Norman Hayden finds out what makes Simon Baker, director of Nash Baker Architects, tick.
Why did you become an architect?
My father’s English and my mother’s Norwegian, and on the Norwegian side of the family there are quite a few architects. My grandparents designed and built their own house in Norway shortly after they married, and I have vivid childhood memories of running around in their contemporary, light and flowing home, or looking out over the fjord below from the 10 m of glazing in their living room. My grandmother is 92 and the only thing that makes her house look dated is the small kitchen – everything else still feels relevant to modern living. So, even before I knew what architects do, I was interested in the design of dynamic spaces which everyone can enjoy.
What can we learn from foreign architects?
There’s a definite Scandinavian influence in our work – a clean aesthetic with lots of light that responds to its context, setting and environment. The house in Norway exerted a huge influence on me, and helped me to understand how the built environment can affect people’s moods. Going back to our dark, cold houses in England after holidays spent in Scandinavia made me wonder why we don’t design better homes in the UK. Every country has its own architectural challenges, and understanding how other countries tackle theirs can give us new insights into different methods of thinking, designing and building. Innovation is everywhere if we are curious enough to see it and learn from it.
There’s often a strong connection with the garden in your projects. Is it a deliberate philosophy?
Yes; for me, linking the building with a garden is key to the flow of any house. I can’t always take credit for the garden designs, but my schemes often lead outwards and treat the garden as a continuation of the internal spaces. For example, we created a rear extension on the Newton Road House, a semi-detached Victorian house in London’s Westbourne conservation area. The contemporary addition not only helped solve the property’s dysfunctional layout but provided a large, flowing modern space with plenty of natural light that had a strong connection to the garden. In such a multi-level house, it’s all about creating easy movement from one level to another and the garden was another very important level to play with.
As a practice you also seem particularly interested in conservation, is that the case?
That is true. A lot of our work is with listed buildings, piecing together their history – which is fascinating, challenging and rewarding. Our recently completed restoration of Church Farm, a Jacobean dwelling in Suffolk, involved the conservation of the remaining historic features and building fabric while sensitively adding contemporary alterations and extensions using authentic traditional materials and craftsmanship. We are based on High Street, Kensington, and The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is an engaging place for architects, with 35 conservation areas covering 70 per cent of the borough, and some 3,800 listed buildings. It represents a significant slice of England’s cultural and architectural history; a continual source of inspiration.
I think most would agree that we have a responsibility to preserve our unique historic environment; after all, it is a shared and finite resource we all benefit from on some level. The challenge we frequently face as architects is to agree the most appropriate method for preserving or adapting historic buildings, while creating properties which meet the needs of modern life.
That balance between contemporary design and conservation must make planning a challenge?
London planning officers are very professional and we like to initiate a dialogue with them as early as possible in the design process. Naturally we don’t invite them to perform the role of a designer, but neither do I want nasty surprises for the client, so it is sensible for them to be involved throughout the process. Our ongoing success has, in part, been built upon this track record and many clients – particularly developers – come back to us because of our knowledge and experience of this area.
The practice can often be found working on old houses and fixing piecemeal alterations and extensions. How can such factors affect a project?
We are often confronted with historic alterations that were probably attempts to address the needs of their time. Unfortunately, these ad hoc alterations are often unsympathetic, poorly built and no longer fit for purpose. At Nash Baker we try to unravel the layers of historic alternations and assess what original fabric remains and its historic significance before we consider designing interventions. Church Farm, in Suffolk, had seen centuries of sub-division and alterations which needed rationalising in order to make it work today as a functioning family home, and it was a time consuming job – but the result is hugely rewarding.
Does offering a full architectural service help on the trickier projects?
Traditionally, architects have seen themselves as the conductor of an orchestra and we probably still think a bit like this. At Nash Baker, we like to be involved with all aspects of a project, even the less glamorous unseen parts, because we are interested in the process of creating buildings in their entirety. From our perspective, the success of a project lies as much in the detailing and the coordination of works as it does in the quality of the initial design concept. For our clients this also ensures the highest quality of finish and a more pleasant experience all round. We consider architecture as a job without limitations and enjoy taking a holistic approach to design.
What will be the next ‘big thing’ for the industry?
I am glad people are increasingly keen to use traditional vernacular materials, and have a healthy respect and appreciation for craftsmanship again. We have responded to that; a good example being our Broad Street House project which is up for a RIBA regional award. It was built using traditional materials including locally-sourced oak cladding and handmade bricks laid with lime mortar, although the house design itself is entirely contemporary.
How has the practice evolved, and what are your hopes for 2016?
Nash Baker has changed beyond recognition. When we started it was just myself and Howard Nash, the other director. Our first project was designing a staircase; we had to build up the business from scratch. As to the future, building a reputation takes time, and every project and referral counts, so delivering an excellent service to clients is paramount. We’re not necessarily focused on growth, more on constantly improving and honing what we do.