How the environment becomes part of architectural design

The word “environment” can mean a number of different things and in architectural design there are many influencing factors which can help a building sit more comfortably on a site, be more conscious of its surroundings and deliver design longeivty.

When looking at the design process we asked architects Sarah Braun and Stuart Archer how they felt the different aspects of the wider environment impacted their design decisions.

1. Cultural environment:

So what is it about the various elements of the environment that tend to spark the greatest inspiration? Is it the location, the natural elements around the building, local products, historical architecture…what drives your major design decisions?

It’s a combination of all of these items. When we start a project, we undertake a thorough investigation of the immediate context - this includes other buildings and structures and their styles, heights, proportions, patterns, colours, materials, rhythms and any local building traditions. It is also important to us to study a site’s natural context - this includes orientation, sun and shadow, views, weather, topography and flora. 

The cultural context stretches even further though, we also study the present and past use of a site - the people that live there now or used to live there, what they did and how they lived. This gives the site a history and context that you can’t get simply from its location. It also gives a richness to our thinking. 

When we undertake this research, there is usually some factors that are more important than others and this often provides the underlying focus for the whole project.

The Scottish national portrait gallery by Robert Rowand Anderson - inspiration for the use of red sandstone at Murrayfield.

The Scottish national portrait gallery by Robert Rowand Anderson - inspiration for the use of red sandstone at Murrayfield.

When designing a building what is it about the environment you most want to represent? Context? History? Local “feel”?

It very much depends on the project. For us it’s important for our projects to ‘feel’ contemporary and to visibly belong to the 21st century. However, our approaches differ from project to project. For example: 

Beton Brit - The existing building was part of a row of small period brick terraced houses dating back to the 19th century. Here, we made a conscious decision for the extension’s form and material quality to make a departure from its immediate historical context. Instead, inspiration came from the wider context of the 60s estates that dominate the surrounding area, but in a more refined, modern and beautiful way. 

Torispardon - This project was very much about the site’s natural environment. The site’s views, sunlight, topography, local building traditions and materials all shaped the final building design.

Murrayfield - This project was primarily inspired by the quality of the existing building and local materials. We used sandstone from a local quarry and traditional masonry techniques but reinvented them to create a more modern and clean look suited to a contemporary intervention. 


Do you feel urban environments stifle or enhance inspiration?

For the work we do it very much enhances it. It is more difficult to work without context. London is a great city to work in as there is a lot to respond to and the best and most creative architecture often arises out of tight constraints. Edinburgh, for example, is another city that moves and inspires us through its rich history and different architectural styles. All of these can be hugely influential to our work. Having said this, an empty plot of land with a beautiful view can also be very inspirational, but you still have to find other constraints, be these history, nature, or materials. 

2. Natural environment

What elements of nature inspire you the most in your work?

We’re inspired by views, weather, local materials, topography, fauna, sunlight and any existing structures (for example barns, fences, walls, etc.) that are often found in rural environments. 

Although what really sets our thinking apart is a deep understanding of materials, how they are best used, how they respond to nature and how to push them to their limit. For example with timber cladding, we carefully consider the species, profiles, treatments, sizes, fixings, orientation and exposure to sun and water. All of these will have an impact on how the timber looks over time and how it ages. We really consider how the passing of time will affect the building and how it’s made - once completed, a building is not a pristine product, and it should age gracefully. 

The original derelict cottage and barn on site at Torispardon provided inspiration for the final design.

The original derelict cottage and barn on site at Torispardon provided inspiration for the final design.

How does the natural environment feature in your individual projects?

Torispardon was very much inspired by its rural context. The building nestles into the slope of the site and was positioned to make the most of views over the Cairngorm mountains, with key views framed from various areas within the building. 

The fact that the house was broken down into three separate volumes makes reference to the arrangement of traditional agricultural buildings in the area, and the forms were directly inspired by the existing barns that were located on the site (which were demolished and rebuilt in the same location). 

The project also uses traditional materials. The stone from the existing barns was reused using local building techniques and craftsmen. Timber was utilised in different ways - local Scottish Larch as traditional board-on-board cladding and more contemporary horizontal Siberian Larch cladding.

