When Puli Liyanagama returned to Peckham in 2016, it was with a muddled sense of home.

The tech entrepreneur, who spent his formative years in his native Sri Lanka, was back from a stint in Barcelona, but had also lived in California and spent six years in Canterbury.

“I’d had a look in Dulwich and Greenwich, but hadn’t really found anything I liked, until an estate agent showed me a place that was literally across the street from my old one-bedroom flat,” says Liyanagama.

It was by all accounts “a very straightforward Victorian house”, with three bedrooms and living spaces laid out in the usual fashion. The previous owners had lived there since the Sixties but had upped sticks for the south coast.

He did some initial work that first year, but the pandemic presented the typical existential questions about long-term living arrangements.

“I wanted to create a home that connected with my Sri Lankan background and was aesthetically appealing,” says Liyanagama. “I’d done the side return when I first moved in, but it had this low ceiling, and I was looking for volume. Empty space is one of the most beautiful things to me.”

In late 2020, an Instagram recommendation threw up a project concept by Neil Dusheiko Architects. The pair connected and found kinship in their love of Geoffrey Bawa, a Sri Lankan architect who was instrumental in defining the country’s tropical modernism movement. Liyanagama had grown up next to one of his buildings.

“I’ve always been interested in architects who worked with a kind of vernacular modernism, like Luis Barragán in Mexico, Glenn Murcutt in Australia and Oscar Niemeyer in Brazil,” explains Dusheiko. So how to transplant the spirit of tropical modernism to Peckham, in a way that avoided awkward pastiche? “It’s about wider principles — I don’t think any of Bawa’s work has double-glazing, for example.”

Keen to respect the home’s historical fabric, Liyanagama enlisted Dusheiko for a “radical rethink” that would maximise light and volume without changes to the frontage, fireplaces, staircase or original flooring. Carving out straightforward square footage was a low priority. “I was living on my own at the time and wasn’t really looking for a huge amount of space.”

The Victorian house was still a relative novelty to South Africa-born Dusheiko, who founded his practice in 2009.

“I grew up in Johannesburg where it’s all gated communities with security gates, but every Victorian house has got a front door on the street and a window you can see straight through, so to me they speak of democracy and openness. I love all the detailing — I’m looking at the beauty of it through a foreigner’s eyes”.

If not for the (now triple-glazed) bay window, it would be easy to lose all stored knowledge of Victorian composition once inside. The renovation has scooped up the extra space from the side return extension Liyanagama oversaw in 2016, but only goes a metre or so into the garden, instead focusing on a soaring central volume illuminated by a series of skylights.

Dusheiko’s plainest ode to Sri Lanka is a remarkable living wall that pulls focus from the covetable brushed steel kitchen. Fed by a nutrient tank in the basement, it’s a towering tangle of peace lilies, calatheas, pothos and other native plants. “My initial idea was to have the Victorian elements almost disappear into an overgrown jungle, Sleeping Beauty-style.”

In their element

What it cost

Bathroom: £35k + VAT which includes £12,000 for a teak bath and £3,500 for an Antonio Lupi shower head with a light

Windows: £75k + VAT, for a mixture of modern glazing, triple glazing existing windows, bay windows, glass balustrades and skylights

Flooring: £35k + VAT, a mixture of restoring the existing floors, new Dinesen floors, polished plaster for the bathrooms and cork for the loft

Garden: £70k + VAT + fees by Sheila Jack

Total contract Sum: £820k + VAT (Not including the kitchen, three-storey sculpture, concrete floor, glass doors to the garden and landscape design, which would bring the costs to approximately £1 million + VAT)

This sense of encroaching nature has a certain nostalgia for Liyanagama. “One of my favourite places to go as a child was this little hotel called Kandalama,” he says. “It’s built around this natural rock, while being quite respectful of the nature and landscape around it. Parts of the rock are incorporated into the building, which is remarkable to experience.”

While lines are blurred between indoor and out, the house takes pleasure in the contrast of materials. Terracotta tiles stitch together the original Victorian floorboards with the polished plaster of the new-look kitchen, which is swathed in an inky tactile resin made from crushed castor beans.

Full width-glazing makes a star of the garden by designer Sheila Jack, which reveals the charred timber at the back of the house.

Two steel columns, which connect with a beam in a U-shape, are doing most of the structural heavy lifting (in the spirit of Victorian conservation, the corniced arch was then carefully reinstated). The approach facilitates a series of floating balconies upstairs, all with striking sight lines into the central volume and a three-dimensional artwork by artist SODA.

“We had an amazing structural engineer,” offers Dusheiko. And indeed the house, dubbed House of the Elements, appears to defy the laws of physics. The unconventional stepped levels feature so few doors that a sprinkler system had to be installed to meet fire regulations.

Liyanagama, meanwhile, is blasé about the loss of the third bedroom. “The objective of the project was not to increase the value of the property. I’m not interested in putting it back on the market.”

Instead, the focus was on creating a series of spaces that would supplement the two newly defined bedrooms, from a generous dressing area and library to a cork-tiled workspace carved from the roof space.

Chunky Bakelite switches suggest this serial start-up founder is still charmed by the analogue. “I have enough tech in my life — I don’t need more in the house,” he laughs. Baked-in software doesn’t tend to age elegantly, he adds.

He has allowed himself one digital indulgence in the downstairs bathroom, contained in a standalone cube, though it’s not a Japanese toilet or app-powered shower: instead, a tiled QR code pulls up the Wikipedia page for the coconut. “My dad worked as a botanist for the Coconut Research Institute in Sri Lanka. I had to have some hidden coconuts somewhere.”

It’s a moment of surprise in a house full of them, from zingy chartreuse cupboard interiors to an orange lightning bolt designed as a wink to the “Thunder” name of the plaster shade.

Yet the greatest surprise was unplanned: “At three or four o’clock, the light from the front reflects off the edges of the glass and casts rainbow patterns onto the artwork. It’s remarkable.”

Liyanagama, who now shares the house with his partner and rescue cats Croutons and Queen, has just marked his first year here. His latest project is the release of insects into the living wall, which will help cultivate a thriving ecosystem.

“Whenever I’m around greenery I feel calmer, more peaceful. It feels like home.” neildusheiko.com

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2024-06-19T05:04:02Z dg43tfdfdgfd