How I built my three treehouses in Nairobi's Karen

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It was a swamp, based at the bottom of a steep-sloped ravine before Jonny Dwek took an interest in using the space in Nairobi's Karen to build a tree house to call his home. After eight years, and about Sh14.3 million ($100,000), his quirky but chic home sits in the serene neighbourhood.

“Initially, the space had been the site of a disaster. One night it had rained so heavily that a neighbour fell on our land and took out eight trees leaving what had been a jungle into an open space,” Dwek tells BDLife of his treehouse residence.

“That is when we decided to turn the disaster into an opportunity to build the tree house,” he added, summing up the practical, constructive spirit of the man.

Dwek admitted he is neither an architect nor a contractor, but he was not going to let the lack the professional credentials impede his plan.

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Jonny Dwek poses for a photo at his residence in Karen, Nairobi on February 21, 2024. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

“I believe that if someone has an idea that they want to do, they simply have to stick with it, no matter how many obstacles come along the way until they make the idea a reality”.

And being the son of a professional gambler, he is not averse to the idea of taking risks.

Claiming he was ‘conservative’ when he built his first home with assistance from a contractor. It was also on land that several friends got together and bought in 2008 when he first came to Kenya from the UK. But this one, one acre, was at the top of the ravine.

It was there that he tried out the high-vaulted ‘cathedral’ ceiling, something he would bring to his tree house. Due to family issues, he had to sell his shares in that house and begin planning to construct a second house.

He would not get started on that one, however, until he went to India since he wanted some of the Asiatic influence in the house he would eventually call shangrilla. That one would be a long seven-bedroomed white-walled space complete with a swimming pool set of five acres that Dwek seemed to construct to sell. 

“It will go on the market in July,” he said, admitting he had never spent much time in that place despite featuring beautifully carved window frames and doors that would also go into his tree house.

When Dwek finally got to work on his tree house, the first thing that went in was the 25-foot mangrove wooden stilts. These would protect the house if the nearby Mbagathi River came flooding over into his land. After that, his priority was building a fireplace in the centre of his simple design.

“I just drew a rectangle, then a line dividing the space equally, and make one side the living room, the other the bedroom,” he said, describing the simple process of designing his space. “I also designed a double-sided fireplace so that both rooms would be warm during the cold winter months,” he says.

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An aerial shot of Jonny Dwek’s kitchen area in Karen, Nairobi on February 21, 2024. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

Then would come the issue of weight. His carpenter Sylvester was prepared to put in the floorboards again using hard mangrove wood. But first Dwek would have to find someone who could help him build a rectangular steel-poled A-frame that would enable him to put in all the items he wanted. He found that someone who builds high-vaulted tents for large corporate and marital events.

“I was building my tree house for my children who live half the year in London with their mother and half with me,” said Dwek who constructed two more tree houses, one for Zack, 18 the other for Coco, 4.

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They are adjoined to his house with corridors and hand-carved bannisters which his partner Holly said were also ‘baby-proof’ since their newborn baby boy, Cosmos will be walking soon so his needs were also considered in the house’s construction. Each house followed the same format. There was a steel-poled, square A-frame basing each house.

All three houses have a makuti grass-thatched roof, which was one of Dwek’s priorities, comparable to his other ‘impossible’ need for a brick fireplace. “I got a team together from the Coast who came and spent a month here building my roof as well as the other two,” he recalls.

We wondered if he wasn’t a bit concerned about having makuti so close to a fireplace, but he wasn’t worried. “It’s eight years later and we are still good,” he adds.

What was more important to him was for his tree house to blend in with nature, which he feels it has.

What was equally important to him was for his children to have the freedom of living in that nature and not be constrained by society’s petty priorities. Having their private rooms was also important to Dwek. That way, he said they could have their own space while coming to what doubled as a bedroom, and dining room for meals that Dwek cooked himself.

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A bedroom in Jonny Dwek’s house in Karen, Nairobi on February 21, 2024. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

“I love cooking, and cooking for them using a gas stove [located in the living room-kitchen] is also fun since we made a small patio outside the living room which is where we often have breakfast together,” he said.

He has managed to create several ‘additions’ outside the rectangular design. They include a tiny loo [bathroom] off the bedroom and another walkway out to a larger bathroom which has also been constructed using a steel-poled A-frame.

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There is where Dwek has brought in not one but two old-fashioned bathtubs held up with claw toes probably from a fantastical gargoyle.

“We also put in a sauna which is heated [jua kali style] with a wood-fuelled jiko,” he adds, noting he has cosy, carpeted seating space and even a library filled with books in all the tree houses.

So however eccentric it might seem for a man from abroad to come here and live in a tree house, Jonny Dwek has made himself and his family a happy and comfortable home.

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