Different types of timber cladding (traditional and contemporary) at Torispardon.

Different types of timber cladding (traditional and contemporary) at Torispardon.

How do you find the right materials to work with to develop your ideas? 

We have some trusted suppliers and craftsmen that have a huge amount of expertise about their products. For example, we often use Russwood for timber flooring and cladding. Russwood are based in Scotland and have a lot of knowledge about different timber species, timber treatments and construction detailing and we make use of their expertise. 

We have to know a lot about different things but suppliers are really key as they’re the expert. So if we’re using stone, we will talk to the quarry who cuts the stone as well as the stonemason who will install it to find out the best way to work with the material and also try and push the limits of what is possible. If we’re using concrete, we will get in touch with a specific supplier to understand the making process, and the impact of the concrete mix, formwork, ties, fixings, treatments and sealants on the final product. 

Are there any natural environments you would like to encompass in future works? 

Stuart is part Scottish, and we love the Scottish Highlands and would really like to do another project here. Also, the Scottish West coast and the Inner and Outer Hebrides would be amazing - we haven’t worked near water before so that would be very inspiring. 

Sarah was born in Austria and has been inspired by the traditional timber construction techniques (and their more modern interpretations) used in rural Austria, so a building (be this a home, a barn or a chapel!) in the mountains would also be a dream project. 

Any countryside location really, we find such joy and inspiration in those rugged, rural surroundings. 

Do you feel there’s a correlation between natural materials and the sense of wellbeing for the inhabitants?

Absolutely. We spend the majority of our time (around 90%) indoors. This means that the quality of buildings we inhabit is vital. Incorrectly specified materials can mean damp and cold spaces and the chemical processes used to create many materials have a significant negative impact on the environment and therefore long-term effects on inhabitant’s well being.

Sustainable, natural and non-toxic materials should be a key consideration in building design. Research shows that the use of wood in buildings (https://wfs.swst.org/index.php/wfs/article/viewFile/1365/1365)  can have a positive impact on building occupants through reducing stress levels, and there is also evidence that there is a well-being benefit of bringing nature into buildings where possible (https://perkinswill.com/sites/default/files/PWRJ0101_04_Quantifiable%20Benefits%20of%20Access%20to%20Nature%20in%20Buildings.pdf). 

Natural materials and experiencing the environment can really impact a person’s well-being, which is why this is such a crucial part of our design process.

No matter what the environment, or the inspiration, there are always ways of bringing that to life through architecture. To find out more about our work you can contact us here.  

How to choose the right architect – 6 questions answered by our own architects

When it comes to choosing an architect there are a few things to remember and understand. We sat down with our very own architects to understand the key questions worth asking if you’re about to undertake a project. 

1. WHAT ARE THE SERVICES AN ARCHITECT WILL COVER?

PLANNING

Your architect will first and foremost undertake some initial studies to assess the feasibility of your project, the possible design directions, an outline of the costs and the planning implications. This gives the architect the foundations for the project and helps to direct them as the project progresses. The second most important element to focus on is the development of a concept design. This is where the architect will begin to look at the building layout and how best to achieve what you are after.

BUILDING PLANS

Once the initial layouts have been developed your architect can help you prepare and submit a planning application and/or listed building consent application on your behalf. You would then work together to develop the technical design for building control sign off which will also allow you to move forward to obtain costs from contractors, and for the construction itself.

CONTRACTOR RELATIONS AND PROJECT MANAGEMENT

Sometimes it can be a challenge to find the right people for your build. A good architect will have a little black book of trusted contractors. They can help you review your contractors’ costs and assist in setting up the building contract. Depending on the size of your project it can also be a benefit to have an architect support the on site management of the construction project. This could include managing the contract and payment of the contractor, as well as reviewing quality of the works as construction progresses. At Archer and Braun we like to see the project through from beginning to handing over the keys at the end. Supporting the interior design, lighting, bathrooms, kitchens and joinery design means we can offer the end to end support to achieve the desired effect envisaged in the original ideas.  


2. How do you choose your consultants/contractors?

This is slightly more complicated as much of the decision making process is based on previous experience. It’s important to work with contractors that are proactive, organised and that have a high quality of workmanship. This is often a process of trial and error but a good architect will be able to make recommendations based on previous work and experience. 

