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The invisible house

Can you build a contemporary home in a conservation area sensitively? Here’s one that succeeded, against the odds…

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Ken Martin is a man who drinks a lot of coffee, 4,200 cups in the last two years to be precise, according to his intelligent Gaggenau coffee machine that takes pride of place in the high-tech modern kitchen that he designed himself – but then, having self-built a daring black glass box of a house, in the middle of a Conservation Area in London, the retired lawyer has probably needed the caffeine.

But far from the drained, husks of people that you often see on the likes of Grand Designs after a self-build project, Ken is still brimming with enthusiasm two years on from completing his epic build.

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Despite its bold lines, from the outside the black glass house has an incredibly calm quality, reflecting the trees and sky and the Victorian houses opposite. In one corner the yew trees almost melt into the house, like a vertical pool shimmering the tree back upon itself.

Yet sitting inside this incredible stealth house – I call it that because, like the planes, in certain light, it literally recedes into the surrounding trees so that you almost don’t notice it is there ­– is like being inside a Scandinavian cabin in the middle of the woods. It is utterly tranquil, quiet and cosseting, like being hugged by the trees around us. No wonder he hasn’t bothered with curtains, with views like this, nor would I. And while the exterior is all glass, steel with clean, sharp lines, inside it manages to feel homely and warm – you don’t feel like you’re sitting inside a stark glass box.

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This is thanks in part to Ken’s own interior style. “This is my family home and that is how I planned it, so there’s a mixture of our things – we didn’t go an buy all new stuff to create a showhouse, it needed to feel comfortable and like our home.”

So there’s a range of furniture from Mid-Century Ercol sofas (one of which Ken rescued from a south London skip) and String shelving, a 1920s oak chair from Heals, an 1870s early Arts and Crafts cabinet, a contemporary floral Pinch sofa, and a thoroughly modern Dutch suspended central fireplace, which is never needed because the house is just so darn energy efficient.

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The warm iroko wooden window frames and blonde wood floor add to the almost tactile atmosphere.

But turn the other way and behind double pocket doors (that slide into the walls), the all-white, minimal kitchen, dominated by a vast square Corian island, is revealed, giving a new perspective to the home.

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Because, for all you could forget your surroundings when sitting inside looking out, this house is a highly engineered, and expertly designed modern build.

Ken has lived in 11 homes since buying his first place in 1986, and each time he’s wanted to do a little bit more, from replacing kitchens, to renovating, remodelling, and eventually adding a Mansard floor to his previous home in Dulwich. That gave him the bug to go further and build his own home, so he began to search for an opportunity.

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In 2007, he, his wife and daughter, moved into the neighbouring house in Forest Hill – a beautiful 19th-century cottage that came with a good 500-square-metre plot that had planning permission granted on it many years earlier. It wasn’t the easiest site, a sloping plot sitting at the end of a private, gravel track road that fades into Albion Millenium Green, a wild and overgrown dingly dell that supports wildlife and acts as an almost rural backdrop.

He invited his friend the architect Ian McChesney, who is as known for his sculptures as his properties, and who had created the pavilion for Avenham Park in Preston along similar lines, to come down and have a look. “He’s as mad as a fish but a visionary about how things should look,” says Ken. “I just let him have a think about how we could exploit the space – I knew I wanted to do something modern and appropriate for the location, but beyond that my only brief was that it should be less tall, less deep and less wide than any of the other homes on the street. I didn’t want it to be over-developed or to feel greedy. I think that would have been taking the piss – you should always ask for what you want and then stick with that.”

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When the plans went in to Lewisham Council in 2008 there were 68 objections, despite the fact only a handful of houses are even near to the plot, but Ken, who’s passion for the project is still infectious today, personally spoke at the heated council planning meeting to defend his plans and make the case for his future family home.

“I don’t think the fact that it was a conservation area made it that much harder – what was important was that the building enhanced the area around it, but that is as important to me as it was to the planners and objectors. One thing that did help was that I had a great planning officer who understood what I wanted to achieve, and the fact that the houses on the road are so different, from a Fifties council block to 1920s and Victorian houses, also helped the argument that this building should be of its time.”

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It took until 2009 before plan was approved and a further three before work began, but once it did, Ken didn’t waste any time. He began in February 2012 and the house was up by the October, though not without a few nerve-racking moments.

