A magical tree house was Jon Martin and Noreen Jaafar’s creative answer to building on a tight, wooded plot in Dursley’s town centre.
'Who, growing up, wouldn’t have wanted to live in one of these?’ asked Kevin McCloud as he approached Jon Martin and Noreen Jaafar’s tree house in Dursley. And while it may seem like an indulgent childhood fantasy, building a tree house was a practical solution to a unique wooded plot. ‘It was a design necessity,’ explains Jon.
‘The house is in a conservation area and all the trees are automatically listed so we couldn’t cut any down, but we still wanted to build something with good views and plenty of daylight, so it was a case of raising ourselves up to get that. ‘I went to the Methodist school nearby so I knew the site was there, but on closer inspection it was so much better than I remembered, and I thought, “we could do something with this; something really imaginative”.’
Clad in larch and flanked by spacious balconies, the three-bedroom house rises into the trees above the half-acre plot. Photo: Matt Chisnall
A lucky gamble
The derelict plot in the town centre had been for sale for a year and a half before the couple bought it for £85,000, which was a bit of a gamble. ‘It could have been a very expensive garden,’ quipped Jon on the show, as it was purchased with no planning permission and many had tried and failed before. ‘The local community was incredibly supportive of our build because the site had attracted some anti-social behaviour and I think they were glad to see something being done with it,’ adds Noreen.
Architect Tomas Millar of Millar Howard Workshop assessed the land and explained to Jon they would have to design something of outstanding architectural merit to get it through the planning stage. The trees dictated the size and unusual shape of the three-bedroom house, which is nothing short of a major feat of structural engineering. the property is composed of three offset cantilevered boxes with a series of decks wrapping around the living spaces on both the first and top floors.
The couple used green slate floor tiles salvaged from a Rolls Royce garage with vintage furniture from flea markets. Photo: Matt Chisnall
Underneath is Noreen’s studio, contained within a floating mirrored stainless-steel box. ‘I always wanted a veranda so that when it rains you can stay dry while you watch the raindrops falling off the leaves,’ says Jon. ‘It’s also going to be Passivhaus certified; we have a lot of glazing on the south for solar gain, but we didn’t want it overheating in summer, so the overhangs of the balconies help that – it’s aesthetic and practical.’
The house is essentially off -grid, despite being smack bang in the centre of town; water comes from the couple’s own borehole and photovoltaic panels are fi tted to the roof. The only compromise was that they couldn’t process the sewerage themselves. While work on-site began in July 2014, it wasn’t until the following Easter that the build really took off, due to several complications with the structural engineering and timber frame. These were eventually resolved by reducing the amount of steel required, resulting in a saving of £16,000.
The steel finally arrived on site in April 2015 via a specialist crane to avoid disturbing the tree roots. By July, the timber frame and glulam beams that support the cantilevered top floor were ready to be constructed, although it was just Jon and a couple of old friends – joiner Julian Yeomans and yacht engineer Jamie Medlock – building it by hand high up in the canopy.
As winter approached, the seven-day weeks had started to take their toll and the race was on to get the building watertight, especially as Jon and Noreen were facing a third winter in the tiny cabin on site. However, their spirits were boosted in November when the glazing went in. The windows are designed using the golden ratio often used by Michelangelo to create a feeling of balance and harmony. ‘We can see the whole of the Cotswold escarpment in winter and we also get views of Cam Peak,’ says Jon. With the project almost complete in late July 2016, Kevin visited Jon and Noreen, likening the walkway to the house to ‘the ramp to ET’s spaceship’, that leads to ‘something truly magical – a big, proper grown-up tree house.’
Noreen’s hand-painted ceramic tiles of native birds adorn the couple’s bathroom. Photo: Matt Chisnall
As Kevin pointed out on the programme, while ‘the outside enthrals, the inside doesn’t disappoint either.’ The building’s structure alone is impressive, but what’s exciting about the inside is the couple’s creative use of materials, which gives the house its own unique character, and saved money into the bargain.
On entering the house, it’s clear that the large open-plan space has been carefully considered. ‘I’m really pleased with how the kitchen relates to the dining area; we spent a lot of time making sure these spaces flow well and link to each other and the glazing,’ explains Noreen. The kitchen, which cost a mere £1,800, is decorated with Noreen’s beautiful handmade tiles depicting native birds, while a rich iroko timber slab salvaged from a school science lab serves as the kitchen worktops.
The couple’s various flea market finds and retro pieces create an informal look, and there are luxury touches, too: impressive green Cumbrian slate rescued from a Rolls Royce garage covers the floor while Timorous Beasties wallpaper adds a feature wall to the living room. Perhaps the best space on this level is actually not inside, but outside. ‘The decking area is just sublime,’ beams Jon. ‘It does cost money to have a design of this quality, but the end result pays dividends and makes you smile every time you look at it. It fits into its surroundings so well and I think that’s what makes the architect’s design so clever.’
The home contains three bedrooms which each have an en suite, plus the master. Photo: Matt Chisnall
Looking to the future
Upstairs, there are three bedrooms, each with an en suite, plus Noreen and Jon’s master bedroom, featuring one of their less conventional money-saving materials – flooring salvaged from a basketball court, lines and all at a cost of just £17 per metre, and which also spills out on to the landing. Remarkably, for such a quality build, the couple managed to keep pretty close to their original budget of £268,000, having spent £270,000 at the time of filming in July 2016, although they still had some work to do, anticipating they would spend another £12,000.
‘We still need to finish the bedrooms, as we plan to run a bed and breakfast, plus we have my workshop to finish – it will be an amazing room when it’s done; it’s such a privilege to be able to design your own workspace,’ says Noreen. So could this be a contender for Kevin’s favourite Grand Design? It could well be.
He said on the show: ‘this place is flipping brilliant – it’s a great example of how you can build by putting nature before human nature. It’s a fantastic testament to the passion, the vision and the resilience of Jon and Noreen and these are qualities for which I will always salute self-builders, because without the examples and inspiration they provide, the rest of us would just be living in grim little grey boxes – with no trees.’
For more articles on real homes, pick up our latest issue, out now.