Neville Churcher is not, as far as he knows, related to the Churcher who founded a school in what is now Tilbrook House, Petersfield, back in 1723. 'Old Churcher's College' closed down many years ago and the Grade II-listed building was in a poor state when acquired by Hampshire County Council in 1985. It was subsequently restored under the direction of Nev Churcher as offices for the county surveyor and as a registry office. In 1994, Churcher returned to the site as the architect for a new building across the garden (bisected by a stream) from the existing house. The new building, replacing a dismal 1950s box, was to be occupied by the social services department and was to include both office space and a reception area and interview rooms used by the public.
Nev Churcher achieved a degree of celebrity when his Woodlea primary school at Bordon won a string of awards, becoming riba Building of the Year in 1991. Woodlea exemplifies Churcher's informal, organic, 'people- based' approach to design and is at home in its woodland setting, close to a new housing estate. For Churcher, 'keep itsimple' is a constant dictum. 'Why do otherwise?' he says. 'Architecture today is becoming dominated by fashion - that worries me a lot.' The new Petersfield building exemplifies his philosophy.
Petersfield is an intriguing town, with a memorable setting and strong Arts and Crafts connections which are not lost on Churcher. The new building stands on the edge of the old town; behind it is a recent housing development in pastiche Georgian style - the residents were critical of plans for a 'modern' building on their doorsteps. For Churcher, however, modernity and sensitivity to site are not opposites. He wanted to create a highly efficient building, tuned to users' needs, which intensifies the sense of place. He appears to have succeeded. After more than two years in use, the building is looking good and working well. It is, in essence, a 'simple' building, with no structural or visual gimmickry. From the garden, it appears as a solid brick base, punctured by small square window openings, on which a lightweight upper floor perches - a classic 'inhabited wall' with a beefy brick tower housing a lift and stairs.
The siting was crucial. The initial idea was to place the new building directly on the bank of the stream, but the final scheme provides for a more expansive and enjoyable setting for the two buildings which now share the site. To the rear, across an area of parking, the building is altogether less monumental, with a glazed elevation sheltering under a massive monopitch roof, clad in lead. The roof is supported internally by £ timber posts. The main office space is lofty and light and extends into a mezzanine (a modification to the original plans, reflecting a revised space requirement). A solid masonry core supports the mezzanine and provides storage space. Along the garden side of the building, cellular offices at ground-floor level form the base for a first-floor terrace, which serves both as escape route and a pleasant staff amenity in summer. The lift/stair tower divides the offices from the public domain - the staff deal with some 'difficult' cases and security is a consideration. A small pool, with a little balcony over it, provides a retreat for the clientele.
Churcher's Arts and Crafts/Wrightian sympathies are apparent in the care given to the choice and proper use of materials. The brick used is the now discontinued Wealden Light from Redland. 'I bought up the last loads they made,' says Churcher. 'It's just right for this location, on the edge of downland.' The unusual railings on the terraces and some gates were made by Petersfield blacksmith Steve Pibworth, and were cut from sections of steel pipe - a sound example of recycling. (One gate was made of cut-up oxygen cylinders!) 'Why destroy anything?' is Churcher's philosophy; he fought hard to save trees close to the new building. Woodlea School struck some (including, it is said, Colin Stansfield Smith) as mannered and overly romantic. It is an act of faith which not everybody can embrace. At Petersfield Churcher balances rationalism and emotion more finely, with a continuing commitment to detail, to produce clear evidence that critical regionalism is alive and well.
TILBROOK HOUSE, PETERSFIELD
Hampshire County Council architects department: Nev Churcher, Anne Claxton, Mike Keys, Jeremy Cox, Gareth Bartlett, Steve Perry, Paula Ashford, Rachel Thomsen, Geoff Stevenson
Dadson & Butler
R J Watkinson & Associates
D J Trimming