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 (  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 ( 

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.