By Angus Stanley
Nick Willson talks fast! He obviously knows his stuff, and as he presents each project he recalls every detail about the design process, the client, site, planning, construction – all of it. It’s this fastidious attention to detail that has allowed Nick and his practice to thrive even throughout the pandemic. Over just ten years, they have gone from working on projects worth £30,000 to proposals over £30 million.
Having studied as an undergraduate at Manchester, he cut his teeth on major projects in Hong Kong where he was given an incredible amount of responsibility at a young age. “Say yes to everything” is Nick’s advice to anyone starting out, and he credits this experience with his ability to instill confidence in clients and employees by remaining calm throughout projects. After a stint at the Bartlett studying for his diploma, Nick was again thrown in at the deep end working for Fosters & Partners, working opposite Norman. When speaking about his past, he shows a genuine passion for the architectural world and encourages us (the audience) to explore the excitement of such a unique social profession, where you can meet such a broad spectrum of people from all walks of life.
This appreciation of the profession, along with an eye for detail, has remained consistent throughout Nick’s work. Presenting the first house he worked on, an off-grid site in the beautiful Sussex countryside, he goes through the practice’s creative process. It starts with a site visit to meet the client and lots of sketching. Nick is keen to point out that this is a vital skill and in this case, it was those sketches that won them the project. Back at the studio, a series of quick concept models are refined through a process that Nick likens to wood carving – you start with something rough and gradually finesse it to its finished form. Sustainability is key to the design ethos, but from a ‘fabric first’ perspective, where the environment works with the building to heat and cool it passively through carefully observing the orientation, sun paths, and prevailing wind direction rather than relying on clip-on green tech.
There’s nothing fancy here and he isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel by taking us down long conceptual rabbit holes or making grandiose statements on the social impact of his work. Rather, the projects are an example of carefully designed and fantastically executed architecture that first and foremost pays attention to the client’s needs. Whether it is the natural, chlorine-free swimming pool that paints the interior of the house with the water’s reflections, the holes in the chimney that form a home for the local bats, or the beautiful herringbone brick patterns that required convincing a retired bricklayer to complete one last job as only he had the skill to pull it off, every aspect of the house has been thought through and absolutely no corners have been cut.
As the practice has gained a name for itself, the scale of the projects has grown. Nick shows us a huge agricultural barn that has been retrofitted to house three-family homes, ‘veiled’ in a charred Japanese timber trellis over which greenery will grow. A larger development of ten homes has as much thought given to the individual houses as it does to the communal areas and landscaping. A block of fifteen flats is carefully squeezed into an ex-industrial site in northwest London whilst also remaining sympathetic to the surrounding area. The practice’s largest project, a development of forty flats in Harrow, is currently on-site and although the scale and the context are very different to the early houses, the same thoughtful design process has been applied, with a focus around creating a community.
Perhaps the key element of Nick’s work is his commitment to being his client’s advocate. He is proud to acknowledge that he is economically savvy, and his projects make good business sense for his clients. That development of forty flats sits on a site that used to accommodate just three houses: no small task in a space-restricted urban location, where issues like overlooking neighbours and managing building heights must be addressed on all sides. As Nick points out, the client seeks to gain hugely from this feat of design, and the profession should not shy away from recognising the “value you have as an architect.” Yet this does not in any way mean that the user is not considered in the proposal and particular consideration has been given to the communal spaces. Each flat has access to a shared outdoor space, the entrance hall is light and airy with space to loiter and meet the neighbours, and windows and gardens are larger than required by regulations. Nick speaks excitedly about the new development ‘lifting’ the whole area and, as they are Help to Buy homes, offering first-time buyers a genuinely beautiful place to live.
When questioned on what qualities he likes to see in new applicants to the practice, Nick’s answer is simple. “Be carefree, be inquisitive, have a good work ethic, and do lots of sketching.” Although the practice is growing as the projects become larger, he describes it as a small family where the youngest Part 1 gets as much responsibility as they can take. Just from looking at the work, these projects are clearly more than just a job for those that designed them, and on hearing Nick speak it makes perfect sense why clients keep coming back.
Thank you to Nick Wilson and Oxarch for organising this lecture.