Not quite making a silk purse from a sow's ear, Jonathan Ellis-Miller can nevertheless take credit for turning a former pig shed into the RIBA Award-winning headquarters of the Cambridge Federation of Women's Institutes. The project may be small but it could nevertheless have major ramifications for both architect and client.
Until winning a RIBA Award for this very building, ellismiller was one of those practices I had heard of but could not quite place.
It is headed by Jonathan Ellis-Miller, a Liverpool School graduate who, before setting up his own practice in 1992, spent six years with John Winter. For many, John Winter will also be someone you have heard of but can't quite place; but he was there at the start of the British High-Tech movement - in the US, when Rogers, Foster, Stirling and so many others were imbibing a heady cocktail of fast-track construction, a can-do attitude and the patronage of a wealthy and cultured elite that wanted to express itself through the medium of architecture.
Into this rich mix there came a vision of a new architecture. In California in the 1940s and '50s a government initiative to prefabricate affordable homes was taken up by Arts and Architecture magazine and became the now famous Case Study House building programme. The (largely) single-storey, lightweight braced steel-framed houses with full-height glazing and exposed corrugated sheet steel soffits (I simplify) by the likes of Eames, Soriano, Neutra, Quincy Jones, Ellwood, Koenig et al were introduced into the UK by Foster, Rogers, Hopkins, Manser - and John Winter. His house had (for 1969) a rather daring, headline-catching Corten cladding too. Plus ça change.
Small wonder then that the young Ellis-Miller, on setting up practice, designed and built his own house - an elegant white-framed essay in the lightweight steel tradition. There then followed a number of small but important commissions of this type, including a house for Mary Banham and a sunroom for Hugh Pearman. However, hidden among all this elegant clean-limbed minimalism there was another, less polemical, aesthetic developing.
You see it in the blunt metal siding and ribbon windows to the rear of his own house. You see it in John Winter's beach house in Norfolk, too. It seems to suggest that there are more important issues to concern us now than the purity of the form and I suspect that the FutureWorld house at Milton Keynes (1994) may have had something to do with it.
The sustainability agenda seems really to have come to the fore with this building and, like the Hopkins practice which went through a similar philosophical shift at about this time, you can already sense here an unresolved aesthetic tussle developing with the architectural language of traditional materials and forms.
It is a beautiful sunny Monday morning and I am standing at Cambridge station. Ellis-Miller arrives, late but unhurried, in a battered old Land Rover. We bowl along Queen's Road, past King's College Chapel and all those wonderful modern icons, like a Who's Who of post-war British architectural talent - the stuff of dreams - and out through Girton to the very edge of the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside. I had just started thinking that it must be very nice to have a small practice in a place like this when, down a short gravelled road, there it is.
It sits in a row of pig sheds and from this angle it looks, well, very much like a pig shed. Of the two sheds gifted to the Women's Institute for their new headquarters, one was demolished to make space for a car park and the other was developed into this building. I use the term 'developed' advisedly because it is a bit like discovering an ancient fossil. You still see the original animal but its every part has been replaced.
Of course, it would have been easier to have demolished the lot and started again but the conditions for a planning permission in these parts is that new employment uses are acceptable only if involving the retention and reuse of an existing building. No matter that it has to be almost totally rebuilt to meet statutory structural and environmental standards. What a very strange world we live in. I am already backtracking a little from the country practice idea.
Having adjusted now to the building's unusual provenance, and carefully avoiding some very tetchy geese, the first thing to say about it is that it is small - very small - three offices, a kitchen, a WC and a store.
However, in these days of mega projects by mega practices, it is good to remind ourselves occasionally that in architecture a project does not have to be big to be good, which is fortunate given that 80 per cent of the profession is in small practices and constrained briefs could be the daily diet. The only difference here is that ellismiller could see past the difficulties and sense instead the possibilities.
The WI was, in manifestos if not yet quite so convincingly in practice, a committedly environmentalist organisation. It had signed up to Kyoto and Local Agenda 21 - it just had not met anyone quite skilful and committed enough to carry it through.
In a way then, it has proved fortunate that the shed could not be pulled down, because by reusing its materials the embodied energy therein has been reused too. All good BREAM rating stuff. Thus the walls have been lined with insulation and timber or brick cladding and the floors have been built up with additional insulation and a new concrete slab, all measures which aim to increase the thermal capacity.
