Sometimes you come across a place, often natural but occasionally man-made, that feels just right; that lifts your spirits and inspires you. Too often buildings fall short and do not compare well to the honesty and harmony of the natural world and are indeed increasingly, a threat to it.
The ambition to make such places is rather abstract, but I always try to keep this in mind and remember the subtle power that architecture can have over peoples’ day-to-day lives, long after the architect’s last site visit.
This ambition can be lost beneath the challenges everyone faces when taking on a project. The process of designing and building is not simple. It is subject to a whole range of forces, most deeply practical, some mundane; planning permission, budget, and site constraints, to name a just a few. Projects also involve many different people with different skills and concerns, that are not always complementary.
A large part of an architect’s role is to manage this process and empower clients, allowing them to concentrate on their longer-term goals and keep the ambition of their project front of mind. This requires a very pragmatic, practical and flexible approach, alongside a deep commitment to the quality of the finished building.
‘Design’ is also unusual in that it is not a problem to be solved, but rather a creative response to the constraints and context within which a new building must fit and thrive. The process is circular and iterative and I think goes something like this:
There can be dead ends and false turns too. Sometimes an idea must be abandoned, only to reappear later. Sometimes a solution can be reached quickly, and sometimes it takes longer.
Fundamentally I remain fascinated by this creative process and by what is possible. I am always looking for clients with shared values, commitment and enthusiasm. I continue to learn from past projects as well as looking at each new project with fresh eyes. My aim is to deliver the very best outcome for every one of my clients.
Late in the day, we have all become painfully aware that the incredible success of our species comes at a cost. The irreversible damage to our planet, through the sheer amount of resources required to sustain us and the disregard for the effect that we have had on the natural world has left eco-systems and species including many vulnerable people around the world on the brink. The era of plenty and consumption that has defined the developed world since the second world war and which continues today, must change.
Buildings both in construction and in use, are part of the problem. In the UK they are estimated to contribute 47% of all carbon emissions, with well over half of this from residential properties. How to reduce the energy use of buildings through their lifespan is complex, influenced by decisions at both a collective urban scale and at an individual project scale. Best practice is still badly formed and constantly catching up with the facts on the ground. The importance of reducing the embodied energy in construction for example, has only recently gained the prominace it deserves, with initiatives such as Retrofit first by the Architects Journal aimed a championing re-use and challenging the VAT and other rules that still promote demolishion and new build. Projects by some of the UKs leading architects with impressively low carbon in use hailed as exemplars untill recentty, sometimes ignored the huge amount of energy required to produce the concrete and steel they contain. Now they seem to be just another part of the problem. Architects declare of which I am a member, is promoting best practice and championing the changes that must take place in the profession and the construction industry.
It is also true to say that the challenge lies not with a few exemplar projects designed by architects, but how to retrofit the 1000's of ordinary uninsulated existing buildings, which account for the majority of carbon emissions. None the less, each and every project, retrofit or new build, can make it's own contribution both physically, as well as to the culture of change required. Architects are uniquely placed within the construction industry to provide the hollistic perspective that is required.
Hippocrates ambition to 'first do no harm' seems a a good place to start, and forces us to confront the fact that we inevitably do harm whenever we build, and certainly when we build new. A second useful statement of intent, which has not been around for so long, but remains relevant, is to reduce, re-use and recycle. Reduce perhaps the most important of these and often ignored by architects. This for me also raises interesting design questions and possibilities, both for an elegant economy of means, as well as for maximising the use of buildings, so as to minimise the requirement to build more. Both of these offer creative opportunities and suggest a rich and expressive architecture that creates value for clients.
My aim is therefore to do less harm and to encourage others to do less harm in their turn. To refurbish first, to use resources carefully and to produce efiicient buildings that last, with low embodied energy as well as low energy in use. Practically this may mean simple decisions to promote the use of timber over steel and concrete, to encourage clients to move away from fossil fuel heating systems, amongst many other decisions, each with environmental consequences.
There are no hard and fast rules about the service required or the fees charged for each project. My role is often a full architectural service, RIBA stages 0-7, managing and looking after clients from the start of a project, right through to hand-over of the completed building.
However I also offer a more tailored service, limited to those stages required, as well as feasibility studies and one-off meetings to discuss a potential project. I also advise clients about other consultants they may require, and I have built up a highly skilled network of talented people, including engineers, interior designers, party wall surveyors and others (including other architects), who I have worked with before and regularly recommend to clients. I also have experience working as part of multi-disciplinary teams as a consultant supporting contractors or project managers who may be leading the project.
This approach allows both efficiency and flexibility to work in different capacities and at different scales to best suit each client.
Useful information about working with architects and the riba plan of works can be found here:
Having lived in the house for 8 years, we had strong ideas about what we wanted but not the creative vision to see the house afresh. Sam instantly 'got it'. With his very first set of drawings, he extended the kitchen in the direction we'd said we didn't want, but we both looked at the plans and said: "That's perfect!" It was exactly the fresh eyes and creative approach that we needed to see the possibilities in the house.
Sam's help was threefold, really:
- Firstly, the creative challenge we needed first of all, to see the house and the space in a whole new way.
