a Liberty sofa designed by Russell Pinch, placed against the window.
Flanking the couch is a String storage unit designed by Nils Strinning in 1949, which holds a record player, albums and books. An oak Art Deco reading chair again by Liberty has built in shelves and table. This beautiful design piece is positioned for the sitter to look straight outside. ‘If guests come we move the chairs around.’ A beautiful smoky grey British shorthair cat, called Winnie, rests languidly in the corner.
At the opposite end of the room there are two Ercol sofas, one of which ‘was found in a skip’ and a matching armchair, which Ken reupholstered in highly durable Alcantara material in a bright, buttercup yellow. This is also the place to view the 50-inch television, subtly hidden away in a specially designed cupboard.
The white lacquered kitchen with integrated Gaggenau appliances is sleek and modern. The ‘pièce de résistance’ is a large central island finished with a Corian worktop. The built-in sink creates a seamless finish. ‘I had an island in my previous house that I liked,’ says Ken. The through diner is a successful mix of old and new with an antique wooden table and chairs and finished with a shelf of teapots in cosies and egg cups. The Wise Box lighting system creates a range of moods for the space.
Upstairs there are four bedrooms, one is used as a workroom and Ken’s teenage daughter has another. The master bedroom is a peaceful space with an en suite and antique furniture pieces. The bed is by Ambrose Heal and an Iverson rosewood dressing table is used as a desk. Ken was given these collector’s items by friends.
The Tree House was designed with the philosophy of modernism at its heart: flowing spaces, lots of natural light, integrity to materials and a clear relationship between the building and its surrounding environment. Ken describes the property as ‘site specific’.
It was also designed to adhere to the Lifetime Homes principles of good housing design, so it can be lived in and enjoyed by residents from birth to old age. This highly sustainable home – awarded a four-star rating for energy efficiency under the Code for Sustainable Homes – is kitted out with under-floor heating and triple glazing. ‘It’s very well insulated so it doesn’t get too hot in summer, or too cold in winter.’
The Tree House exudes the serenity of the countryside, helped by the gentle sound of the garden water feature. Yet this sanctuary of calm has all the facilities of Sydenham and Forest Hill right on its doorstep. What more could you ask for?