A London couple wanted to buy a second home as a retreat from the buzz of city life. They were looking for somewhere with amazing views and a connection with the landscape of the South Downs. They came across a small unremarkable nineteen fifties brick cottage, positioned within a stunning 12 hectare site. The position was exceptional, however the property did not suit their passion for modern architecture.
The homeowners explain: “When we found the site that we loved we knew that the existing house on the land would not suit us. The obvious decision was to build a new house in a way that, for us, would both maximise the views and meet our needs exactly.”
In 2012 they bought the property with the view to knock it down and build their dream home in its place.
The inspiration for the new home was the surrounding vista. The couple wanted a contemporary house that would sit neatly within the landscape. It needed to exploit the surrounding views and create a sense of bringing the outside indoors. Internally, a free flowing layout would meet their particular style preferences, as would the use of timber, stone and glass in both construction and finish.
Understanding their vision, the couple used the RIBA website to find their perfect architect. After interviewing six architectural practices whose work appealed to them, they then invited three of those practices to propose a building based on their ambitions.
They continue: "The architects’ responses to our brief, their initial interpretation of our needs and the way in which they worked with us during this process were all very important factors in picking the right architect for us. We chose Wilkinson King because of the quality of their previous work, their diligent and sensitive approach to our brief and their highly developed communication skills."
The main building work took 17 months, but the entire project – including all the design stages, demolition of the existing house, new construction, ancillary building and extensive landscaping – took two years. The budget was increased to include an anciliary building and landscaping, both of which weren’t accounted for in the original budget.
The team faced many challenging stages during the project, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome – such as the extra time and effort needed to ensure planning permission for such a contemporary design within this rural location. Another example was when the unpredictable UK weather flooded the site, resulting in the building work taking longer than originally anticipated.
The finished home is the perfect retreat from hectic London life. It is entered from an arrival courtyard and formal, landscaped garden on the north side. It is at this point that the first sight of the magnificent context is revealed and framed through a large glazed opening in the otherwise solid facade. Here the building is transparent, from front to back, connecting the garden with the meadow and the landscape beyond.
On entry a double height reception space introduces the first floor and its timber construction. This space acts as a winter garden with glass screens as wind breaks. The ground floor is glazed on the southern and western elevations so that the views can be enjoyed from the open plan living spaces. The kitchen can be screened by perforated felt sliding screens. The master bedroom, to the east, has a lowered sitting area and small private sunken courtyard garden which can also be directly overlooked from the bathroom. The views from each of the baths was an important part of the couple’s brief.
The first floor floats above the ground and provides shading, for the living spaces, from the summer sun. The first floor and roof construction is made entirely from cross laminated timber. The roof is made from a series of triangular tilted planes, which form a folded, undulating surface mimicking the distant hills. The fabrication of the CLT panels, with its sophisticated laser cutting technology, not only allowed this highly complex form to be made but was extremely cost effective. It took only 10 days to be erected on site.
These timber panels are expressed internally and also form the finished surfaces of the interior giving a warm and tactile quality to these more intimate spaces. The timber is treated using a translucent white lacquer to prevent the timber yellowing over time.
There are three bedrooms and a study, which overlook the double height space. The folded roof above each bedroom floats over the en suite bathroom. The bathroom walls stop below the ceiling allowing the entire surface to be read. Environmental separation is achieved using a glazed infill panel. The cantilevered timber stair brings the materiality of the first floor through the house to the basement.
The first floor exterior elevations are finished in western red cedar which weathers naturally over time to match the colour of the meadow grasses and the wood of the tall trees which surround the building. Sliding pocket windows and louvered shutters, on the southern elevation, are concealed within the timber facade.
Heating and hot water is provided by a biomass boiler located in an ancillary building on the other side of the arrival courtyard. The house is built to high environmental performance standards and is highly energy efficient, making best use of natural light and solar gain in the winter months.
The property recently won an RIBA Award in the South-East region, as well as a special award for Client of the Year.
The couple add: “The house is more than we could have expected it to be. The fact it has won several prestigious architectural awards demonstrates the success of the house, but for us, living in the house is better than our expectation. We are spending more time in Sussex than we had planned. The views from the house and garden are stunning and seeing out from various points, such as the upper floors through the double height area, is a delight each day.
“We absolutely love our garden, designed by Landscape Architect Andy Sturgeon. The way it connects to both the house and the landscape beyond is a triumph. We are looking forward to observing how it will mature over the years.
“Incorporating wood into the upper floors of the house was an important element for us from the beginning. The form of the wooden roof and how it is reflected inside the house is great. The best thing is that we can relax and enjoy the countryside around us.
“Looking back there isn’t really anything we would have done differently. I suppose a case could be made for employing an independent project manager.”
Offering some words of advice to anyone else looking to build their own home, they conclude: “Prepare in greater detail, and at an earlier stage, than you think you need to. It’s never too early to think about fittings, colour schemes, lighting and furniture layouts. The earlier you plan, the less decisions you will have to make under time pressure. Finding an architect and other consultants that you trust and that you will get along with is very important. Building a home is a long journey of decisions, frustrations and collaboration and it is important that you get on well. Don’t be afraid to ask the obvious questions to ensure that you are getting exactly what you think you are.”