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James Gorst’s Sandpipers house is a raucous celebration of family life

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Building study: This timber-framed Surrey home successfully marries a contemporary aesthetic with the everyday reality of sticky fingers, says James Hogan


In my experience, there are two types of home owners: ‘shoes on’ and ‘shoes off’. And I’ve never understood the latter.

We all know someone who treats their abode with such reverent, mollycoddled benevolence that they become consumed with panic at the slightest potential for contamination. Even a casual dinner party can’t get under way without the awkward ritual of a miniature striptease in the hallway, next to the utility room or that toilet stuffed under the stairs; rain from your umbrella dripping on to your socks. The hubris required to successfully will a piece of beautiful, domestic architecture into being can easily manifest itself in this sort of sterile devotion. If you’re not careful, the archetypal Modernist ‘show home’ can become a machine for exhibiting rather than a machine for living. 

Fortunately, James Gorst Architects’ latest residential endeavour is a raucous celebration of family life, marrying principal James Gorst’s considered, contemporary aesthetic with the evolving constraints of dogs, homework and sticky fingers. Despite being burdened with an impressive collection of contemporary art and tasteful mid-century furniture, it was the client’s own desire to forge a home, rather than a gallery, that spared this fantastic building the indignity of overtly ostentatious architectural gestures. 

The building rests on the edge of a beautiful, elevated plot near Frensham in the Surrey countryside. As you slowly wind through the pastoral terrain, approaching from the south, you glimpse a large ocular window, peering down from between the trees above, like a tectonic eagle, smugly surveying the conservation area below, all from the luxury of its undesignated perch. By contrast, the next sighting of the house is a full-on panoramic; as you turn on to the gravel driveway, the broad and welcoming arms of the L-shaped plan open to siphon you towards the entrance. 

The sheer boldness of the elevation is immediately striking. The verticals of the timber boarding, like a great, oversized barcode, demand to be scanned. The dark-painted timber and abundant glass oscillates across a monochrome spectrum, while the surrounding greens of the countryside fall away in the background. Peripherally you become aware of a smattering of smaller outbuildings – a garage, a shed and a pool-side pavilion – each bearing a clear family resemblance to the main house but with pleasant genetic quirks that allow the overall composition to be read like a well-conceived, miniature hamlet. 

Outwardly, the building appears distinctly monolithic, but inside it feels impossibly porous

Externally, the scheme imparts an oddly evocative presence. It is as if the furrowed shadow gaps between the timber boards abstractly draw upon the redolent nostalgia of a freshly ploughed field. So much of the surrounding landscape seems to have been imbibed by the building that it defies any temptation to be read as a decontextualised Modernist block and, instead, its organic skin hints that it might one day dissolve into its site like a handful of thoughtfully placed Oxo cubes. 

As you approach the threshold, an entrance is neatly articulated under the fringe of a short, first-floor cantilever. Here, like a raised portcullis, the cladding gives way to silky walls of glass. As you step into the building, you become even more aware of the enveloping scenery. Framed views and vistas carve through the plan from one end of the house to the other and in both directions. Outwardly, the building appears distinctly monolithic, almost dolmen-like, but once inside it feels impossibly porous. As the glazed entrance door shuts behind you with the soft, mechanical reassurance of an expensive fridge, you know that you are in a special building. 

The plan introduces itself with a brisk economy of language. Everything is understood through an architectural version of the conversational shorthand between old friends. The ground-floor accommodation spirals away from the entrance hall as you rotate through the plan in a clockwise direction. First you encounter a generous, windowless WC, then a family room with floor-to-ceiling glazing. This bleeds into a more secluded, oak-lined snug, which has in itself a further study concealed behind the bookshelves. Back through the family room (complete with open fire) you continue to corkscrew into the dining room before finally landing in the kitchen; one more pirouette and you’d be back where you started. All these rooms collude to proclaim a sort of open-plan hybrid, where walls are placed with Miesian precision and then granted the practical, concealed recourse of sliding pocket doors. 

You see a level of tactile craftsmanship and an attention to detail more readily associated with cabinetry than construction

Predictably, the kitchen takes centre stage with an immaculate, white-marble altar, but behind it (back stage) is a hidden room; a sort of sub-kitchen, where aesthetic pariahs such as washing-up liquid and floral mugs can gain some measure of solitude. The same trick is played with the bric-a-brac of the adjacent boot-room, conveniently located off the kitchen but visually airbrushed from perception. 