For us at Archer and Braun we also like to work with people that reflect our vision and approach. Our projects are all about collaboration and we are most comfortable working with people who understand us and vice versa. As projects go on for a long time, it is important to work with people that understand and support the project vision. It also benefits you as the client as the process is more efficient when working with the same consultants. 


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3. What is the design process with a new client?

Expect to have an initial meeting to work out the brief - what you think you might need in practical terms (eg. an extra bathroom, an extra bedroom) and how you like to live (for example, is cooking important? Do you need a lot of storage? Does someone work from home? Should pets be considered?). It is also important that your architect discusses your likes and dislikes in your current home. At this stage the architect should also undertake some planning research to find out if there are any planning risks, as well as discuss an initial budget and timelines.

To help understand the design preferences and taste of the client the architect may ask you to provide moodboards of spaces or buildings you like.

The next step will be for the architect to go away and produce some initial layouts and ideas based on the discussions, sometimes this includes 3D models and views. A good architect will consider the function of the space, as well as light, materials and buildability. At Archer and Braun this often includes a look at the materials from a sustainability and circular economy point of view. We will discuss materials early on to help educate clients on the opportunities for more natural or reclaimed materials.

Once we have designed these initial plans your architect will have a meeting to review the design so far. This back-and-forth dynamic should be repeated throughout the design process until you there is a design that both you and the architect are happy with. 


4. How should the architect phase your project? 

Firstly there should be a meeting to obtain a client brief and review the existing space (if applicable). A topographical survey of the plot of land or a measured building survey of any existing buildings will need to be undertaken, which the architect then uses to develop layout options and concept designs.

Secondly, depending on the type of project, the architect will develop the information in more detail. This should include choosing the external materials and some initial conversations with a structural engineer.

The third part of the process should include your architect working with you to prepare and submit the information for a planning application.

Once the application is approved your architect should develop the design in more detail for the purposes of pricing and construction, as well as sign off by Building Control. This includes choosing all internal and external materials and finishes, as well as producing detailed drawings and a specification document. This is an in-depth and time intensive process. At this stage the package of information also gets sent out to a number of different builders to ensure a competitive price. 

Your architect should then set up a building contract with the preferred builder and manage the process as the building works proceed on site. This service can include managing payment of the contractor and checking that the built work is in line with the drawings and designs to ensure quality is achieved. 


5. What can be the pitfalls of working with an architect?

Working with an architect can be a big decision and it’s important to understand what the potential pitfalls can be. The most obvious one is the price as an architectural service will incur fees.

However, a good architect will address costs early on and help you to understand what the likely price of the project will be (no matter how much of a shock this can be initially), and will ensure that the project is tailored to your specific budget from the outset.

Construction is fundamentally an expensive process and the benefit of paying for an architect is ensuring you have access to their expertise and project management, which can end up saving you money in the long run. Although going directly to a builder may initially seem cheaper and faster, the resulting quality of the project is likely to suffer and project costs can quickly spiral. 

In addition to the cost of an architect it is also important to remember that the project can take some time. Working closely with someone for a long period of time means it’s important you choose an architect you can communicate with and of course get on with! 

One of the final things to be aware of when working with an architect is their “style”. Some architects can be pushy when it comes to the look they want to achieve. It’s important to choose one who matches your style, or even better, works collaboratively with you to create the best possible design.


6. What can the clients do to make the process easier/smoother?

To make things as smooth as possible when working with an architect there are a few things you can do as the client. 

  1. Communicate regularly and openly.

  2. Limit your changes – make sure you are happy with the plans and the design before you develop it further. Whilst some things may inevitably change it’s important to understand this could have cost implications and may impact the project timeline. 

  3. Be collaborative – a client’s views are hugely important but remember that an architect brings years of professional education and expertise to help guide you.

  4. Enjoy the process. It’s best to enter into a project with an understanding that it is not a straightforward or linear process, but it should be great fun. 


If you want to find out more about working with an architect or you would like to start your own project you can contact us on: 

E: info@archerandbraun.com

P: +44 (0)20 3488 2692