Founded in 1999, Paul Archer Design is an award-winning London-based architectural practice; although best known for its exciting, one-off extensions and remodelling projects for the capital’s housing stock, the studio is now starting to be recognised for contemporary new builds, too. Paul Archer shares his knowledge, gained through scores of residential projects, of how we want to live now, and how architecture can achieve that.
Why focus just on the residential side of architecture?
I realised a long time ago that, looking at my collection of architectural books, 90% of them were about houses; I’d always gravitated towards them. That’s partly a function of the design freedom you get with a house that you don’t often get with something else – a lot of our clients tend to be fairly creative and they’re interested in doing something special, something fun.
But it’s also to do with scale. I think that quite often the best architecture is where the architect is allowed to have an overview of the entire building. Architects used to be able to do that with larger buildings, but as they’ve got more technologically advanced that’s no longer possible; the scale that architects can control has got smaller.
Did you have a big break or a project that gained you particular attention?
There were a few early projects that made a big difference in terms of getting them published. Church Cottage, a listed 17th-century building, was the first time we used glass beams; it broke new ground for us but it didn’t necessarily break new ground technologically. But then we did a couple of projects where we went further than anyone else had gone before in terms of glass technology, and we became known for that.
More broadly, I think that Grand Designs has single-handedly changed people’s perceptions of contemporary design. It’s one of the key reasons why Britain has embraced modernism in domestic design.
You seem to have a passion for existing building stock, as much as you do the contemporary additions that you make to those older buildings.
Yes, if you’re going to do residential in this country then 90% of housing stock is already here, so most of that work is going to be on existing houses – and if you’re working in London, then most of that’s Victorian. We like working on the new and the old, creating something that enhances both.
What sorts of pointers do those existing buildings offer you that guide how any extension is designed?
Proportions are a starting point – is the building split one-third, two-thirds, or directly symmetrically? Most townhouses have one of four or five proportional sets that suggest how you mass the back of the building. Quite often our schemes don’t go straight across the back, which helps maintain a better relationship with the original building.
Materials are also important. A lot of our schemes play that game of using traditional materials in a contemporary way – slate cladding on a wall so it connects to a traditional slate roof, for example. We have also used a lot of zinc to pick up on the leadwork detailing on traditional buildings.
It’s also important to think about how the new space feels when you’ve moving into it from the old space. Are you simply following the proportions of the old rooms into the new, are there different ceiling heights, is there a step down? Those sorts of questions are the starting point.
Are there downsides to working on single dwellings?
A lot of architects steer clear of residential work because clients need more hand-holding, which is fair enough. But we’ve got that skill, and it’s mostly about managing expectations: on one level you want to make sure the client is excited and enthused by the design, but at the same time they need to expect that the whole thing will be a mess and there will be lots of problems that it will take time to find solutions for.
You’ve also worked on a few new-build projects now, including your parents’ house, Green Orchard, just outside Bristol. Were they exacting clients?
I do have a rule of not working with friends, because it can be very difficult, but with my parents, we’d been having a discussion on what makes good architecture for 25 years, and the house was a culmination of that dialogue. They came to me saying they wanted a fantastic modernist house, and it had to be greener than green. So we were starting on the same page.
The starting point was the views in every direction: some long ones towards the Severn Bridge, some shorter ones towards woodland or into a field. It became about maximising those views, but also thinking about the way the sun moves. There’s a terrace for breakfast in the morning, and another one for dinner in the evening, and they organise the way the house is laid out and relates to the garden. The other key question to ask when building a house is, how do the people in it live? Everyone has their rituals. For Green Orchard, the heart of the house is the oven, and from there you can have a conversation with someone in the dining room, at the breakfast table or in the living room.
You also do some work for developers on single houses. Are there any ideas that private homeowners could take away, in terms of how they approach a project?
The developers that find us most useful are the ones that buy into the idea that they will get added value by designing something worthwhile, not just adding floor space, because it’s about quality of space rather than quantity. I would always encourage private clients to think differently about their project depending on when they want to sell: if you’re leaving in five years’ time, don’t spend money on the kitchen or the bathroom, because a buyer will want to rip them out and replace them. It’s the fabric of the building that will add value.
Do you have a favourite city?
Barcelona and Paris, for a long time. During the 80s we always used to look jealously at Paris and its architectural opportunities, but I think that London has surpassed Paris in past 20 years, and the tables have turned – they’re the ones jealous of us now.