x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Extravagance in the English countryside

With a view the owner says "took my breath away", this house was designed around its English countryside setting.

Vibrant splashes of colour are achieved through furnishing and decoration rather than paint.
Vibrant splashes of colour are achieved through furnishing and decoration rather than paint.

The surrounding English countryside inspired the design of this contemporary home. Words by Maggie Colvin. Photos by Johnny Bouchier

The view across 48 kilometres of undulating hills and meadows is a rare asset for any property in the South of England. It was the "view to die for" that Maddie Griffin first sighted while walking her dog, Barney, in open countryside near East Grinstead. She says it "took my breath away. I remember thinking the house looked in poor condition and was sited a bit too near to the road, but what a fantastic south-facing location." The house had been built in the 1960s and when it came up for sale a few years later, she and her husband, Nick, set their hearts on buying it - for the site alone.

"On the premise we should be able to get planning permission to demolish and start from scratch, we went ahead," says Nick, who remembers their first excitement, although he prefers to forget the later planning trials and tribulations. "It was a huge, expensive, challenging project, but enjoying the house as much as we do now, of course we feel it was all worthwhile.

"The initial planning was exciting once we had found the right architect, Nathaniel Gee. He had built a similar size of house in the area and knew what the planners would approve of. This was a big plus. He suggested a stone structure, a slate roof with oak joinery that blended with the site and complemented other houses nearby."

Nick wanted a contemporary, green and maintenance-free house. "Our heating is provided by a ground source heat pump and on every other score the architect interpreted what we asked for and really expanded our initial vision. And we, in turn, trusted him."

The most important part of the Griffins' brief was to maximise the view, orienting all the main rooms around it. Gee says working with a sloping site was an advantage. "Because the ground sweeps dramatically away it was possible to create two levels on the more traditional north-facing entrance elevation. For the south side, the design took on a more contemporary style with a lot of glazing and a third level, the basement. There is a swimming pool, sauna and gym at ground level."

A wall of glazed sliding doors opens to link the indoor pool area with a terrace partly enclosed by banks of bulrushes. On the ground floor above is a balcony spanning the width of the living room space and on the top floor are bedrooms with more balconies, each enclosed by glass barriers so as not to impede the view.

Maddie and Nick agree that the best design decision was the extravagant living room space, a three-storey volume topped by a barrel vaulted ceiling. "Some people might say this was a waste of space," Nick says, "but it is the essential one-off feature that elevates the house into a league of its own. The internal space feels light and airy - all the rooms flow into each other and the internal aerial views onto the sitting area from the gallery above are amazing." Tucked below the gallery is a more intimate space for the dining room table and chairs.

A snug sitting room and office for Maddie was another priority. "I knew we would need some small intimate rooms in contrast to the big space."

When it came to furnishing, Maddie realised her old furniture simply would not fit and had to go. "It was just not modern enough," she says. "I took inspiration from Sydney and San Francisco houses and the spa at One Aldwych in London influenced the pool design." She admits it was not easy because the scale of the house demanded such large pieces. A chance drive past the Roche Bobois showroom in Wandsworth brought the sitting room furniture to her attention and other pieces came together slowly.

In order to keep the focus on the large spaces and the view, all the walls in the house are white. Bright, vibrant colours have been introduced in deliberately controlled splashes. "I love colour and we brought back a roll of silk and other treasures from a trip to India," Maddie says. "I think we need more paintings, but Nick enjoys the amazing reflections of sunlight, which I have to say show up best on blank walls. We will fine tune the house I am sure. But a lack of clutter is vital."

In the meantime, it would be hard to find more satisfied and happy new house owners. Maddie says, "Friends and almost complete strangers have offered to house-sit when we are away and my son often comes down with his friends. It is proof of the pudding, as the saying goes. Everybody is amazed by the originality of this house."