Established in 1990, Seth Stein is a design-led architectural practice that has won awards for both residential and commercial work in the UK and abroad. The practice is noteworthy for transforming small high-value urban spaces with spectacular results and has also undertaken plenty of large commissions for prestige properties. Seth Stein’s mastery of modern materials is perhaps best seen in a number of one-off new build houses, often in rural settings, and sympathetically engaging with the surroundings. The practice has also found a platform for its creativity in a variety of cultural projects including the Novo Cemetery at Queen Mary University, that was shortlisted for the 2014 RIBA Awards.
For a London-based practice your portfolio of projects includes a surprisingly large number of new builds? Is it more fun to start from scratch?
Any practice in Europe will inevitably find itself working with existing buildings and that is, of course, the case in London. We’ve been fortunate to create many properties entirely from scratch and I can’t deny that every architect likes to make his mark in that way. In truth, I enjoy both old and new and the real challenge – and often the fun – is not the building, but the client. If you’re intrigued by the building you will – if you’re a design professional – be stimulated to create. Old or new – it doesn’t matter.
Is the structure easier to read than the client?
Yes, sometimes, but it’s our job to find out. It’s about understanding the client’s lifestyle and helping them to examine it often at a point when they are undergoing change of some kind. Do they want to be discreet or controversial? Is it a classic or contemporary look they’re after? What kind of activities do they enjoy? Do they cook? Or exercise? Take a look at the house in Somerset. It was created for a couple with a grown-up family who loved the spot and wanted to remain there. They wanted to reinvent a series of farmhouse buildings into a single dwelling and re-use the stone from the buildings it replaced. They talked a lot about their home expanding or contracting to suit them and their visitors.
In your portfolio, you’ve a former Victorian stables that doesn’t look anything like a stable. What made it into the perfect contemporary home?
Although it was originally a stable for a convent, the site had been used as a builders’ yard before falling into disrepair and was populated with a series of neglected buildings. By adding a dramatic entrance structure and a glass gallery centered around a courtyard, we were able to create an interesting contemporary residence. The site was actually very long and the new open space at the heart of the plan gave the house its principal outlook.
Courtyards seem to feature a lot in your homes? What is it about this type of space that appeals?
It’s better to put the open space at the heart of the house instead of at the end of a site. You can filter through it and that helps with the flow. It’s also somewhere for the eye to rest. In London – the world leader in what I call ‘iceberg houses’ – it is an effective way to activate a basement. Subterranean spaces need light and air to make them viable, so courtyards work very well.
You’ve transformed quite a few small spaces. What are the challenges of a tiny plot of land such as the Knightsbridge space you developed into a house-garage?
At just 5m x 8m, this is perhaps one of the smallest sites that anyone could possibly be asked to develop. The client wanted to create a flexible property that could serve as a parking or living space or both. If there are no cars, there are 100 sq metres on three levels with a living room in the pit of the car stacker and another pocket of space on the level above. At the other extreme there could be space for two cars on the ground and lower ground area with only the top being static. The challenge here is trying to take away the feeling of being in a basement. Transparent acrylic panels on the lower deck bring natural daylight to the lower level that can also be used as living space.
There’s so many urban challenges you overcome with confidence and style, but what’s it like when you have more land and sky to play with?
It’s actually very hard as there are fewer parameters to respond to. You’ve got the landscape and the position of the sun to consider, but there is a tendency to sprawl. The Cornwall house had a very strong site and only one aspect you would obviously choose – looking towards the estuary. Every room had to have a view. It is a linear building that follows the contours of the landscape and blends well with it; there’s a green roof and local slate on the walls.
You like using new materials. Can you explain how material has made a difference on a project?
The staircase on the lower ground floor of a new build Holland Park house has a balustrade made of 6-cm-thick sandblasted acrylic that makes it spectacular to descend. It was manufactured as a one-off by a company who make windows for aircraft. If we’d gone for laminated glass, it would have been far heavier and it wouldn’t have been possible to achieve a single six-metre piece with no seams. If there’s a chance to innovate, it really is very exciting. Recently, we used a special weathered steel called Corten in the Novo Cemetery at Queen Mary University. It goes rusty, but remains durable. I’d love to use it in a house.
Eco-friendly measures are often present in your designs. In which project do they really lead the way for sustainable living?
The house in Somerset, which was also shortlisted in the 2014 RIBA Awards, has a very high sustainable rating (CSH level 5) and produces 150% of its energy requirements served by a wind turbine, solar and photovoltaic panels and high-insulated construction.
Another recently completed house family house in Notting Hill also makes extensive use of solar and pv panels as well as rainwater harvesting that serves the wc’s and garden irrigation. All of this on a restricted urban site.