An ambitious project to redevelop empty land in the heart of the Lake District, the home of Brian Eckersley of Eckersley O’Callaghan utilises vast runs of huge 3.1m-tall Sky-Frame pivoting and sliding doors, all in triple-glazing. To discuss the challenges of working in such a remote area, the practice’s stripped back aesthetics and what it’s like to work with the owner of one of Britain’s largest engineering firms, we caught up with project architect James Carefoot of Mary Forster-Arnold Architects.
Cantifix: The majority of your architectural work is in remote areas across the highlands and islands of Scotland. What draws you to these areas in particular and how did you come to decide to specialise in these sorts of projects?
James Carefoot, Mary Arnold-Forster Arcitects: The head of the practice, Mary, has a background in the West coast of Scotland, where she’s been working for many years now. Therefore, she has a lot of experience in these landscapes and how to build within them. She also has relationships with builders and consultants in the area, which obviously ties you to a particular area. Finally, her long association with the area has given her a care for these landscapes and a desire to bring out the best in these beautiful surroundings with a light touch approach to developments within them.
C: Beautiful landscapes and aside, what are the challenges when designing for and working in remote, often fairly exposed areas. Are these different from those faced in less remote locations?
J: The main challenges are logistical – access and services. In terms of access, that’s first of all, actually getting there yourself, but also getting materials and tradesmen in. You have that in mind from the start, and prefabrication tends to mitigate these problems to some extent. You can get things delivered prefabricated, reducing your time on site and removing a lot of the need to compete with the elements, which can cause issues like stoppage of work for a day or two. This project is interesting because it’s particularly remote, making deliveries even more difficult. For instance, the Sky-Frame delivery came over from Switzerland on a huge lorry but had to be unloaded and the loads split onto smaller lorries to get it up to Ravenscreek.
With services, understanding of what is already there is key. While some sites may be connected to mains water, electricity and gas, others might have nothing, so you have to take these things into account. Most clients building in remote locations often have a grasp of the difficulty of accessing services. However, they need to be made aware that these issues can be costly from the very start, as they may not appreciate just how much it costs to provide these services.
The pool of contractors who will consider working in remote locations is also relatively small, giving you less choice as to who you work with, which is another consideration. Luckily, if you have an architect who has such vast experience in the area as Mary, then, as I mentioned earlier, those relationships with builders mean you know who you can trust.
The upside of all this is that the location itself is part of the charm and the end result is generally worth all the headaches!
C: Your portfolio makes extensive use of large, often uninterrupted envelopes with strikingly stark material palettes, it’s all quite Nordic. What draws you to this sort of vernacular design? Or is it that this kind of design just works for the locations you find yourself working in?
J: Yes, a simple material pallet lends itself to the structures we build and locations we build them in. More importantly, once people start inhabiting a space, they bring in furniture and other objects, and by keeping the structure quite simple and refined, it gives the client a blank canvas onto which they can imprint their own design and aesthetic ideals.
The similarities with Nordic or Scandinavian design are purely from a practical standpoint. The climates, although not exactly the same, are certainly similar. The buildings have to stand up to a lot of punishment, so a pragmatic form that can hold up to extreme weather is necessary.
C: It looks like the aim here was to create a space that touches its surroundings as lightly as possible. This includes emissions. Can you talk us through the sorts of technologies and design ideas that you used to minimise the environmental impact of this property?
J: The project was really about re-establishing the contours of the site. The topography and landscaping of the site had been altered across various decades, so it was all about reverting to the original landscape.
So then it was a matter of addressing the brief that Brian had for the project, but then incorporating that within the landscape so it didn’t have too big an impact. Hence, the lower floor is partly sunk into the ground, essentially, to reduce the visual impact of the house from the surrounding area, particularly from the hills. You can only really see the house from Cat Bells ridge, which is to the south-east of the site. But it is something you have to be aware of in the Lake District, particularly because it is a national park, and you have to apply a very sensitive approach.
In terms of how the building touches the ground, the structure is very rational, so there are no deep foundations, there’s a raft slab underneath the main house and the structural design in general is very pragmatic. On top of the raft slab, the ground floor is essentially a stone plinth, while the first floor is basically a large, prefab timber box, very quick to install. In terms of services, there will be ground-source heat pumps, so heating is through renewables and the whole building is powered by electricity rather than gas, so from a services point of view, it’s pretty low-impact.
C: Did you have any input into the choice of glazing? Sky-Frame was initially created with Alpine chalets in mind, there are some parallels with the northwest of England in terms of climate – did this affect the decision or was it a more aesthetics-led choice?
J: We were after something that was very refined, with the caveat that we could also achieve the sizes that we were looking for. A 3m x 9m opening on the east elevation was the key for us, and we needed to find someone who could achieve that. We also wanted to make sure that we could hide as much of the framework as possible. There were a few manufacturers we were looking at, but this decision was led by the client, who has worked with Sky-Frame in the past. Of course, we were aware the Sky-Frame is the best of the best and it was a nice opportunity for us to have a project where the client had the budget to use this top-class system! I was very impressed with the installers, who certainly knew what they were doing – I’m looking forward to my next site visit to see how they’re coming on.
C: How did you find working for the head of one of Britain’s largest engineering firms?
J: It’s been a really useful process for me to be honest. To have access to such an experienced engineer, but also someone who is very innovative as well is a real privilege. To have a client that’s so engaged is also, not unusual, but really helpful. His commitment and interest in every element of the project was really useful actually. Clearly, we both understand everything that’s going on with the building, so it’s been good to have those conversations with him.
As you might imagine, he’s been extremely interested in, not only the initial design process, but also the detail process and also how it’s been delivered and constructed so it’s been great in short!
On a personal note, I’ve learned a huge amount from Brian, I don’t have an awful lot of experience with the structural side of things, but it’s been hugely interesting and rewarding to understand things on that front.
C: There’s often this perception that architects and engineers are from different worlds, did that help or hinder the design process?
J: That perception probably isn’t all that valid on this project! It’s been purely collaborative and the whole process has been a conversation where we’re trying to understand and resolve every situation before we started on site, which is definitely how it should be. A lot of the work on site has just been a matter of keeping track, rather than the usual problem-solving. The contractor, Matthew Neilson, is extremely good, and that was a big part of this project – finding a contractor who could deliver to this level of detail and accuracy. That tends to be the case with lots of projects, a good contractor is usually the making of a project. Willingness and a high level of engagement from the client are also very handy – something which Brian had in abundance!