The first floor is accessed from the entrance hall, where a solid oak staircase tilts like an uprooted tree to connect you to the sleeping quarters; light from above washes down the trunk and draws you up into the branches. Once upstairs, the plan spins its five bedrooms off the central circulation space like a Catherine wheel. Each room is tastefully decorated with soft greys and whites, allowing the views from the large windows to dominate. The main family bathroom and a cluster of smaller en-suites are intertwined around the fulcrum of the layout. There is an entombed quality to the washrooms, with views only of the sky scooped out of their ceilings. As with the kitchen below, marble is used where a sanitary finish is required; ensuring that the palette doesn’t stray. 

Everywhere you rest your eyes, you see a level of tactile craftsmanship and an attention to detail more readily associated with cabinetry than construction. As I make my way back to the car, ambling past the dog baskets and rubber chew-toys, I’m struck by how effortlessly the divergent functions of these disparate rooms are pulled together through the liquid-like texture of the polished concrete floor, sumptuously lapping against the interior’s perimeter. For once, I wish I had been asked to take off my shoes. And my socks. 

Sandpipers location plan

Sandpipers location plan

Project data

Start on site December 2014
Completion March 2016
Gross internal floor area 387m2
Form of contract JCT Intermediate Building Contract with Contractors Design 2011 (ICD 2011)
Cost Undisclosed
Architect James Gorst Architects 
Client Arthur Young  
Structural engineer Heyne Tillett Steel
Quantity surveyor (preliminary cost plan) Gardiner & Theobald
CDM co-ordinator James Gorst Architects
Approved building inspector Butler & Young
Main contractor Designs Built
CAD software used Vectorworks
Annual CO2 emissions (predicted) 15.53kg/m2


Larch cladding Osmo Oil, matt finish, RAL 7022
Windows Schüco ASS 50 
Rooflights The Rooflight Company
Oak panelling Crown cut oak veneer, Flamebar N5 salt solution, Clasolac 10% gloss
Bespoke joinery Fineline Traditional Joinery
Ironmongery Joseph Giles
Marble (bathrooms) Honed Carrara Marble, Surrey Marble & Granite / Coastal Stone
Oak floor Unfinished oak engineered board, compliant water stain in light oak, Morseal Duo 30% gloss
Polished concrete Lazenby, Imperial Grey
Roof Sarnafil Roof Membrane
Wall and roof insulation Kingspan
Sanitaryware Aston Matthews

Sandpipers ©ståle eriksen 25

Sandpipers ©ståle eriksen 25

Source: Ståle Eriksen

Client’s view

Elegant and modern, discreet and sculptural, the calmness exuded by Sandpipers now hides the monumental effort that went into its construction. The project threw up every challenge imaginable for a domestic construction, but through it all James and his colleagues who worked on the house – Maria, Alex, Laura and David – battled to deliver the vision we all had for the site. The eventual outcome is successful only because at every setback the team of architects and advisers worked seamlessly to find solutions that would not dilute the original vision. Finding and choosing the right architect, and making sure the wider team of advisers shares the same outlook, is essential for anyone contemplating commissioning and building their own house.


James gorst drawings for web5

James gorst drawings for web5

The house is wrapped in bespoke vertical larch cladding, stained with a matt Osmo oil finish. The boards have been cut and jointed on site with the greatest of care. Such was the contractor’s attention to detail that a bespoke timber jig was made to ensure the vertical and horizontal alignment of the nail heads. Each nail was then hammered into place using the wide end of a nail punch to prevent any damage to the face of the timber boards.

Sitting beneath the tree canopy, the sober graphite grey façade (RAL 7022) shifts in tone as the light plays over the building’s intersecting cubic forms. The vertical cladding runs in perfect alignment into the soffits formed by the overhanging first-floor volume. The building is capped with a Sarnafil metal capping to the parapet.

Internally, the judicious use of high-quality, natural finishes affords a quiet luxury to the main rooms. English oak panelling lines the library and dining room, and is used to form the staircase and balustrade, which floats above a polished concrete floor by Lazenby. The large Schüco windows slide in recessed frames forming flush thresholds with Marshalls Saxon paving slabs to the external terraces. 

James Gorst, James Gorst Architects



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