Heart of glass

Mike Nathenson is sorry to be leaving his latest project, the Glass Stables in north London. And with its four-storey light shaft, exotic plantings and sleek furniture, it's easy to see why, says Mary Wilson
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The Independent Online

Although all of the houses and apartments Mike Nathenson builds are different, they have a quality that is instantly recognisable as one of his properties. Every one has indoor planting, an internal waterfall, a white or neutral palette and is fully furnished. "My philosophy is that the homes I build should be of the best quality and that they should be furnished. How can you finish a building without placing furniture, how can you know where the plug points should be?" he says.

Although all of the houses and apartments Mike Nathenson builds are different, they have a quality that is instantly recognisable as one of his properties. Every one has indoor planting, an internal waterfall, a white or neutral palette and is fully furnished. "My philosophy is that the homes I build should be of the best quality and that they should be furnished. How can you finish a building without placing furniture, how can you know where the plug points should be?" he says.

Mike, who is a bundle of energy and enthusiasm, was born in Philadelphia, studied psychology and then educational technology. "For five years I used my academic skills in Washington DC, then I went to south east Asia, training officials to educate children cost-effectively" he says.

His son, Ely, who has worked with him for many years, was seven months old at the time. They came to the UK and spent 18 years in Milton Keynes, Mike having been recruited by the Open University. He started dabbling in property, scraping together the means to buy his first Hampstead house, which he bought for £105,000, did up and sold at a profit, dragging Ely around with him until his early twenties. "Then I thought I could retire and went to Hawaii, where Ely helped me build a fabulous house but after three years I was bored and I came back to the UK. That was eight years ago," he says. From that time on, he has carved a niche for himself in north London building superbly finished homes through his firm, Unique Environments.

Ely continued working with his father, as well as running his own business, but this is their last job together. "I am going to run our new shop, called the same name as the company, in Florence Road in Islington, as well as continuing other building projects on my own," Ely says.

"We always fully furnish all our houses and make much of the furniture and furnishings. Many people have asked where they can buy bits and pieces, so we decided to open a showcase for them. We also talked to our suppliers and they liked the idea of showing their wares in a 'real' environment. The showroom is like a fully furnished apartment, where you can buy everything you see."

Their current project is The Glass Stables in Lancaster Stables, London NW3. These are two newly built houses in a mews in Belsize Park - one of which has just sold, the other is being constructed at the moment to be ready by Christmas.

"The mews are pretty horrible, but I believed we could do something to the building irrespective of the way it looked and the only way to make it nice was to turn it inwards," says Mike. To get more space he has excavated down to make four floors, with a roof terrace at the top. Not a cheap option, but one which has made all the difference to the way he could design the property.

The façade of both properties, which are side by side, is glass. The front door is through the original stable door opening which is now a large sliding glass door, on one side of which is a two metre high waterfall cascading down a sheet of glass, so it can be seen from the hallway, outside and the main bedroom above. Three stone water troughs are filled by the waterfall, which is lit at night, in front of which black bamboo is planted, visible from the outside. Quite a dramatic entrance!

The top-floor living room has a sloping glass ceiling at the front and does not feel like being in Britain, let alone Belsize Park. It also has a rectangular sliding glass roof, which runs over the ceiling of the shower room, so that you can shower beneath, although not open to, the stars.

To bring light into the rear of the building, Mike has put in a four-storey light shaft, protected at the top by glass, but with air bricks so the plants can breathe. On the lower ground and ground floor in the bedrooms and bathrooms, there are Ficus longifolia - plants which need low light and on the upper floors in the reception room, which is on the second floor and the kitchen/dining room and third bedroom/study on the first floor are two layers of Trachelospermum jasminoides, or star jasmine. All are automatically irrigated and drained, which took a while for Mike to get functioning properly.

"I always live in my properties, once they are almost finished until the day they are sold," he tells me. "One of the things I discovered in this house was that the plumber had put in the wrong fittings in the self-irrigation system. We discovered the whole of the basement was flooded. And the security alarm had been wired incorrectly so it kept shorting and went off all the time."

He also believes that by living in a property, it gives a sense of life with real smells, looks and finishes. Mike and his long-suffering second wife, Angela, have lived in six of his houses in seven years, renting in between. Before they were married, he and Ely lived in 20 or so different homes.

All the materials used in his homes are of the very best quality sourced from all round the world. "I buy most of my furniture and taps from Italy, carpets and plants from Holland, kitchen appliances from Germany," he says. Bathrooms are in limestone, basins might be in rubber or wood and several of the shower walls are finished in a special Venetian plaster, "which looks fabulous, but never looks the same", says Mike.

The clever stuff - the waterfall, the planters, the large internal doors (which are glazed with solid English oak frames), the fireplace and wine drawers - has been designed by Unique Environments. He also uses reclaimed materials where possible. "The decking on the roof terrace of these houses is antique Burmese teak and comes from Great Portland Street Hospital."

Mike has also left the underneath of the stairs down to the basement open, because he thinks they look so beautiful. "It took four men four days to hand plaster the stairs," he says. The company has its own joiner, metal worker, glass people and a coterie of four builders, who come up from Kingsbridge in Devon during the week and stay in a flat he rents for them. "They have worked for me for the last eight years and are brilliant," he enthuses.

What he doesn't go for is high-tech gizmos. "They're a waste of money and no one uses them," except for the lighting, which can be simply programmed to different settings and two Genvex ventilation systems, which run fresh air through the house, rather than 'conditioning' it.

Goldschmidt & Howland (020-7435 4404) handled the marketing of the four-bedroom house , which sold for £2.25 million.

www.uniquenvironments.co.uk

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