A Home with a History: Regency redux in West Sussex
Taking his renovation of a Georgian farmhouse near Arundel as his touchpaper, architect Tom Turner talks to us about the importance of looking to the past when it comes to reimagining homes for the future
- Interior photography
- Jim Stephenson
- Exterior photography
- Tom Turner
What is the anatomy of a Georgian house? For architect Tom Turner, it’s an interesting question. “Of course, there’s the layout, the scale, the symmetry and the proportions,” he says, “ and the details too – sash windows, say, and mouldings.” But above all? “It’s the adaptability. There’s something about Georgian buildings that, with a bit of gentle cajoling, makes sense today.” There are few similarities between 2023 and 1823 – but a compelling one is that “the spaces from that time still work beautifully.”
That gentle cajoling is very much Tom’s thing. “I’ve always been interested in bridging traditional buildings and the architecture of the day,” he explains – though he hasn’t always worked on historic projects. “Until I set up on my own, I worked for a very contemporary practice. I was a bit of an anomaly in the office – ordering books on vernacular buildings and the Arts and Crafts movement,” he laughs. “There was a bit of a disconnect.” It was only when the project you see here came along in 2017 that Tom was afforded the opportunity to explore his interests more fully.
The 1830s farmhouse, near Arundel in rural Sussex, was a bit of a wreck. A young family had bought it and needed some help reimagining the Grade II-listed building in a way that made sense for modern life. “You could feel the potential,” Tom explains, but it was hidden – often literally. “There were carpets in every room, chipboard on the walls, Artex – complete with asbestos – on the ceilings. And the garden was so overgrown it was beginning to envelop the house.”
Architects on heritage buildings are in many ways problem-solvers, asking why something is the way it is – and how it could be better. Over the months that followed, Tom grappled with these questions. One of the biggest challenges, as he explains below, was working out where the kitchen should go. “Moving that space around comes with difficulties, particularly in listed buildings,” he says. But all the work it took to convince the planning officers was worth it. “It made the house usable and relevant,” he continues. “And if we want old houses to be looked after and part of our lives for a long time to come, that’s what needs to happen.”
“Starting out on this project, I spent a lot of time talking to the client about how they lived as a family and what they needed from their home. Our vision was happily aligned from the beginning – they were interested in natural finishes, light-filled spaces and well-connected rooms. It was quite at odds with what we were faced with: the couple who had lived here before had really only occupied one small corner of the house and everything was a little faded – not least the avocado suites in the bathrooms…
“The clients had seen similar projects in which a new kitchen/dining wing had been installed in an orangery. There was a conservatory here, which needed replacing, so we talked about going down that road, but I didn’t feel it was right. It was a big house and kitchens really are at the centre of family life; if the clients had put the kitchen out to the side like that, they would have ended up living on the fringes and not in the historic core of the building, which is what had first attracted to them.
“Unlocking the possibility of that came down to getting listed-building consent to move the kitchen to one of the larger central rooms. At that point, things got really interesting. I started doing lots of research into the house, looking at historical maps that showed us what it had looked like over time. Because it had been built by the Duke of Norfolk for a local landowner, there was a reasonably good record. I made an appointment with the current duke’s librarian and went rummaging in the archives at Arundel Castle. I eventually unearthed an early plan of the building, which showed the original room configuration – and that there had been some later additions and partitions. It was enough to convince the planners.
“I love that bit of my job. It’s like doing detective work – trying to unpick the history, read the clues, find the evidence. You have to look at the existing fabric and work out if it’s original. We did masses of research on the Regency period for this project and found that reeded mouldings were very popular at the time; that knowledge gave us the impetus to use the reeded ones we found in-situ as our masters when it came to reconstructing missing bits.
“We did have to significantly adapt a few things. There were too many bathrooms but no principal suite, for instance, and the former ancillary quarters built for servants and coachmen, which were in wings either side of the house, were no longer relevant, so we converted them to office spaces, guest rooms and an annexe flat. We pulled up most of the floors to reveal original flags and boards beneath. A cold store became a pantry and the old kitchen became a bootroom, with each family member allocated their own cupboard, which was quite nifty. We also reconfigured the parking situation, so that views of the Downs weren’t marred by cars. Now the clients enter through a relatively modest back door, rather than through the grand façade. In today’s more modest age, that seems to make more sense.
“Managing the finances on this project was very interesting. As I say, it was a big house and funds weren’t endless, which naturally affected the way we made decisions. Budgeting is ultimately an exercise in priorities – and modernising the electrics and plumbing in the main house was vital in making this place habitable, but at first we didn’t do that in the former service wings. We decided not to renovate the conservatory, and the plan for a swimming pool was eventually put on ice.
“While making those choices can feel like a shame at the time, I feel strongly that it’s better to compromise on such plans than to compromise on the finishes of the things you are committed to. It’s far more important you end up with a floor you like, for instance, or the joists that need replacing are done so properly, than the extra rooms get done. If those areas can survive without being tended to for a few more years, you can leave them and come back to them. That’s preferable to having to redo something a few years down the line because you didn’t do it well enough the first time.
“We worked with a brilliant builders who were well-versed in local construction traditions and materials, which was great. Having a foreman you can trust leads to a great dynamic. But another thing that made this project so rewarding was all that research. At university I was taught very little about the history of architecture and I’ve since always tried to plug that knowledge gap. Our practice is first and foremost interested in architecture in context with its locale and in making authentically British buildings. You can do that in a modern way with reconfigured materials, just as you can with older structures.
“The word ‘pastiche’ is often used in a derogatory way, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. If the work we’re doing is authentic – properly done, with historical reference and research behind it – I have no problem with copying original details from one area and combining them with contemporary ones from another. For me, what matters is why you’re doing it. If you can justify it, that’s all that matters.”
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