Architectural Treasures

"There's nothing very distinctive about the house from the outside so you'll probably have difficulty finding it. Call when you get into the cul-de-sac and I'll come outside to find you." Such were my instructions, so I wasn't surprised to draw up in front of a fairly typical modern house in a fairly typical modern estate. But rather like Alice in Wonderland, once I'd passed through the door with the little round window I entered a quite different world, and one that is home to architect Sylvia Kus, her partner Pete and three cats Pebble, Patch and Spot.

Sylvia started her career as an art teacher in a secondary school in London. Even in those early days she had an unorthodox approach and spent time taking her students out and about to build big structures using all sorts of different materials and processes. The writing was on the wall. Some 12 years later she happened to see a programme on Norman Foster and knew that she could be a good architect; the following year she enrolled in a part-time architectural degree course at Greenwich University. Being a mature student, she needed to fund her course and so took a job with the Property Service Agency, a little known but fascinating government organisation that was responsible for the maintenance of a raft of public buildings such as museums, Army and Navy establishments and even the Royal Household. Indeed, Sylvia soon became a team leader at the PSA and found herself scrambling through the burnt-out ruins of Hampton Court after the serious fire there in 1986. She had the job of recording what was left of the building and made some fascinating discoveries. Thanks to the ravages of the fire, all the lead had melted from the roof thereby exposing a layer of seashells which the Tudors had used as a means of sound insulation!

Following the PSA Sylvia started her own practice and one of her own projects was the conversion of a pub in Cliffe, formerly the Black Bull, into two houses. While Sylvia retained much of the original Victorian architecture, she blended in modern features and created lots of contemporary style space. Although she says it herself, she was very pleased with the end result. Indeed, she and Pete would have moved in if they could have afforded it!

Having enjoyed the challenge of the Black Bull project, she then decided to look for a further plot that she could develop. There were a number of false starts, this was after all the boom years of the early nineties and the property market was flying, but eventually she heard about a plot which was part of a large garden of a house in Southborough. What she wasn't told was that the plot was on an incredibly steep slope! But Sylvia has never been one to walk away from a challenge and so, undaunted, they completed the sale and she and Pete found they had taken their first steps into the cut and thrust world of property development. It wasn't until the house was almost finished that they realised it had moved beyond being a business proposition. Too much of themselves had been lovingly poured into the project and three years ago they moved in.

When you walk through the front door - the one with the round glass window - you are hit by a blast of white light. All the walls in this house - with one exception - are white and they create a perfect background for the striking pictures, many of which are by their friend the artist Paul Robinson, that are hung around the house.

The living room at the top of the house features the only wall that is not white - it is, in fact, a shade of salmon pink that took many attempts to get just right! It's a very simple and restful room, filled with some stunning pieces of elegant and understated furniture. The huge comfortable sofas are Charles by Citterio from B&B Italia - evidently a favourite store. These are complemented by a tall back oak chair that is a copy of a Charles Rennie Mackintosh design and a black leather Wassily chair by Marcel Bruer. The G-Plan coffee table is an original! In fact, it belonged to Sylvia's mum, and the white lamp is an Atollo by Magistretti. Sylvia and Pete explain that they don't spend much time in this room, but at this point I hadn't been downstairs, so I hadn't really appreciated why not.

The other room at the top of the house is Pete's studio where he enjoys writing, teaching the guitar and recording music and planning for the music lessons he gives at a number of local schools. It's easy to imagine fun times in this room, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison belting it out, and what man wouldn't want a fully kitted out recording studio at the top of the house?

The house is built over three different levels to accommodate the sloping terrain and, back down the stairs, you enter the main living room come kitchen that is the heart of this extraordinary home. Wow! Sylvia has created a space that maximises the views across the wonderful community woods that secretly wrap around many of the houses in this area . You very much get the impression that you are hovering above ground level - it's like being aboard the Starship Enterprise!

Such a spectacular space called for a pretty spectacular kitchen - and again Sylvia has pulled it off in true style. As a teacher in London, she would sometimes take her students to B&B Italia, the uber-stylish retail emporium for lovers of all things Italian in the Brompton Road. There she would show them the stainless-steel kitchens, never quite imagining that one day she might own one! When it became apparent that they were going to keep and live in the house, Sylvia went back to the store and on discovering that architects - trade - got a substantial discount, the deal was done and the units were ordered. It's not until you look closely that you realise this unit, called Arclinea, effortlessly wraps around the whole kitchen area and includes the sinks, hob, table, lighting, cupboards - everything. It is spectacular, not a handle, knob or hinge to detract from its slick Italian contours. But being eminently practical, I am intrigued as to how Sylvia keeps such a large expanse of stainless steel so spotless and shiny and she tells me it's all down to a microfibre E-cloth!

The other end of the room opens on to a balcony with spectacular views across the tops of the trees to Bidborough church. The building inspector wasn't very happy about the open mesh materials being used for the balcony, but Sylvia knew they were crucial to allow all the light to flow into the room, beside which she didn't think she had any friends who wore high-heeled shoes!

The ground floor of the house features three bedrooms and two bathrooms, all painted white to create a very peaceful, cool environment. What would have been, had they sold the house, the master bedroom is now used by Sylvia as her work studio. It's a wonderful light room full of architectural plans, sketchings and fascinating collages, the latter have long been a passion. The room opens out onto a sunny decked area, with a crescent-shaped water feature that is evidently much appreciated by the cats. The back wall is painted a vibrant purple colour. Sylvia tells me it used to be white but she suddenly felt it could be more Mexican - not surprisingly it took three attempts to get exactly the right shade.

The rest of the garden is laid to grass with some interesting grasses and shrubs. Here again, the building inspector wanted railings to prevent people falling from the grassy bank down into the decking area, but Sylvia's response was to import huge black sculptural lumps of slate from Wales. It serves the purpose and looks fabulous.

As Sylvia explained, most architectural issues can be overcome with a bit of vision and this house is certainly testament to someone who has it in abundance.

Sylvia's Address Book

  • words Jane Howard
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Cherry Whytock