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Julian Hampson of Acorn: ‘Too much ego turns me off an architect’

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Julian Hampson, group design director of Acorn Property Group, on what he wants from an architect and why the profession needs to focus more on housing than the trophy one-off house

What would you like the company to become known for?
As a developer who leaves a positive stamp on a place and that we take a long-term view. At the same time this can only happen if our projects are commercially viable and we continue to attract investors.

Ultimately, our aim is to make property development a positive force for all involved at all stages whether they are a consultant, a local authority, a funder, an occupier or someone just passing through the place. It’s a fine balancing act but ideally a win for all involved.

What type and scale of projects are you working on?
At any one time, I have about 40 projects at various stages from pre-acquisition feasibilities to recently finished developments.

The range and variety is huge, from renovating Grade II*-listed Georgian Houses dating from 1732 in Southwark to creating a new urban quarter in Exeter and developing loft-style apartments with mezzanines by AWW in a listed Victorian orphanage in Bristol.

Each project is unique and designed and crafted to suit its location.

Loft House, Bristol - kitchen diner

Loft House, Bristol - kitchen diner

Loft House, Bristol - kitchen diner

How important is design to you?
Our ethos is ‘Different by Design’ – great design is what brings order out of the chaos.

Many of our projects are ones which other developers shy away from

Many of our projects are ones that other developers shy away from. It is these challenging projects which often lead to the most interesting and rewarding design solutions; the in-house team and external partners working together to unravel them and make the most of every opportunity.

What are you looking for in an architect – and what can you offer the right practice?
We are looking for architects that not only recognise our vision but can also complement it.

They will understand where the value of a scheme lies, they can navigate the planning process and understand the commercial drivers. We can be an amazing vehicle for architects to work with. If we feel an architect completely understands what we are trying to achieve, and can do this efficiently, then we will keep using them.

We want to work with architects that embrace and complement the Acorn vision rather than forcing their own agenda.

What turns you off an architect?
Too much ego, pushing their own agenda and not focusing design on the parts of the building that matter to real people. Design should be focused on areas that are experienced the most such as at the ground floor or the main entrance, rather than an elaborate roof form which can only be seen from a handful of viewpoints. Also, standardised developer-architectural solutions when they are based on a watered-down version of what they see in magazines. It often takes only a little more effort and thought to lift design quality beyond the basic.

The risk is architects become divorced from what drives good development and drift into a detached elitism

In our multi-consultant world, the risk is for architects to become divorced from what drives good development and drift into a detached elitism.

How can architects help you bring forward new developments?
The wholly unfair clichéd view is of a developer building cheap for profit and of an architect with their head in the clouds and no real sense of cost and value. The very best results occupy the middle ground where commerciality meets craft to create a common vision.

Hope House in Bath - initial planning permission by Manser Architects - delivered by architects Nash Partnership and interior designers Lambart & Browne

Hope House in Bath - initial planning permission by Michael Aukett Architects - delivered by architects Nash Partnership and interior designers Lambart & Browne

Which is the favourite of your own schemes and why?
Hope House in Bath where we have built four new contemporary houses in a corner of this site on the edge of the city centre.

We inherited a planning permission designed by Michael Aukett Architects but worked it up with the Nash Partnership as architects and Lambart & Browne as interior designers.

Together with our in-house teams, they created stunning modern houses with gradually flowing space from entrance level up through a top-lit courtyard room and on through generous, slimline sliding glazing into mature formal gardens.

There is a huge joy in the transition from urban entrance courtyard, moving through the layers of the house to open up into gardens where, if you are lucky, you will spot a deer wandering through.

Which is your favourite scheme by another developer and why?
The Solid Space development on Weston Street, London SE1, by AHMM is a beautifully sculptured project with a rich palette of deep bronze windows complementing the soft-stone brick colour and an elevation animated by push-pull balconies. 

The Berkeley Homes development facing the Thames at One Tower Bridge creates a well-crafted edge to Potters Fields plus the strong horizontals of slate and recessed balcony slots gives it a grounding and nicely complements the verticality of Tower Bridge.

I also like the Hawkins\Brown warehouse ‘reworking’ at Great Suffolk Street in SE1. It is clearly contemporary but not afraid to use decoration.

Which architects do you admire and why?
I am often more in awe of architecture without named architects, such as Gothic cathedrals where the beauty is in the collective efforts of many master masons and craftsmen who were allowed to express themselves within a holistic vision. Saint Chappelle in Paris is breathtaking in its structural daring, lightness of construction and detailed stonework. Sunlight beaming through intensely coloured glass in the soaring windows creates a magical and spiritual atmosphere that I have rarely experienced in a building.

How do you think Acorn Property Group is currently perceived?
A couple of years ago we had a stand at the Royal Cornwall Show and I was approached by someone who had recently moved into one of our new apartments that overlook the beach at Porthtowan.

He was describing his joy of living there and at how he felt his flat had been well designed with all the details thought through. This is very rewarding to hear and means as a developer we are on the right track.

We also have a lot of repeat partnerships so that must be a sign that we are good people to do business with.

Do you think an Acorn Property Group scheme could ever win the Stirling Prize?
Awards are important as they show a level of commitment to creating great developments, and Acorn has won many. However, there is a danger that they can lead to architects designing for architects, more so than designing for real people.

For many years the one-off house design has been seen as the place to hone skills or build up a practice but it does leave mass housing and property development as the poor cousin, which is a shame. It would be great to see a focus on housing that is about designing for the many rather than the few, and which gives a more positive view of the industry.

Julian Hampson, is a qualified architect and group design director of Acorn Property Group

The recently Brooks Dye Works scheme in Bristol by Ferguson Mann Architects

The recently approved Brooks Dye Works scheme in Bristol by Ferguson Mann Architects

The recently approved Brooks Dye Works scheme in Bristol by Ferguson Mann Architects


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