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Good lifestyle, bad broadband: the rewards and challenges of being a rural architect

Kate darby in the studio by david connor crop
  • 1 Comment

NEWS FEATURE: With slow broadband speeds, patchy phone signals and difficulties in finding both staff and projects, why do some architects choose to work in the countryside? Ella Braidwood investigates

Earlier this month a report published by the British Chambers of Commerce found that more than 90 per cent of rural businesses suffered from full or partial ‘not-spots’ in their mobile phone coverage.

The survey of more than 1,400 firms across the UK also found that more than half (54 per cent) of rural businesses had unreliable mobile internet connections. 

Access to high-speed broadband is also an issue for practices in the countryside. A report published in April by communications regulator Ofcom found that ‘rural consumers receive much lower average speeds than those in urban areas’. 

Being a professional in the countryside can, therefore, be hard, and is perhaps one reason why the bulk of the UK’s architects are based in cities. More than half of the UK’s 39,168 ARB-registered architects live in Greater Manchester and London alone.

As Alan Dickson, director of Skye-based Rural Design admits: ‘The life of a rural architect is not always as peaceful as it looks.’

Recruitment is the hardest thing. It is a big commitment to ask someone to move to work in a remote rural location

Without reliable mobile phone coverage and internet access, firms based in the countryside can struggle to carry out even basic tasks. 

During the writing of this feature, the AJ experienced first-hand some of the difficulties faced by practices working in remote locations.  

‘Just struggling to upload content due to rural broadband speeds,’ wrote Niall Maxwell, director of Rural Office for Architecture from its base on a Welsh farm, after the AJ requested images of its work.

So, apart from connectivity, what other trials do rural practices face? Why have some chosen to live and work in the countryside? And what does the future look like? 

Piers Taylor, founder of Invisible Studio, says that ‘lifestyle, cheapness and the opportunity to develop a specialism’ are all big draws for architects moving to the country.

Andy_Matthews_Photo_24

Andy_Matthews_Photo_24

Source: Andy Matthews

Invisible Studio’s office

Taylor, who is based in remote woodland three miles outside of Bath – and who has to walk outside his studio to find a better signal during our call – adds that the countryside allows architects to experiment, gives them more space to build on, and makes it ‘easier to do work that catches international attention’ than in the city. 

He points to Mole Architects’ highly acclaimed first project, the Black House, overlooking the Fens in Cambridgeshire, and completed in 2004, which won the 2004 RIBA Manser Medal.  

Another suggested upside of being a rural practice is the ability to have a more personal relationship with clients.

‘We frequently cross paths [with clients] in the pub or supermarket or on a four-hour ferry crossing to the mainland,’ say Lynne Cox and Micheal Holliday, directors of Roots Design Workshop, which is based on the Isle of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides. ‘This means that we have a closer dialogue with them about the project than a city architect might, and usually leads to strong working relationships.’

It can take a day to reach a site and you may get storm-bound on an island – so be prepared to lose a day or two

Even so, Ann Nisbet of Ann Nisbet Studio, which is based both in the Highlands and Glasgow, admits that life for rural practices is ‘not always that rosy’.

She points out that ‘recruitment is a challenge – there are fewer architects available.’

Nisbet adds that there is less work available for practices like hers; sites are difficult to get a hold of; and there is a limited selection of contractors, which are often smaller, resulting in longer construction times.

Newhouse of auchengree ann nisbet studio david barbour

Newhouse of auchengree ann nisbet studio david barbour

Source: David Barbour

Newhouse of Auchengree, North Ayrshire, by Ann Nisbet Studio

Recruitment is a test undoubtedly encountered by many practices based in the countryside. 

Employment is the ‘hardest thing,’ says this year’s AJ Small Projects winner Kate Darby of Herefordshire-based Kate Darby Architects, and its only permanent member of staff.

‘It is a big commitment to ask someone to move to work in a remote rural location,’ she points out. ‘So far I have tried short-term contracts and remote working.’

And Maxwell says that attracting and retaining staff is Rural Office for Architecture’s ‘biggest challenge’.

He explains: ‘The rental market locally is lousy, and we are reliant on car transport. Younger staff do struggle to settle unless local to the region.’

In order for rural practices to recruit staff successfully, it would appear that potential employees need to be persuaded by the prospect of a different lifestyle.

Dickson says Rural Design has been ‘very lucky’ in its recruitment of staff, because ‘most have ended up putting down roots’ on the Isle of Skye. 