- Secondly, he balanced what you expect of an architect - pushing you in new directions, challenging you, asking you to think differently - with being utterly pragmatic. He never forgot that this is a family home and therefore needs practical things like masses of
Sam is unpretentious yet was happy to obsess over every detail with us about exactly how we live, how we would use the space, how it would flow. He was open to challenge and new ideas - from us and from the builders - and very collaborative. He knew when to push us a bit and when to back down - so we didn't end up with a single detail that didn't feel like 'us'. He also totally understood our initial brief was that we wanted the new parts to be in keeping with the style of the original late Victorian house - we didn't want the new bits to feel jarringly new. He completely worked with us on that.
I'd just say everything did he did was clever and perfectly thought through. We have a completely light-filled and warm kitchen, with sun pouring in at every angle except due south - so it never gets too hot. And the sightlines from one part of the house to another - whether down the hallway or across the courtyard from kitchen to sitting room - all work beautifully. All the little details he added are there for a reason and are also part of the overall style - the perfect marrying of form and function.
It brings us utter joy. Friends walk in and say "wow". I'd say it's the house we originally fell in love with, just made a million times better.
I saw Sam’s work online. He had refurbished a property very similar to my own and it was clear that although he had responded to the clients’ needs creatively, his response had been sympathetic to the integrity of the house. Exactly the approach I was looking for.
Sam helped in ways too numerous to list! His creative response to the refurbishment was entirely right for the property. He understood what I wanted and at the same time pushed me to consider new, fresh ideas and edit out some old ones. Sam listened and I learned! He made a potentially challenging process an absolute joy and encouraged me to have more confidence in my own creativity. A life lesson.
In practical terms the day-to-day quality of my life is much improved. I can start the day with a glorious shower, cook in a generous kitchen and even work from a dedicated space. I’m lucky to enjoy a warm, cosy and calm retreat from the world. Thanks to Sam’s expert guidance my home is a true expression of what I wanted and more.
Obviously I have no intention of moving, but if I win the lottery and can build my dream home by the sea I’ll be asking Sam to work on it!
We live in a classic Victorian London house and wanted to create a more open, family friendly space on the lower ground floor, but without creating a large formless space. We have a young family, with three boys aged five and under, and wanted a space we could all be together, which would also work as the children get older and need more independence.
From our initial meetings with Sam we also got the impression that he would be easy to work with and effectively manage a client working on a first refurbishment. Fortunately, this first impression was correct!
Sam was able to bring together all of our ideas, work through a range of alternatives, always bring in new creative ideas and helped us to find the ideal solution. He was very good at listening to us, managing our ideas and experience. He was very practical and also design focused. He was brilliant at managing the whole project, from builders to costs to materials and finishes.
The initial introduction came through the estate agent who we purchased the house from. He described Sam as a creative guy with great, innovative ideas. After looking at your website, we knew you would bring a different and fresh perspective to the design of our 1930’s and after meeting you in person, we knew the fit was right.
Beyond design style that was a “fit”, we also wanted an architect who would project manage the build but we didn’t want to be completely hands off – we had opinions and wanted our architect to take those into account.
There was no way we could have gone it alone on this project. We felt from the offset it would be a great partnership, and it turned out to be exactly that! You guided us through the process and shielded us from some of the more hairy moments to keep the stress levels down!
We have a home which reflects our taste and style with some really unique features we never would have thought of. It feels really warm, inviting and like a safe cocoon for our family, we couldn’t be happier – thank you Sam!
Sam was recommended to me by a friend of my daughter’s. I liked the fact that she felt Sam was interested in what she wanted and what would suit her life, rather than imposing his own views. When I met him he was enthusiastic about the flat I'd bought at the top of an old church and really listened to how I saw it looking ultimately. It was a small project but I was lucky that it was quirky and different enough for him to be prepared to take it on.
I can't stress enough how lucky I was to have Sam. He had some inspirational ideas but also stayed rooted in practical considerations and continually stayed in touch with what I wanted. He had a professional team of contractors whose work was outstanding but he also remained in constant touch with them and his high standards set the tone for the entire project. I was thrilled with his ideas and the final look of the flat; I would never have thought of his ideas myself and he was reassuring and easy to deal with. Nothing was too much trouble.
The flat is unrecognisable and has been completely transformed. He was always aware of cost and ran every decision by me so there were no surprises. He is a very strong communicator and works enormously hard. There were moments at the start of the project when I wondered why I'd bought the flat - since his work, I have had no doubts. I can't recommend him highly enough and would be happy to talk to anyone considering using him. I would certainly do so again.
When we embarked on a full restoration, sinking the lion's share of our capital - we needed all levels of support, architectural, introduction to contractors, hand holding and encouragement and efficiency on budget. We were drawn in by Sam's unique style, extraordinary mind reading skills and ability to convert ideas into reality. The project itself was complicated due to an unusual end of terrace property, but now much admired and a wonderful, modern, airy home which pays homage to its Victorian roots.
Sam provided a full service to us, extending from budget preparation, through design possibilities to construction including introducing us to a contractor and project management through to completion.
We enjoy the value of Sam's work every day including all the unique details and thought that went into the project. We have a unique living space, that is airy, light and a very happy family home for us both, our two children and dog Hamish.
Sam Tisdall Architects LLP, registered in England and Wales no. OC392565
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We are an RIBA registered practice.
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