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/Q&A with The Architects’ Journal

Practice name STUDIO/gather Based Cornwall. The practice runs two satellite offices, one on the north and one on the south coast of Cornwall, allowing shorter commutes for staff and a wider project catchment area. Founded June 2021, by Julian J Mills Main people Julian J Mills, Dan Ranson, Mel Deere

Where have you come from? We were born out of a desire to design collaboratively and create sustainable buildings, built for lifestyle and inspired by the landscape around them. It all kicked off when Dan (Ranson) and I (Julian Mills) met at the Centre of Alternative Technologies (CAT) in Wales while carrying out our Part 2s. Ten years on from mulling over the future of the built environment in the foothills of the Brecons, the idea of starting our own practice came back up.

Both of us had been through a series of larger award-winning sustainable architecture practices across the UK (Liam Russell Architects, Orme Architecture and Arco2) but it wasn’t until we had slowed the pace of working for either ourselves or for smaller firms that led to the collaboration. The team then grew quite quickly, due to our fortunate position of being catapulted into a rather large and varied workload from the get-go.

When the business rapidly took off, my partner Mel was working for a leading interior design company but had a background in marketing and business development, so when we needed a lynchpin it seemed a natural step to bring her skillset into what we were creating.

"Studying at CAT isn’t part of the ‘job spec’ but it’s a good grounding for how we work"

The team also has a number of collaborators which we have met along the way. Interestingly, all of them have shared a stint at CAT. This hasn’t necessarily been part of the ‘job spec’ but does seem to provide a good grounding for how we work currently, and wish to continue to work.

/what work do you have and what kind of projects are you looking for? We haven’t been prescriptive about project type apart from that the clients need to share our ethos: design to be just enough; considered material choices for both you and the planet; true sustainability. This seems to have given us a magnetism for truly individual projects but, more so, clients. They are more often than not people who have been creatives in their own rights, not just in design but in carving their own paths in life: artists, economists, fashionistas, self-builders, leaders and teachers, for example. This brings a diverse range of styles, project sizes and types. We currently have a number of new builds which are reaching Passivhaus standards. One takes on the form of a modern adaptation of a Cornish cottage vernacular, another is a play on a ‘1960s case study house’ and our most recent one is what we class as ‘hidden rural’ – a house that at a glance could well be a rudimentary farmstead, but is actually a cutting-edge, highly environmentally friendly family home.

It is not all bells and whistles, however, and that’s what keeps us grounded. Our backgrounds as individuals is specialising in truly sustainable design, both the grass shirt stuff and the technical number-crunching. We have a fair few deep renovation projects focusing on using natural materials to achieve high levels of insulation and airtightness, as well as minimising embodied carbon.

We have formulated a simple questionnaire for prospective clients to start thinking about how their buildings actually work and what effects this will have on keeping our global temperature below a 1.5°C rise. Taking a lot of learning from Architects Declare and the RIBA’s 2030 challenge has helped to open discussions and ultimately focus clients on what we hope to achieve with their projects.

Huefield model by STUDIO/gather /what are your ambitions? Recently we were asked the same question by a business coach and mentor we took on. It can sometimes come across as being a bit egotistical to be too ambitious these days, but we took the opportunity to nail our colours to the mast – we are a young fresh design studio after all. The outcome of the discussion was that in fact, our ambition is quite humble. We wish to balance profit with purpose and produce a high-quality design that is in line with our values.

We wish to be renowned for creating sustainable, progressive architecture along with working on jobs and with clients who put the environment first.

Our ambition doesn’t lie with size or turnover but with knowing that we are not standing still, keeping an innovative mind, researching, educating and investing in processes and tools for the best sustainable solutions.

Dan keeps a good handle on this by working as a visiting lecturer and design tutor at Falmouth University, while the rest of the team are gaining more letters after their names with certifications in Passivhaus design, etc.

I guess a goal for all of us is the perhaps mythical work-life balance. We are lucky that both our personal and private lives revolve around the coast. This setting is constantly inspiring us and grounding us.

There is nothing quite as good as a site meeting that ends with a dip in the sea with a client, a contractor, or even the whole design team. /what are the biggest challenges facing yourself as a start-up and the profession generally? The climate emergency. Be you a young buck or an old bull of a practice, getting skilled up to fight climate change and putting it into practice on projects is hard work. Further to this, getting clients on board, and finding contractors who can build it right, let alone price it correctly, is then the next hurdle. An ever-changing, fluctuating and/or inflating material cost market then adds to the difficulty. It often feels like an insurmountable task but, fortunately, with a little digging you find there is a network there to help you keep pushing.

Our advice on this is to collaborate, connect, and speak to others who know more and also less (it helps keep your fire burning knowing you are sharing the knowledge).

In terms of fears, as a small firm finding its feet, it would have to be the enigma that is the Cornish property market. It feels that for some time there has been a trend to ‘make hay while the sun shines’ – a boom of city deserters post-Covid. We ask ourselves, will we see this end? And if there is a slowdown, are we prepared?

"Who are we really helping and what effect does this have on our communities?"

This also raises an almost ethical question of who we are really helping and what effect it has on our communities.

Fortunately, we feel that having a mixed project typology allows us to satiate our appetite for doing more for local people in regular houses while also getting our design fix on a choice selection of larger projects. A bit of fear does keep the wolf from the door and we will keep doing what we do as long as it looks like it works.

/which scheme, completed in the past five years, has inspired you most? We are drawn to schemes that feel they have a real place in their setting. Ones that capture the landscape and bring some drama in doing so. It's not about being flashy but something that is ‘just enough’.

There are a couple of standout practices in our mind that coincidently seem to be in a similar rugged landscape to ours – Mary Arnold-Forster Architects, Baillie Baillie and Rural Office.

To pick two: Farnham, by Rural Office Architecture. The modern twists and contextual understanding make this a standout project. Also the immense craft in the internal finishes. And Nedd, by Mary Arnold-Forster Architects. This project lets the landscape do the talking. A well-detailed, utilitarian dwelling that sits gently on the site and clearly was highly considered before pen hit the paper.

Nedd house, An Cala, Sutherland, by Mary Arnold-Forster Architects

Source: David Barbour

/how are you marketing yourselves? A little bit of marketing has been undertaken. We built a rough-and-ready website, which went live the first day we opened. It's actually still rough-and-ready but being expanded and is slowly evolving. This has generated some interest as it’s not quite the stereotypical architect's website. It has projects and a blurb, but it’s slightly more pared-back.

We are also on Instagram (@studio_gather), although this isn’t really a source for prospective projects but a nice place to pin all the work that goes on behind the scenes in the practice. It’s a mixed portfolio and is quite fun to add to. A good source of enquires is coming through from our relationships with contractors. This has helped us achieve a success rate with bids, as they have already been given a tour of the work we produce and often have spoken with current or past clients before we pick up the phone. Knowing how we work first-hand without us necessarily having to show it off speaks volumes.

It has also been really helpful for us to be educated on what does and doesn’t work on-site and upskilling the contractors on how certain types of construction go together.

Finally, it is our clients, whom we actually could not thank enough for helping us get to where we are already. Not only have they given us the opportunity – or had the belief we will complete projects above our perceived experience level – but they have told all their contacts to get in touch too.

This gives us great confidence we are doing the right thing and brings in a really nice flow of projects. Read the full article on the Architect's Journal.


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