Architect Alan Metcalfe is a bit taken with tree houses. He first entranced area residents when his firm designed The Little Treehouse in Chestnut Hill, a café where parents and wee ones happily play and eat together, and later with something more grown-up, the wildly popular tree canopy walk for the Morris Arboretum. So when two empty-nesters wanted to start a new phase in their lives, Metcalfe, principal of the Philly-based Metcalfe Architecture & Design (211 N. 13th St., Ste. 503, 215-557-9200), returned to his unfailing inspiration for a home design that invites the outdoors inside.
His clients, Barbara and David Seidenberg, had lived in a traditional colonial-style house on a cul-de-sac in Whitemarsh Township, where they raised their two sons. The couple were looking for a home in a tranquil natural setting, private but not isolated, and their realtor found the ideal spot for them, just six minutes away in Conshohocken. “The setting sold us,” says Barbara, an avid gardener, who also liked the fact that the house reflected their modern tastes.
It was part of a collection of California-style kit houses by TechBuilt—“They literally show up in a box,” says Metcalfe—that were constructed by architect William Hough Jr. in 1955. But the simple gable-roofed home, built into a hill, didn’t take advantage of its setting in the trees. “The original builders managed to do this development without ruining the landscape,” marvels Metcalfe, who envisioned gorgeous views for his total rehab of the property.
The house had an addition tacked on in 1970 and no air-conditioning. Metcalfe’s redesign pushed the upper level into the treetops, transforming it into a home in the sky, with expanded second-floor living space and a renovated living room and bedrooms. “They also wanted to add a master bedroom and bath that took advantage of the setting,” says Metcalfe, who used sustainable materials and created more windows for the couple to enjoy their vantage point.
The architect wanted the home to be the antithesis of a typical development house, with its tall, self-important entry. The new entry—which he calls “the slice” because it’s between the original building and the addition—is a thin space with a tall ceiling and a continuous skylight. “I wanted guests to feel welcome and curious right when they entered the house.”
Adjacent to the living room is an open kitchen, whose windows offer panoramic views of the greenery and stream below. But perhaps the design’s most unusual feature took some digesting: a dramatic glass-and-steel bridge that carries guests from the second-floor living space to the master suite. “I was a little indifferent to it, but David loved the idea,” says Barbara. The structure, fabricated by Bill Curran, features mill finish steel and has a glass floor, so light passes right through it. “It’s almost like a moat,” says Metcalfe. “I wanted it to feel up and away. You can look down on the rest of the people in the house from this bridge or look out into the woods and the stream beyond.”
The master suite is a spacious, light-filled oasis with clerestory windows and eight-foot glass doors that open onto a cantilevered balcony. The bedroom evokes feelings of peace and solitude. “It’s their version of a tree house,” Metcalfe says. “It feels like you’re floating above the branches.”
For Metcalfe, there’s no end to this love of play and nostalgia in the home. “Baby boomers are yearning for their children to return to the innocence of their own childhoods,” he says, “when your mom would open the door and you would disappear for the day. Tree houses are icons for places that provide that feeling.” A boomer himself, Metcalfe is currently working on his own home’s third-floor renovation, making it more tree house–like. It will have a glass door that opens onto a holly tree in his front yard. As he explains, “The only way to get to know nature better is to see it up close."