'Structural gymnastics' is how Richard Wooldridge, an architect with Mason Gillibrand, describes the small but complex canopy at the White Scar Caves visitor centre in the Yorkshire Dales (Working Details, pages 32-35). Working against wind uplift and friable limestone on a difficult, exposed site, Wooldridge also had to ensure the new structure was all but invisible from the surrounding countryside. 'It was a unique project requiring a unique solution, ' he says. 'We've been fortunate to work with Buro Happold, with access to its wind and rock specialists and top-quality engineers.
It was also a fantastic opportunity to build a relationship with it for the future, which is crucial for small, country practices where work is dependent on repeat clients and recommendation.' The cave canopy also illustrates the main challenge facing rural architects: how to design good, modern structures that have minimal impact on the landscape. While the canopy may not typify Mason Gillibrand's work - its workload is about 40 per cent rural private houses - it may be the project that puts the practice on a bigger map. Wooldridge, who joined Mason Gillibrand in 2001, stayed in the North after leaving Edinburgh College of Art in 1998, when most of his contemporaries were going to London. 'They may be working in the big offices but they have far less responsibilty and space to develop, ' he suggests.
The practice is organised along democratic lines where everyone is allowed to play to their strengths, adds Wooldridge.
'It means that some people stick to country house interiors, some to barn conversions.
But every Friday afternoon we open a bottle of red wine and brainstorm one another's projects - including the partners'. No one holds back.' The practice has also developed an innovative quantity surveying system, adapting what would be an unwieldy system for a small practice doing a succession of small jobs by costing with trusted local builders as they go along.
Mason Gillibrand was founded by Edward Mason and Nick Gillibrand in 1992 and now has 13 staff (and growing) at its offices, a converted mill in the tranquil village of Caton, outside Lancaster in Lancashire. 'You don't expect to find young, progressive practices in rural areas but Lancaster has a thriving scene. There are some fantastic designers here - it's just that they don't shout about it.' Partly to spread the word, and partly to support local architects, Wooldridge has set about shaking up the local RIBA branch. With just 120 members, 40 of whom are retired, the Lancaster and Westmoreland Society of Architects (LAWSA) is the smallest RIBA branch in the country and evidently needed reinvigorating. Wooldridge and a colleague currently rotate the presidency and vice-presidency.
'I take the view that it's about encouraging architects in the area to grow and develop their ideas, just as much as flying the flag for the RIBA.' Ideas for Schools, a competition scheme Wooldridge is currently running that is gathering its own momentum, sends an architect into local secondary schools for eight weeks to work with children on imaginary building projects in their local environment. 'It's not meant to turn them all into architects, although some may well end up as clients. It gives them an entry into architecture, even at a conceptual level, and gets them thinking about their environment in a different way. They've produced some really sophisticated ideas, and you can see them starting to appreciate their environment much more.' Different schools adopt different approaches, he says, to fit the project into the national curriculum, slotting it into art, CDT, graphics and even geography lessons. 'There are other benefits too - working with teachers, and also when parents get involved.'
This year's exhibition - the fourth - ran concurrently with Architecture Week and a tour is likely in the new Arts Council mobile exhibition 'truck'. Improved funding from the Arts Council England (North West) means brochures can be produced for next year and Wooldridge is also writing a teachers' guide, which the council aims to adopt as a regional model. 'We've hit on something really big and I think we can get it even better.' The aim is now to draw in more architects from practices further afield. LAWSA also ran a successful CPD fair with 25 manufacturers' stalls and Wooldridge hopes to run this again next year too.
These initiatives also underpin the practice ethos of breathing new life into existing, often underused, buildings. The exhibition was housed in the Ashton Memorial, the Lancaster landmark clearly visible from the M6. Another scheme to redevelop the Storey Institute, a late Victorian building in Lancaster city centre and another local landmark, is on the books. Built as a mechanics' institute and extended, with typical Victorian gusto, to form a centre for the advancement of the arts and sciences, it was gifted to the city of Lancaster but is now rather forlorn and more than half empty. With its superb gallery spaces - once described as the best in northern England - stained-glass windows and secret garden, it has considerable potential as an artistic and social hub. 'We're planning to drag this building, sensitively, into the 21st century.' Wooldridge describes his own design philosopy as a quest to bring in more light and space. In rural areas this is often born of necessity because of the seemingly insurmountable planning regulations. Perhaps a paradigm is the barn conversion - the bread and butter of so many rural practices - where the thick outside shell with few openings belies the fabulous space and light so often found within. 'You become expert at fine-tuning everything until the planners are happy.' But it has helped him evolve creatively as a rural architect, he believes, though he takes on less housing than his colleagues, preferring the more idiosyncratic projects.
Back at the White Scar show cave, this synergy is evident. 'I love working in the spaces where architecture meets engineering.' He may be surrounded by grass, but he isn't likely to let it grow for long.