If we moved back we would miss mussels at £1 per kilogram and buying langoustines from a 10-year-old boy on a tricycle

Travel is also an issue. Mary Arnold Forster, who set up her own practice in Dunkeld, Perthshire, and previously worked for Dualchas Architects on the Isle of Skye, says the wider spread of projects means rural practices have to factor in more time for travelling.

‘It can take a day to reach a site and you may get storm-bound on an island,’ she says. ‘So be prepared to lose a day or two here and there.’

Rural practices certainly aren’t in it for the big bucks, as Jenny Wyness and Will Thorne of Isle of Mull-based Thorne Wyness admit.

‘Unless you are practising somewhere like Hampshire, [a rural practice is] not going to make a lot of money,’ they say.

But they are certain that the quality of rural life makes up for it. ‘This will be offset by the ability to have dinner on an empty beach in the summer, and the privilege of being part of a small community,’ they say. 

Indeed, despite the hardships of relative isolation, many of these architects are enjoying and excelling in their work. 

In March, when Kate Darby won the AJ Small Projects competition with husband David Connor – for their preservation and conversion of a listed 300-year-old ruined cottage – the achievement demonstrated the high-quality work being produced by rural practices. This was further emphasised when the 115m² scheme also won an RIBA regional award earlier this month.

And not for a moment are Wyness and Thorne tempted to return to their former city life in London. ‘If we moved back we would miss mussels at £1 per kilogram and buying langoustines from a 10-year-old boy on a tricycle,’ they say. 

There is also some hope that connectivity issues will improve. The Conservative manifesto pledges to ensure that by 2020 ‘every home and every business in Britain has access to high-speed broadband’. It also says it will invest £740 million in digital infrastructure. 

But although the Tories look likely to remain in government following next month’s election, the party has previously failed to fulfil similar pledges, and it remains to be seen whether they will stick to their word this time around. 

The AJ talks to six rural practices across the UK about the obstacles, opportunities and future for architects in the countryside. 

HEREFORDSHIREPERTHSHIRECO LONDONDERRYCARMARTHENSHIREISLE OF TIREEISLE OF SKYE

Kate Darby Architects, Leominster, Herefordshire

Kate darby crop

When did you establish your practice? I started it part-time in 2008 and have been working full time since 2015. 

How many of you are there? One. 

Is there a future for the rural practice? In theory, yes. At its best it should be an opportunity for experimentation in the radical, rural tradition. In reality it is hard to make money. 

What projects are you working on? A house in Herefordshire; a Quaker Meeting House in Ludlow; and a feasibility study for St George’s Farm in the Wyre Forest, Worcestershire. I hope to start soon on a residential apartment scheme in France.  

What should someone setting up in a rural location know? You need to be more self-sufficient. It can help to diversify mixing practice with teaching or small-scale property development. 

What do you think the long-term impact of leaving the EU will be for your practice? I am going to be poorer. My work in France may not be affected, but who knows? EU-funded projects are now uncertain. Remainers are in the minority in rural areas in England and Wales. It is one of the downsides. 

Is there anything you miss about city life? The culture generally, mainly art. Our city friends. 

Croft lodge studio 01

Croft lodge studio 01

Source: James Morris

Croft Lodge Studio by Kate Darby Architects

Mary Arnold-Forster, Dunkeld, Perthshire

Mary arnold forster head shot

When did you establish your practice? January 2016. 

How many of you are there? One, although I use self-employed people from time to time.  

What are the main challenges you face? Similar problems relating to procurement that a small urban practice will face.  I am unlikely to get jobs beyond the domestic because of the size of the practice and my experience.   

What projects are you working on? A house on Skye, and my own house and studio, which is just completing. Also a house about to start on Iona; a house near Gairloch about to go to planning; and an extension to a house in Perthshire. I should also be working on curating an exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy.  

What should someone thinking about setting up a rural practice know? Distances are much greater and the logistics are obviously more complicated. If your main motivation is making money, think very hard about taking on a job too far from home. 

What are the main benefits of working in a rural location? I have a particular love of these landscapes and this is where I want to spend my time, both at work and at play. 

New house at drumbeg mary arnold forster

New house at drumbeg mary arnold forster

New house at Drumbeg

McGarry-Moon, Kilrea, County Londonderry

Team shot adam currie

Team shot adam currie

Source: Adam Currie

When did you establish your practice? May 2004. Our founders are Jessica McGarry and Steven Moon. 

