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Meet George & James, The Acclaimed Sussex Architects

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Absolutely Sussex catches up with Simon Drayson and Darren Leach, the founders of George & James Architects (their middle names make up the company name), to discuss origins, county inspiration and stand out projects

How did you two first meet?

Simon: We met whilst at Portsmouth University, where we were both studying architecture – you could say our eyes met across the drawing boards! 

Pre-George & James, what were your backgrounds in the design industry?

Simon: Between us we have over 40 years’ experience in architecture, on everything from the York Theatre Royal, the café at Westminster Abbey, to houses that are everything their owners ever dreamed of. 

I worked in London on some interesting projects that varied across sectors and size, from new Mews Houses for the Cadogan Estate in Chelsea, a refurbishment of a Michael Kors retail store and concepts for a Grade II Listed theatre in York. 

Darren: Previously I worked for design practices such as Panter Hudspith and Allies and Morrison. I was part of the design team on projects such as a new Synagogue in north London, redevelopment plans for Winchester city centre and a contemporary new home in the South Downs National Park. 

What inspired you to join forces and launch George & James?

Darren: We’re partners in life, and to us it made sense to become partners in work as well. Architecture is not something that can be left on the drawing board, it is something we live and breathe. 

After several years working for larger practices, we were keen to leave behind the more bureaucratic, sometimes cumbersome elements of those studios, to launch George & James. Now we relish the freedom it brings us, to work on the projects that really excite us. 

Darren And Simon
Darren and Simon, aka George & James

From day one, what did you want to offer?

Simon: We have a simple mission: to create a place that starts with you. We believe that the places where we live, work and play should be healthy and happy – filled with natural light, connected with nature, giving us everything we need to thrive, on every project we strive to bring these elements into the design. 

Is there anything that you believe makes you different?

Darren: We are a very friendly and creative team, we like to build personal relationships to really understand what our clients need from the design, and to seamlessly deliver their project. 

We always start each project by listening intently, to understand what is important to our clients rather than arriving with preconceived ideas of what they might like. 

As a team our different perspectives bring a great deal to the studio, and we love bouncing ideas off each other and putting our heads together when a problem is particularly knotty. 

Is there a particular ethos behind your approach to design?

Simon: Our approach is as much about listening carefully, thinking deeply and being human as it is about jumping through hoops and getting your project to the finish line.

How do you like to work with clients?

Darren: We listen to our clients before we do anything else. We come to each architectural project with open eyes and ears, and with honesty, curiosity and care. To this we add our professional architectural design knowledge and experience, all of which inspire us and push us a little further.

We like to follow a clear process; to give us an easy way of keeping things on track, keeping to budget, and bringing every element of your project to a beautifully choreographed conclusion. It also gives our client an easy-to-grasp handle on what’s happening right now as well as what’s going to happen next.

Why did you move and set up in Sussex?

Simon: The move to Sussex was a personal one for us; after years enjoying the London lifestyle it was time for us to move out of the capital to be closer to our family. It also gave us more space and idyllic rural surroundings, the perfect place to raise our own family. There are also plenty of walks for our whippet Archi!

Tell us about where your studio is based – and do your surroundings inspire you?

Darren: We are lucky to work from a refurbished cow shed on a former dairy farm just outside Midhurst, right in the heart of the South Downs National Park. After many years based in central London we really love having our design studio in such a beautiful rural location. We take inspiration from the landscape, wildlife and vernacular architecture that makes the South Downs so special.

The Farmhouse High Res Npp
The Farmhouse

Could you pick out 3 Sussex projects you have completed that really showcase what you are all about, the brief you had for each and what elements you particularly love?

The Farmhouse, Bury

Darren: Located on a stunning site, deep within the rolling hills of the South Downs National Park, the project comprises the building of a new farmhouse to create a characterful family home. The house has been completed with landscaped terraced gardens, swimming pool and refurbished outbuildings.

The design is inspired by the local agricultural vernacular, embracing the rural aesthetic, but with a more modern take on the design. We celebrated local materials, using traditional handmade clay tiles and stone walls, balanced with the contemporary painted larch cladding, generous glazing and some contemporary zinc roofing. To reduce the massing different kinds of timber cladding were installed, a simple and effective design detail which adds a beautiful changing texture as the shadow’s changes throughout the day. 

The project was a collaboration: we worked with the owner, Graham Morrison (an architect himself), furniture makers (and our studio neighbour) Fisher Morrison, and landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith. 

Woodville Road, Bexhill-on-Sea

Simon: This project was actually for my parents, so it is a personal favourite as it is one that we get to enjoy staying in. The dilapidated Edwardian house was in need of love, attention and a strong vision for a successful refurbishment. 

We made much-needed connections between previously disconnected spaces, brought back the Edwardian grandeur which previous owners had smothered with dubious interventions, and chose a vibrant colour for the kitchen which spoke of the seaside surroundings (and pushed our clients beyond their comfort zone). The house is now a beauty, both inside and out, and a very happy place to gather for family celebrations. 

Crossbush Lane, Arundel

Darren: As is so often the case with heritage buildings, this Grade II Listed home was picture perfect on the outside, but just did not work on the inside. Internally it feels cramped, with a badly constructed, draughty 1970s additions that didn’t flow into the home.
The owners wanted a comfortable, warm home, with improved living spaces the whole family could use together. Our concept reuses the old extensions footprint, but with an improved circulation that maximises the space and fits the lifestyle needs. Rotating around the existing courtyard, the extension appears as an organic cluster of rural buildings. Coming soon…

What are you working on now that excites you?

Simon: We are very lucky to have a mix of projects currently on the drawing board, one that we are particularly enjoying is a farmhouse in Herefordshire. The project replaces a burnt-out home, to replace with a contemporary family house whilst also assisting in the reinvigoration of the neglected 80 acres working farm and agricultural buildings. 

Another, slightly different, project is working on plans to upgrade and renovate a 16th century Tithe Barn near Chichester. The building is beautiful, but was not designed for the sustainability levels we expect today, so it is an interesting challenge to sympathetically upgrade to scheme, working alongside sustainability and conservation specialists.

How do you see the future of George & James evolving?

Darren: We have put down roots in Sussex, so we see the future of the business here working on local and national projects. We have grown a team around us, but we intentionally do not want to ever grow the team too large as we enjoy the personal approach you get with a smaller studio where we still are hands on with the design, rather than caught up in the bureaucracy of running the business. We would like to become more involved with public buildings, with our dream projects being a National Trust visitor centre or a boutique hotel-cum-village pub, projects that support local communities in Sussex and attract visitors to the area.

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Mark Kebble

Mark's career in journalism started in 2001 when he landed a role on a small lifestyle magazine in Angel, North London. Soon enough, the magazine was purchased by a larger organisation and Mark found himself promoted to editor at the tender age of 23. He later became group editor, working on magazines for Angel, Crouch End, Muswell Hill and Highgate. He was also involved in a launch in Hadley Wood and a major new group website, later becoming Group Hub Editor. In 2021, Mark joined Zest Media Group and oversaw the launch of many Absolutely titles across the UK. To date, Mark has launched in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Sussex, Essex, Yorkshire and Cheshire. When he does have some free time, Mark is also the Chairman of an amateur football club in Surrey and is also a fully qualified FA football coach.
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