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LIVING SPACE

PROCESS, PLANS AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

{JOE WRIGHT}

As a child I really loved Lego, drawing and making stuff, and I really enjoyed the academic subjects at school. At school I went to a careers’ adviser with an idea that I might be an architect as it ticked a lot of boxes, but I knew very little about what it involved at that stage. My mum then bought me a book on Frank Lloyd-Wright and that’s really all I knew about architecture until I got to the University of Nottingham. Within a term I was hooked and really passionate about it. The course combined all the different threads of the things that I liked doing,” explains Joe.

For the past 10 years Joe Wright has worked on around 10 projects a year helping to turn his clients’ houses into homes. During that time, he’s also moved from a flat in Tottenham out to the seaside town of Worthing; overseen building work on three projects on his own homes, and with his architect wife Maria had two sons, Lukas, 9, and Kellan, 5. 

“Over the 2021/22 winter we took the back of our house off, knocked down the old wraparound extension and are building a new one. So, we’ve been living in two rooms, while the rest of the house is in chaos. We didn’t have a kitchen from Christmas to nearly April. In retrospect we should have rented somewhere!”

↑ Wee House Ground floor kitchen and oversized entrance door 

↑ Cathcart Street staircase

“Client and architect is a really intense relationship, and we need to understand each other.”               
Joe Wright

↑  Joe and Ewan discuss the Wee House

↓  Joe, Gordon and Sarah admire the Hill House view

But living through their third major build also makes Joe extremely empathetic about what clients and their families might experience. During a weekly visit to his London office, Joe reflects that, “When I observe clients, particularly when the build is going on there’s often a dip two-thirds of the way in when they think it’s never going to finish, there’s stuff everywhere and they are a bit weary of making decisions. But then you come through it, the build comes together and you’ve made these fantastic spaces.”

Even when it’s stressful Joe prioritises calm. “Remember the builder is not the enemy, you’re a team. If you’ve assembled the team right – and we can help with that, then you’re all working for the same goal.”

He adds: “I hate confrontation. That’s why I always try and keep things convivial between builder, client and me. I see that as part of my role – maybe this means we all go for a coffee together, physically taking ourselves out of the build to talk about life, before then objectively talking through the issues. I try not to let it get to the point where everyone is locked into a position. I think it is really important that everyone gets on.”

Very often his clients become friends. “We always ask for feedback on the build as I do want to learn and improve. Those informal visits are when I’m most pleased with what I’ve done as you see people in their home, they are happy and are living in the way you imagined them to be.” 

“Client and architect is a really intense relationship, and we need to understand each other. If we don’t like each other, then it’s tricky. Often in a couple, one person is tasked with finding the architect. I’ll do the fee proposal, but I try to meet both of people before I’m actually appointed.”

Broomfield Avenue’s side infill extension with exposed brickwork and exposed structure

 

“When we meet and go through things I always try and ask each person what’s their view – because the extension or building is for both of them. I try and do this in a subtle way and really try to hear them both. Some people are such opposites – and you can see their relationship is functioning and brilliant – but when it comes down to specific layout and aesthetic choices it can be difficult to resolve. Either they’ve got to compromise or take turns to make decisions, otherwise neither will be happy. I’m not a relationship councillor, but I find I’m able to help people through those moments when the design or build does get difficult.”

“Most clients have never built an extension or new house before, so I kind of have to educate them how to be with the builder. Similarly, clients need not get obsessed by detail too early – at the beginning you need to be zoomed out and strategic focussing on the big moves – the design process becomes more detailed later.”

Joe specialises in projects that are unique for his clients’ situation, with some added future-proofing. Here’s why: “One of my tutors said every line you draw on a page asks a question. I really like that – architects test ideas with each stroke of the pen. A line representing a wall means something – it defines the sides of the room but also asks what the wall is made of and the way the room feels. 

“I always encourage clients to spend lots of time at early stages thinking about the sketches we give them – it’s OK to mull over the ideas for a few weeks because those drawings will set the scene for the rest of the build. Sit back and think what works for you.”

Joe is architect trained, but he raises interesting points about the architect or builder debate. “Having an architect involved at early stages influences the outcome the most, and is more likely to meet the clients’ needs. As you go into detailed design and construction the potential for changing things reduces and the questions become more focused. Through experience many questions we can answer instinctively, but others we want to talk through and explore with the clients, and I don’t think a builder would follow that process. 

“It is possible to get a builder to put an extension where you want. But often when I’ve visited places with an extension built before our client bought it, nothing really works. The location and the flow and the daylight are just wrong. It’s been done by someone who wants to get on and build something and doesn’t have the time to think how it is planned.” 

“With any architect our time is used to think and plan out based on an understanding of the clients’ brief and their needs. We can test things on paper. If I’ve got a pen and I’m thinking of the layout of a house, I can look at 10 layouts in an hour and test different ideas. It’s much quicker and cheaper to test something on paper than build and then realise it’s not right. This is the case whether you are looking at where the building or extension is on the plot or where to locate plug sockets or lighting. After sitting back and planning things out, then the builder can take the drawings and get on, with a clear idea of what they need to build. It’s not thinking on the hoof, because you will have discussed the layouts with the client on paper and moved ideas around on paper, so once it gets to being built you are giving the builder a clear set of instructions. Obviously, things do evolve on site and some of the things that happen on site are the best changes – for example you can see what happens to light physically, and can adjust, as long as the changes are made at the right time.”

“I quickly learnt working on people’s houses that storage and the less glamorous parts of the home, the utility room and laundry places, are absolutely fundamental to the house working properly. That’s absorbed into our thinking – those things are as important as the flashy staircase or huge glass extension. And if they don’t work then you really know about it… 

“One of my clients asked, ‘Where do I put my toilet roll holder?’ It sounds a funny question, but in that particular bathroom it was difficult, as the loo was next to a shower with a glass screen – every project throws up challenges. I’d be bored if it didn’t. For each project there are a whole myriad of decisions, and each question may not have one correct answer. Sometimes when all these decisions are layered up, some clash, and then I’m learning from those.”   

“For me the fundamentals of building are functionality, daylight, and flow of space. So how you would move around the building and how your eye is drawn through to different parts of the building and different points of the building. A successful kitchen may be basically open plan but there is still definition and you know what is kitchen, what is dining and what is living. It’s to do with the lighting and subtle clues in ceiling heights and floor finishes.”

“As an architect your own house is a testing ground. It’s something you want to try ideas on before you release them on clients. I just enjoy the process of building and I think a house can and should change over time. A lot of clients imagine something that is permanent, but a house should change and adapt as you live in it. If you do a house for a young couple they may then have kids and stay in the house as they get older, you can futureproof the house to a degree, but it could also be updated over time and evolve with its inhabitants.”

“A dream house is one that can be changed, played around with and adapted over the years. Any building we’d do would be very dependent on the site and the context – so I don’t have a house template that I’d plonk down on any site, my designs are always for a particular site or plot.

↑ The Wee house’s newly created third floor space with glazed roof

 

Hill House’s main family living space

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