Nithurst Farm – an architect's home that's all an allusion

Words:
Hugh Pearman

From a medieval great hall via Palladio to classic movies, references abound in the house that Adam Richards built for his family in deepest Sussex

The south-east is not necessarily overcrowded – this replacement house is in the South Downs National Park.
The south-east is not necessarily overcrowded – this replacement house is in the South Downs National Park. Credit: Brotherton Lock

Everyone, I feel, should have their own secret rural valley. I know that this is not a practicable proposition, nor an especially sociable sentiment, but it’s an agreeable fantasy. And if you can build your own house in your valley, pleasing nobody but yourself, then that is surely a reasonable stab at creating an earthly paradise for yourself. 

Nithurst Farm in Sussex, which has been shortlisted for RIBA House of the Year, is just such an exercise: a house by and for an architect – Adam Richards – and his family. Richards, you may remember, is the architect of the Ditchling Museum, also in Sussex, which drew rave reviews in 2013. His emerging promise was shown by another, smaller house for clients, Mission Hall – again Sussex – in 2010-11 which Richards described as ‘contemporary versions of a classical temple and a gothic chapel fight it out on a brick plinth’ (RIBAJ, October 2011).  Allusion and historical reference is key to his work, as you might expect from someone who – before setting up his own practice in 2002, at first specialising in commercial interiors but gradually expanding into domestic and cultural projects – had worked for Niall McLaughlin, MacCormac Jamieson Prichard and O’Donnell & Tuomey. A grounding in lyrical architecture, therefore. 

Nithurst Farm is a house so packed with allusion and references that one feels slightly unworthy trying to unpick it all. In the interior there is inspiration from classic films, specifically Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ and Powell & Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death’. On the exterior you can see it as a twin-funnelled steamboat, puffing due south in Fitzcarraldo fashion straight towards a hill, the slightly tumbledown farm outbuildings bobbing in its wake.  The boat, however, is also a kind of baroque folly – Vanbrugh is mentioned, with internal nods to Lutyens (the visually denied access) and Palladio (his plan of the Villa Barbaro). In another reading it is a Roman villa: though more vertically than horizontally arranged and not open to the sky, it certainly has a lofty atrium at its heart. But wait – this is also a medieval great hall. Confused? Again Richards has a pithy phrase to explain it all: ‘an industrial ruin wrapped in a Roman ruin’.

This is close to the truth, for it is an in-situ concrete building – raw on the inside, just as it came out of the shuttering – over which first copious insulation, then the freestanding brick carapace are slid like thick garments. The square-headed window openings on the inside coincide with but do not match the arched versions on the outside flanks, so you get to see both sides of the brickwork. The tall south-facing elevation, however, eschews arches in favour of large rectangular windows with solar-control glass – which seemed to be working on the hot summer’s day when I visited. The brick is relatively cheap but is treated as a precious material, laid by stonemasons rather than brickies with thick, flush lime-mortar joints. It steps in level by level. There’s a subtle go-faster-stripe effect too, where the darker brick of the arches on the flanks (taking the form of Diocletian windows on the two upper storeys) streams out behind them, adding to the illusion of movement. 

 

  • The concrete towers rising through the main space contain lesser spaces – here there is a small study.
    The concrete towers rising through the main space contain lesser spaces – here there is a small study. Credit: Brotherton Lock
  • South elevation is a grid composition dispensing with arches.
    South elevation is a grid composition dispensing with arches. Credit: Brotherton Lock
  • Basic brick, beautifully laid with thick flush mortar joints.
    Basic brick, beautifully laid with thick flush mortar joints. Credit: Brotherton Lock
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The setting is important. It is an under­appreciated fact (I speak as someone born and raised on the Kent-Sussex border) that there is an awful lot of properly rural ­ England south of London. It’s not all Range Rovers and security gates, especially when you get towards the South Downs (newest of our national parks, for which Richards serves on the design review panel). Haslemere and Guildford may not be that far to the north, Arundel and Chichester to the south, but in this fold in the hills, miles from any railway station, it is as agrarian and remote as you can imagine. You emerge from deep woodland-shaded lanes on to a farm track winding down through fields to the house with its older attendant outbuildings. Seeing it from above like this, the neatly organised dark grey shallow-pitch metal roofs come into play as an important compositional element.   

The house steps up from a chamfered single storey entrance pavilion at its stern to a three-storey mini-tower at its south-facing prow, commanded by the master bedroom. Or rather twin bedrooms, each with its dressing room, separated by the stair landing, linked by a bathroom behind it. ‘I snore,’ says Richards of this sleeping/bathing arrangement, adding: ‘It’s a potential Benny Hill sketch.’ These mirror-image rooms are angled slightly towards each other, the culmination of a tapering plan, internally a gentle exercise in false perspective organised around a longitudinal cut line. The stair rising to the enormous window between these bedrooms is inspired by the staircase to heaven in ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ – a family reference in that Richards’ own father was a pilot who died when Richards was a baby. For him the whole house represents a journey towards a spiritual destination. 

This is a big house: six bedrooms in all, seven if you count the master suite as two, plus that kitchen-dining-playing great hall and, up a half-level at the front, a large sitting room. With its multiple changes of level (it follows a rise in the land from north to south and the layout is such that there seem to be steps and stairs everywhere) this is not a house for the physically infirm. 

 

  • The south and west facing sitting room – note  view of inside of arch.
    The south and west facing sitting room – note view of inside of arch. Credit: Brotherton Lock
  • Puffing into the South Downs landscape.
    Puffing into the South Downs landscape. Credit: Brotherton Lock
  • West elevation: main entrance at the rear is deliberately downplayed.
    West elevation: main entrance at the rear is deliberately downplayed. Credit: Brotherton Lock
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The ‘great hall’, 4.5m high, is defined by six perimeter concrete forms, rising to towers as the house steps up. These contain servant spaces – utility, boot room, kitchen, study, larder, stairs, bathrooms. Richards plays the old compression-and-release game, in which you are squeezed through a small dark entrance hall before emerging into this large space, and again at its far end where you take dog-leg stairs to the light-drenched sitting room perched up at the south end.   Above those is a mezzanine looking back down the hall, while the level above that contains most of the bedrooms and a central landing from which the grand stair to heaven commences.

If this all sounds too heavily freighted with metaphor, really nobody but the architect needs to understand why it is the way it is: the rest of us simply see a highly unusual house containing a somewhat mysterious sequence of spaces and levels. In a way it is odd that it is brand new: for all the raw-concrete interior, this feels rather more like one of those ruins rescued by the Landmark Trust, with facilities shoehorned into various spaces and levels. It is instantly old, something reinforced by an eclectic selection of antique furniture, wall hangings and contemporary art. Tangential to most architectural norms, it successfully distils centuries of domestic living.


IN NUMBERS
0.45ha
site area
97m2
GIFA
6/7
bedrooms
2 years
construction period

Credits

Client Adam and Jessica Richards
Architect Adam Richards Architects
Structural engineer Structure Workshop
Services Engineer PR3
QS MPA
Main contractor 
Garsden Pepper

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