The roof too has been replaced by a highly insulated 'heavyweight' monopitch consisting of a 1.2m-wide proprietary reinforced concrete panel system by Creagh. There is not anything particularly innovative about any of this, just good sound practice, but at first sight I did question the wisdom of exposing the soffit.
This isn't one of those high-spec concrete finishes that practices such as Foster or Hopkins can afford - this is a pretty crude plank, meant to be hidden by a suspended ceiling and that is exactly what it looks like.
However, I soon had to revise my opinion because it has had an unexpected effect - by virtue of its ugliness it has now become quite virtuous. It seems to say to the WI that it may not be pretty but it does keep the bills down - and thus it has already become endearing. A clever device others might learn from.
The result is a slow-response/high-thermal capacity envelope; the very opposite of the practice's earlier fast-response/ low-capacity buildings. It should work well, given the narrow plan depth, especially if the rear vents are left open at night. (However, I suspect that they may not be as they do not appear very secure. ) Planning constraints have meant the monopitch roof is quite shallow but an upstand beam that looks to have been a mite troublesome allows just enough height for a light-shelf on the main (south-west) elevation. It would have been even better if there had been room (or funds) for openable vents here too, but the shelves really work, the light reflecting deep into the space, albeit marred by some unfortunately placed surface light fittings and conduits.
These passive environmental systems are augmented on the main facade by two very large sliding timber doors which close over the two main spaces to give, it is argued, an attenuation of the late evening sun and additional security. I was not entirely convinced by this. The private office is not protected by them and conventional (continental) shutters do so much more, and better.
I suspect they have become part of the symbolic vocabulary of environmental design, just as external aluminium louvres were for lightweight steel-framed buildings.
You see this approach to detailing in Richard Murphy's work too, where he often uses a similar galvanised, sometimes grey-painted exposed steel section with no specific structural logic as a loose framing device to support a variety of different materials and proprietary components which combine in interesting visual compositions and material juxtapositions.
It is an approach that has not only allowed the rear and side elevations to coexist with the new in their original agricultural character (and the two existing 'chimneys' to be celebrated as symbolic ventilators with industrial smoke-stack lettering) but to incorporate too a reference to the Australian corrugated tin roofs of Glen Murcutt and Chris Clarke (another of John Winter's protegés) and to the practice's own more recent past in the finely crafted stainless steel framing over the entrance.
This framing serves the practical purpose of providing support for a canopy and the active side of the building's environmental systems with a 700W photovoltaic array, but it is not that which arrests the eye. It is that it has been shaped to form a 'W' and 'I'. As Ellis-Miller puts it: 'Well, when someone gives you a pig shed to rebuild, just how seriously should you take it?' Quite.
This is a very serious architect talking.
The Women's Institute, of course, loves this building.
And it is a little gem. It has a frugal yet homely feel and its radical aspect sits well too with the perception 'post-Blair' of its new-found activist spirit.
It has also given the WI something it probably never imagined it would ever have - a sentiment which is surely every architect's most clichéd phrase. By force of his talent, perserverance and personality, Ellis-Miller has helped form a client into a patron - and hopefully he will be back with commissions all over the country. But that's the rub.
If I might be permitted to rattle the cage a little - how, by all that is just in this world, is it possible that this project is the biggest that this practice has ever built? How on earth can it be that a talent like this that has been in practice for 13 years, won eight awards, including three from the RIBA, been exhibited in 40 under 40, been a CABE enabler, and so on and so on? is still scrabbling around to make a £307,000 contract work?
It makes no sense. We hear so much about the need for raising the quality of the built environment, and especially so in the regions, yet it seems the commissions rarely go to those who, by enthusiasm and talent, would best serve this purpose.
It goes instead to those who can tick boxes to EU standards and can lash up bundles of schools, local group practices and civic projects - all the stuff small practices like this once thrived on - and sell them back on a 'three for the price of two' basis.
OK, you might counter, but Cambridge is surely the one place in this land where a major cultural commission - an act of patronage - is still a possibility. And it is - a possibility, but sadly not for the likes of ellismiller, I wager. The Cambridge lot are notoriously sniffy when it comes to commissioning - they prefer their own - and what gets through that sieve will surely get hoovered up in London by the friends of the principal donors.
I came away feeling rather humbled by all of this, and outraged too, that such amazing talents are allowed to go to waste.