Sandy Rendel Architects’ new house on the South Downs is elegant and liveable – and could have been bigger
The feeling I get about Bury Gate Farm does not come naturally. The project is a new house designed by Sandy Rendel Architects near Pulborough in West Sussex. It is in the South Downs National Park on the flat Wealden Greensand before the ridge rises sharply and dramatically, a great humpback. Peeping at it through a hedge from down a long field, the house sits almost isolated in its spacious setting – meadow in front, a backdrop of mature oak woodland. The owners’ original 1930s country home is just out of view to the south-east, hidden by foliage. My feeling is that it is occasionally a shame that self-building a home in the UK has become so complicated and expensive, because Bury Gate Farm could, and perhaps should, have been bigger.
The house took a year in planning, five in construction and completed in June. But it’s not that. The house is a five-bay stacked colonnade, book-ended by chimneys. From that distant position you can’t see the rough aggregate finish of the concrete columns, nor the fine framing of the floor-to-ceiling glazing. However, the grid is slightly squat, deliberately diminutive in the landscape. More generosity with the scale would set off the building and its setting, making them that bit more resplendent.
The house is designed as it is because of geology. The Wealden Greensand – clay soil on sandstone bedrock – has always been unproductive, leading to its recreational use. The gentry built their farmsteads on the productive land to the west and houses here. As a result, the landscape is spotted with small and large country homes. Bury Gate Farm evolves that architectural heritage. It meets those qualities, which is why it could be bigger. The building’s contemporary portico faces the Downs in the same way, and it deserves more presence like them.
It isn’t a small house, of course. The building you see from the field is 459m², then there is a 50m² annexe and 73m² garage behind. The owner, a former building contractor, lived next door for 35 years and bought it 25 years ago. When Rendel got to the project in 2016, the existing bungalow had been demolished and the piling mat for a larger pitched roof house in a Wealden vernacular was already down. But the client had a change of heart and approached the practice having seen its Corten and glass South Street house in Lewes at the other end of the national park. The client wanted to broadly keep the layout, but explore different articulation.
The previous design had obtained planning permission relatively easily. This one didn’t. The proposal went to committee, and it was fraught. ‘We submitted the project to the South Downs National Park Design Review Panel,’ explains Rendel. ‘That’s not normally something we would do for a scheme this size.’ The panel is led by Allies and Morrison’s Graham Morrison and was instrumental in the house getting permission. The design review panel showed the design met the criteria – including being smaller than the previous design. There was no way the local authority could object – but it was concerned by views from the South Downs Way, three miles away. The gate at the end of the meadow where we looked through was removed as part of the permission. So the house is not seen.
Evidently, I think it’s regrettable. To the landscape is the formal facade. The plan strings the principal rooms – kitchen family room, double-height hall and formal living room downstairs, master and family bedrooms above – along this south-facing elevation, stepping forwards and down the site from the north-east to south-west and fronted by the double colonnade. To the rear, the plan breaks into more informal components with a wing containing the WC, utility and plant room on the ground floor and guest bedrooms above. Beyond is the annexe, arranged as two main spaces and a shower room, as well as the garage and store. This is the view on approach from the horseshoe driveway; a cluster of stacked and slipped volumes more usual for a contemporary house.
The arrangement, however, is suggestive of the refined architecture of nearby parkland houses. A porte cochère through the garage leads to a courtyard parking area, log store and electric charging – essentially a modern stable yard. A single-storey cloister winds around the annexe so you can park up and arrive at the front door without getting wet if it’s raining. Inside, the house opens into a great hall that twists the orientation of the view towards the Downs for the first time through floor-to-ceiling glazing. The chunky concrete columns step past – a sensation that is continued through all the main rooms.
Everywhere is suggestive of both grandness and informality that sit in balance. Fine pieces of antique furniture transported from the clients’ previous home sit alongside steel handrails, concrete ceilings, a slab front and granite kitchen, sheets of glass and slim glazing frames. This successful outcome appears to be a result of the craftsmanship and knowledge of traditional techniques that have been embedded into the fabric of the building – by Rendel but also by the client.
Externally, the brick was chosen to closely match the colour of the local buff Fittleworth stone. The columns use that stone as aggregate. The brick is pointed using lime and Flemish bond, with detail vertical brick detailing. Brick returns on the window openings minimise the frames. Internally, the walls are lime plaster. Floors and main doors are oak, like the surrounding trees. The halfback stair is lit by a west-facing window and lands in a central galleried landing. There is even some 1970s sustainable tech. In a house like this, electricity-only, super-insulated and low-energy in use, a woodburning stove is not necessary. However, for the client, it is an essential part of living in the countryside. The double-sided surround is large, but the actual unit is small, and its energy captured to heat hot water.
The thinking behind this project is so good, I’d have liked to see more of it.
Predicted on-site energy generation (kWh/yr) 13,700
EPC A-rated (110)