Owen Pritchard looks at an up-and-coming practice whose first new-build project, a through-life house in East Sussex, combines elegance with confidence
In the tricky post-crash days of 2009 and 2010, Alma-nac, a London-based practice founded by Chris Bryant, Caspar Rodgers and Tristan Wigfall, set up stalls at London street markets offering free architecture and advertised their services in local shop windows. ‘It was slightly kamikaze,’ says Wigfall. ‘We weren’t officially licensed to be at the markets but, as we weren’t selling anything, they couldn’t move us on. It allowed us to have conversations with the public. The experience was reaffirming; people were interested in architecture and entered into the discussion.’ This entrepreneurial and adventurous approach to gaining commissions worked – the nascent practice found some willing clients.
The story of Alma-nac, now six-strong, is in some ways entirely traditional. Having studied together at UCL and worked at various large practices such as ECA, Make and Foster + Partners, the three graduates set up together. ‘We had a real desire to build,’ says Rodgers. ‘We had two projects and made the decision to go it alone. Though, once we did, both projects subsequently went on hold.’
Alma-nac’s early work comprised small-scale domestic projects, completed in various locations around the capital while they were completing their Part 2 studies. Wigfall recalls: ‘We would be discovering something in a lecture, then the day after having to implement that knowledge on projects.’
Early commissions included a refit at Romney Road and the Publisher’s Hideaway in Westminster (nominated for an AJ Small Projects award). These works, argue the architects, were ‘more like furniture than architecture.’ By maximising natural light and overlapping functions, Alma-nac was able to eke out a use for every square foot of floor space. ‘Doors became shelves, bedrooms had to function as writing spaces,’ says Rodgers. ‘We had to build ideas, then went back to go and see if they were working.’ These were the first occasions the fledgling studio used the process-driven, iterative approach to design that has come to define the way it works.
Alma-nac carried this experience into the Slim House (2012), an award-winning home in Clapham, London, which was squeezed between two party walls. The site was extremely tight, measuring only 2.3m across and extending back 16m. The practice responded with what it calls a ‘ski-slope roof’.
‘We did a big feasibility study with lots of ideas and presented them,’ says Rodgers. ‘Then the client told us the budget and we went back to the drawing board.’ Again, Alma-nac was working with tiny tolerances where every millimetre mattered – cranking floorplates and staggering the rooflights to create a volume filled with useful space and natural light. The design provides views throughout the roof so the constrained property feels anything but. ‘You are constantly referring back to design standards,’ says Bryant. Wigfall adds: ‘But we had to provide a sense of space when there wasn’t any really there.’
We would be discovering something in a lecture, then implementing it the day after
Throughout these early projects Alma-nac was conscious of not being qualified as architects, but found at this early stage that being enthusiastic and attentive was enough for their clients, even if there were some serious business lessons to be learned. ‘The clients we worked with believed in our ideas and process,’ says Bryant, ‘even if we lost money doing it.’
While Rodgers, Bryant and Wigfall were completing their studies and these early projects, they were also working on their first new-build project. The Split House (2014) near Pett in East Sussex is a through-life house set on a hill above a retirement village. The client held an invited competition for a ‘beautiful piece of architecture that would be easy to live in’. Alma-nac’s monopitched building is clad in black slate on the first floor and rendered white on the ground.
A kink in the plan allows for the separation of the house’s private and more public functions. Each internal space is oriented towards a particular view, giving it a unique character; the architects stepped back towards the end of the build to allow the client to complete the interior. Gabions define the site perimeter – the materiality of the house contrasts with the finesse of its form. There is elegance and confidence deployed to create a form that makes the most of its unique setting.
‘It’s a pretty blank-canvas site,’ says Bryant. ‘We wanted it to be something like a sundial,’ adds Rodgers. ‘So the terrifying changes in weather and the movement of the sun can be expressed across the building. The detail of the slate, with a tiny metal clip that catches the light at certain angles and the shadows that the cantilever and some of the windows cast express the time of day with shadows.’
Alma-nac is now nearing completion of a prefabricated timber house, which will replace a 1950s bungalow set in dense woodland. Inspired by a Russian dacha, its kinked roofline and exploration of form show a similar approach to design as the Split House.
The closeness to the end-user is a special relationship
The practice has put behind it the Del Boy antics of its early years and is starting to establish a list of clients and workload. Forthcoming projects include a straw-bale holiday retreat in Suffolk (currently in for planning) sited next to a Grade I-listed church, the second phase of its Basing Street apartments, and the Durnsford Road studios – a conversion of an existing office block into 25 micro apartments.
On its early projects, Alma-nac learned the importance of the way an architect interacts with the client.
‘The closeness to the end-user is a special relationship,’ says Wigfall. ‘It’s an emotional relationship and that is positive. It’s such a collaborative approach. The first 80 per cent of the work has to come from us, but the last 20 per cent is open. You work out with the client where they want to go.’
Using a rigorous and iterative methodology and a willingness to find new ways to engage with clients, Alma-nac avoids delivering formulaic buildings, but produces designs that reflect their context, the personality of the client and, probably, the personalities of the practice directors.
Alma-nac’s Publisher’s Hideaway
Alma-nac’s Slim House
Alma-nac’s Slim House
Alma-nac’s Slim House