How many of you are there? Seven.  

What projects are you  working on? A spa on the west coast of Ireland; a factory for an organic cosmetics company; social housing and assisted living schemes; and individual homes throughout Ireland. We also have projects in London and Scotland, and several homes and a town hall in the Czech Republic.

What should someone setting up in a rural location know? Set the bar high, be ambitious, use your location to your advantage. Stay in contact with architects in different locations so as not to feel isolated.  

Fallahogey studio  adam currie

Fallahogey studio adam currie

Source: Adam Currie

Fallahogey studio by McGarry Moon

What are the main benefits of working in a rural location? Definitely not the internet speed. But the view is good and the air is fresh.

What were your motivations for setting up in a rural location? We wanted a better quality of life, to find a way to be closer to family and still do what we love. 

Is there anything you miss about city life? From time to time we miss the buzz of city life, but we still get to work within cities, so we have the best of both worlds. 

Rural Office for Architecture, Llandysul, Carmarthenshire

Roa

Roa

When did you establish your practice? 2008. 

How many of you are there? Seven. 

What projects are you working on? We have recently completed a large country estate in Kent. We are working on an Arts and Crafts home in Surrey; a visitor centre in Pembrokeshire; a gallery in Newtown; and a media centre in Carmarthen.  

What should someone setting up a practice in a rural location know? I [Niall Maxwell, director] have never worked so hard since moving here to establish and build a business. Being rural you have to go that extra distance to compete. 

What are the main benefits of working in a rural location? My main motivation was to have a better quality of life for me and my family. This has worked for them, but I do feel rather chained to the desk at times. 

What do you think the long-term impact of leaving the EU will be for your practice? Time will tell. The Welsh economy’s over-reliance on EU funding may see a shift in economic priorities in the future. 

Black hat 01 section cgi

Black hat 01 section cgi

Roots Design Workshop, Isle of Tiree 

Roots team photo venice 2016

Roots team photo venice 2016

When did you establish your practice? 2010.

How many of you are there? Six – two directors and four members of staff. 

Is there a future for the rural practice? There certainly is. We have found an unmet demand for architectural services in the more remote areas of the country and this is the niche in which we set up.  

What projects are you working on? Our biggest project is a major renovation of Iona Abbey. We also have several new-build houses currently on site on Tiree.   

How easy is it to get work? In the beginning we attracted our first clients by providing a service that wasn’t otherwise available. Now most clients find us through word of mouth. 

What are the main benefits of working in a rural location? The lifestyle that comes with it and the sense of contribution you make to the people and way of life around you. Being on an island offers fresh air and a different quality of life. 

Roots architecture the glebe 3 ¬ ross campbell

Roots architecture the glebe 3 ¬ ross campbell

Source: Ross Campbell

The Glebe by Roots Design Workshop

Rural Design, Portree, Isle of Skye 

Team photo rural design

Team photo rural design

When did you establish your practice? 2002. 

How many of you are there? 13. 

Is there a future for the rural practice? Yes. There is a desire to live and visit areas of great natural beauty, and this is one of the drivers of our business.

What projects are you working on? A broad range of private and social housing, together with a smaller amount of community and commercial work.  

What should someone setting up in a rural location know? It requires patience and compromise to get going. It is only sustainable if you genuinely love rural life. 

What are the main benefits of working in a rural location? 

The lifestyle and smaller scale of work were the initial motivations – it is a better work/life balance. 

Tinhouse rural design

Tinhouse rural design

Tinhouse by Rural Design

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • John Kellett

    One of the more irritating aspects of 'rural' practice is the lack of interest in architecture within the population, all are self sufficient in character with an 'I can do that' attitude and hatred of professionals. There are a number of unqualified persons offering 'architectural services' who deliberately mislead their customers into thinking they are architects, I used to work for one! Kettering is not exactly truly 'rural' but there is not a School of Architecture in the County (or in the neighbouring Counties of Rutland, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire) so it is not a subject that is uppermost in people's experience. Both the ARB and RIBA need to do much more to help encourage interest and promote the importance of architecture outside cities and shut down providers of 'architectural services' who equate their abilities, or who claim to be superior, to that of an architect. 'Caveat Emptor' is fine but the Protection of Title only has failed the general public, as it is architects that get the blame for the failings of the fraudster charlatans. Anyone remember John Poulson? Newspapers and TV channels still call him an architect, and use it as a stick to beat us with :-(

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