Architect Matt White got the whole family involved in designing their playful home on the South Downs

new tv series the play house

Names Matt and Sophie White and their children Mia, Daisy and Arthur
Ages 43, 42, 10, 8 and 6
Location Horsham, West Sussex
Property Brick and zinv barn-style extension to a nineteenth-century gameskeeper's lodge
Bedrooms 5 Bathrooms 5
Size of extension 421sqm (the existing cottage is 110sqm)
Project started March 2015
Project finished August 2016 (cottage link ongoing)
Build cost £880,000
Architect Matt White (020 3490 1243;

Few contemporary houses are as perfect for a game of sardines as that of Matt White and his wife Sophie. ‘With two staircases and five different routes between the first and second floors, you can never hit a dead end,’ enthuses Matt. ‘When we had the neighbours over recently, it was complete bedlam.’

Described by Kevin McCloud as ‘a whirring engine of creativity’, Matt, who runs his own commercial architecture practice in central London (Sophie works as the company’s managing partner), puts his passion for innovation down to his highly creative parents. ‘My father was a doctor, but he has always had a great sense of enquiry. When I was a child, we’d be looking at the Usborne book How Things Work and the next morning I’d wake up and find that he’d made his own radio out of cardboard boxes.’

New TV Series The Play House

Inventive touches abound in the barn-style house Matt and Sophie have created for their family. There’s a priest hole with a one-way mirror; a Scooby-Doo-style revolving bookcase, and a secret staircase for their three children, Mia, Daisy and Arthur, to access the kitchen from the upper floors. ‘A lot of these fun elements actually cost very little and make use of spaces that would otherwise be covered with plasterboard,’ Matt explains. ‘The secret staircase has a practical element, as it occupies a shaft in which we could eventually install a lift. It doesn’t hurt to plan for the future, but we might as well have fun in the interim.’

The barn structure is in fact an extension that is linked to a diminutive nineteenth-century gamekeeper’s lodge. The family were renting in Sussex while building a home in west London that they intended to live in, but when they spotted the lodge on an estate agent’s website, they immediately recognised an opportunity. ‘We put in an offer and when it was accepted, we decided to rent out the London house and stay in Sussex,’ Sophie explains.

The lodge sits in three acres of land on the edge of the South Downs National Park, and has uninterrupted views across rolling hills. But with just 110 square metres of floor space, it would have been a tight squeeze for a family. ‘It is too small a house for too big a plot, but if we extended it, even to a modest 200 square metres, we were concerned that it would no longer look like a lodge,’ says Matt. The property is very visible from a much-used recreational path into the park, and the couple were conscious of how a new extension would be perceived from the road. ‘We decided that a barn next to a lodge was the easiest pitch to the planning department; it is something that people can readily understand,’ Matt explains.

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As barns often are, this is a monolithic building, giving the family a cavernous 421 square metres of space. The structure is made of load-bearing steel, which enabled the pair to tweak the layout as they went along. ‘We originally intended to use part of the cottage to live in, but as the plans progressed, we added extra rooms in the roof,’ Sophie admits. ‘It then made financial sense to decamp from one building to the other, so that we could develop the lodge as rented accommodation.’

The works, which were managed by a project architect from Matt’s practice, began in March 2015 with a budget of £800,000. ‘In case we ran into any money difficulties we signed a fixed agreement of £450,000 to give us a watertight box, and allowed £250,000 for the internal fit-out. In the end we upped the amount we spent per square foot from £170 to £195,taking the total spend to £880,000,’ says Matt. ‘The build was always going to make sense economically, so our attitude was to get the best house possible by adding nice details, such as a Carrara marble bar in the kitchen and the rotating bath in the master suite.’

The original idea was to clad the barn with split oak shingles, but as the build progressed, Matt applied for permission to use zinc on the upper portion and black bricks, laid in a sculptural diaper pattern, on the lower section of the structure. ‘I couldn’t reassure myself that the timber would age in a satisfactory way,’ he admits. ‘These materials still give the sense of a human touch, and breaking up the surface helps to diminish the size of the building.’

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The scale of the barn has resulted in some impressive spaces, including a grand, high-ceilinged living area with vast glazed doors that glide into the wall to open the room up to the exterior. The ground floor also houses a generous kitchen-diner, as well as a boot room and office. An elegant steel staircase leads up to the first floor, where there are bedrooms for the three children as well as the couple’s master suite; the top floor features a central playroom and a secret den for each child, which can be accessed from the bedrooms below via a climbing wall, ladders or a wooden tree. This level also has a guest bedroom and bathroom, plus a secluded observation pod featuring a large circular window offering superb views across the South Downs.

The decoration of the interior reflects the joie de vivre of its inhabitants, with punchy colours gracing many of the rooms. ‘The design concept was basically stuff we like; we are five different people and the house needed to reflect this – it’s a family home, not an architect’s fantasy,’ affirms Matt. Pale Douglas fir boards lend a Scandinavian touch to the living room, while the kitchen floor is made from terracotta tiles inspired by the worn scullery surfaces of National Trust houses. A chinoiserie wallpaper brings femininity to the master suite, and also cleverly conceals the doors to the corridor, the en-suite bathroom and the dressing room. Similarly, the playroom, which has no less than seven doors, features panelled walls painted a cheery cadmium yellow to ensure a coherent feel.

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What is very apparent is that the inhabitants of this house don’t take themselves too seriously and their mischievous sense of humour is perhaps best summarised by the inscriptions in the concrete mantel and plinth above and below the living-room fireplace. Cast from silicon moulds designed using Matt’s office’s 3D printer, the mantel reads Domum dulce domum [Home sweet home] and the bottom plinth reads Lorem ipsum 2016. ‘It’s dummy text used in the typesetting industry,’ says Matt, gleefully. ‘And so it’s utterly meaningless.’


Words: Rachel Leedham, Photography: Matt Chisnall

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