Ken project managed the whole build and was there everyday coordinating everything from the 28 metal piles that the wooden frame of the house simply sits on, to the aluminium shell that wraps around that, and finally, the black glass – made and imported from Façade Concepts in Germany – and iroko wood frames that complete the build.

“I was like the Ringmaster gathering all of the different people together to work on the project at the same time and trying to get the best from them.”

One of the hairiest moments was the delivery of the glass panels down the very narrow lane, “one of them broke,” says Ken. “We had to wait two months for another panel to be made and then brought over Germany, and then it had to be literally man-handled in by the Albanian crew because they could get the lorry down.

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Ken sourced virtually everything from the internet, whether it was the Swedish firm Scandia Hus who supplied the wooden frame to learning to use Google Sketch Up to create his own designs or coming up with the kitchen himself, which he based on a Baulthap design but created himself for a fraction of the cost – “anyone could get these huge drawers made if they wanted to, you just create them from MDF and then get them sprayed, any good car garage could do it,” he says casually as if it’s nothing extraordinary.

“Without the internet this wouldn’t have been possible, I couldn’t have researched it otherwise. Everyone is motivated by watching Grand Designs, but not many people realise that you can do it with a reasonable eye and determination. Using the internet I have managed to combine the uniqueness of something bespoke but with the security of a manufactured house.”

Ken describes himself as a “serial mover” rather than a developer – “there’s no way you’d build a house like this if you just wanted to sell it, you have to feel it and be doing it with a passion, rather than an economic vision” – but now he’s been bitten by the building bug he’s ready to do it again, just as soon as he finds the right opportunity.

“I don’t think we could ever live in an ordinary place again after living here, it’s just marvellous.”

The Tree House is for sale for £1,595,000 with

Ken’s top 10 tips for self-building:

Buy the best location you can find, and afford, – the build will cost the same wherever it is but the location will make all the difference.

Use an architect and put faith in them – they think about things in an odd way and can visualise the way stuff will be in a space; most people can’t do that.

That said, it is important to also know what you want and to be able to explain that to your architect, learn to talk their language.

Decide what it is you want to do and be confident about it – if you have a good scheme and a good ‘story’ about the building and what it is going to do, you will win planning permission.

Be visionary. The more you compromise and dilute your ideas the less successful the build will be.

Don’t scrimp and save on the materials, they’ll only be around 40 per cent of your final cost anyway, so it’s worth getting them right.

Don’t get carried away with kitchen designs, you’ve got to live with it – and cleaning is a big deal.

Learn to use software like Sketch Up so that you can try out designs for yourself.

If you can be on site during the build, you should. You will not get what you want if you are not there.

Don’t change your mind – stick with your plan, I drew all mine on Google Sketch Up.


The rise of stealth homes

Eidolon House in Highgate has been clad with mirrors
Eidolon House in Highgate has been clad with mirrors

With the government’s news that all of us will get the “right to build” in the new housing bill – obliging councils must do more to support self-builders, helping them to find suitable plots and making land available – there could be a new wave of innovative developments in the capital.

One of the biggest issues in London is trying to create housing in Conservation Areas and on awkward plots sensitively. The answer is hidden and disguised homes that don’t compromise the existing land- or streetscape, like the Tree House has done.

Zaha Hadid's Investcorp building at Oxford University
Zaha Hadid’s Investcorp building at Oxford University

Sitting opposite Highgate Cemetry and in a Conservation Area, Eidolon House, completed last year by Dominic McKenzie Architects, is thought to be the first mirror-clad house in London. Using polished stainless steel to clad the building and reflect the tree opposite, the building changes its hue with the seasons and time of day.


At the University of Oxford Zaha Hadid’s new Middle East Centre was conceived by the architect as a reflective tunnel suspended in space – the glass front reflects the existing Victorian buildings while the curved mirrored stainless steel sides reflect the sky, spires and trees that surround it. The result is bold and strikingly modern, yet recessive at the same time.

Trinity Crescent in Tooting Bec
Trinity Crescent in Tooting Bec

In Tooting Bec, Trinity Crescent is a new development of two homes that are hidden from view so that you wouldn’t even know they exist, despite each one offering more than 3,000 square feet of luxury living space. They are on the market from £2.25 million with


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