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Interview

Interview: AJ Small Projects Award 2020 winner Martin Edwards

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Martin Edwards, this year’s winner of the AJ Small Projects award, talks to Rob Wilson about the challenges of creating a complex extension to a North Wales house on a budget of just £120,000

When did you found Martin Edwards architects and where had you worked before?
In 2013. Before that I’d worked for Avery Associates, Ellis Williams Architects and then most recently at Fletcher Priest.

Could you describe your House in North Wales project in a nutshell. What was the brief and who was the client?
The existing house sits amongst low-lying farmland with views toward Snowdonia and has been in the current owners’ family for almost 50 years.

One of the owners is reliant on a wheelchair, and the house had become progressively more inaccessible. Our brief was to rethink the ground floor of the house and to add a new bedroom. The budget for the project was £120,000.

02 house in wales mea client

02 house in wales mea client

Source: Martin Edwards architects

Was there a big idea for this small project?
The house, the landscape setting and the local building vernacular all provoked ideas about form, materials and details. It was not so much about a big idea as a process of collecting, distilling and editing: working with the original house and making carefully directed interventions.

But opening the new rooms towards the panoramic, ever changing view of Snowdonia was something that was very important from the outset.

We were also conscious that, while very modest in scale, not everything should be revealed at once; and that external influences – the changing light, the rain, a sea breeze – should all be able to exert an influence on the character of the spaces throughout the day.

002 mea plan after

002 mea plan after

Source: Martin Edwards architects

Plan

What was the main challenge you faced in the design?
It was how to add to the existing house without unduly imposing on its form, setting and character.

What does it takes to create good design at a smaller scale with a smaller budget?
Small projects can be an opportunity to explore ideas, in relatively quick succession, with an intensity that is different to larger projects. Successive small projects offer a means to develop a design approach and to build experience within a studio team.

The best solutions often come from quite specific briefs, and strong client collaborations – this project is a very good example.

Here we tried to make every element contribute to the whole in multiple ways, but we tried to keep the details as simple as possible, working with standard building materials and sizes.

North wales house 0030 martinedwardsarchitects

North wales house 0030 martinedwardsarchitects

Source: Max Creasy

Can the constraints of brief and budget be creative in themselves? 
Yes, very much so. It often helps bring into focus what’s essential and to distil ideas and details down to those things that make an appreciable difference to the whole.

Can you take risks and experiment more in small projects?
Yes, in my experience there are generally more opportunities to experiment. In some ways it is often expected by a client who chooses to use an architect for a small project.

North wales house 0021 martinedwardsarchitects

North wales house 0021 martinedwardsarchitects

Source: Max Creasy

How have you experimented with detail and material in this project?
The remote location meant that characteristics such as a materials weight became more critical. The new structure is all timber, using standard dimensionsm, making the wood easy to transport, readily available and familiar.

The cladding is a lightweight corrugated sheet made from recycled wood fibre. Although not a new material, it is more typically used in small agricultural buildings in the UK. In this instance its lightness was a key advantage, but it also had a strong tactile quality that sat comfortably with other materials.

Has this project helped move on your thinking and practice? 
It was an opportunity to re-focus an interest in simple forms of construction and the reappropriation of familiar products and materials – a complex ordinariness.

North wales house 0035 martinedwardsarchitects

North wales house 0035 martinedwardsarchitects

Source: Max Creasy

How is the practice responding to the coronavirus? 
As a small studio the move to remote working has been relatively painless and we’ve adapted to using the various online collaboration platforms. But there’s no substitute for the studio environment at key junctures in a project and it’s difficult not to feel the isolation at certain times.

It’s difficult not to feel the isolation at times

The effect on our workload has been mixed; some projects have inevitably paused but we have also seen one or two new instructions, where a client is anticipating changing needs or has perhaps simply had more opportunities recently to consider future plans.

What are your key past projects and what are you currently working on?
We are currently at the early stages of a project to restore and remodel a Grade I-listed stable building, part of a school in Kent. We are also at the early stages of residential projects including; a new house and sculptor’s studio on a site in rural Kent and the renovation and remodelling of an early 19th century coach house.

01 artists studio in stepney mea max creasy

01 artists studio in stepney mea max creasy

Source: Max Creasy

Artist’s studio in Stepney

Recent and current projects include an artist’s studio in Stepney, completed at the beginning of this year; ongoing projects at a school in Twickenham; and a new family house in the Cotswolds.

Past projects include the retrofit of a 1980s office building in Hemel Hempstead; a project to improve accessibility to buildings and landscape setting of New College, Oxford (in collaboration with Architect John Robins and working with the blacksmith John Churchill) and remodelling work for Mall Galleries in London.

04 retrofit office building mea martin edwards

04 retrofit office building mea martin edwards

Source: Martin Edwards

Retrofit office, detail of reception installation using a photo commissioned by MEa from Angela Moore

All entries to this year’s Small Projects Award are on view in the AJ Buildings Library

AJ Small Projects is run in association with Marley

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