OSA REVIEW: Stonewood Design, Oxarch Talks

Emerging practice Stonewood Design speak about their design ethos, appropriating the rhythm of the existing context.

Established in 2010 by Nicola du Pisanie, Stonewood Design are a vibrant and emerging architectural practice. Exhausted by the cumbersome and consuming world of big practice, Stonewood Design was a method of escape, a breakaway towards a more sensitive and crafted method of design. As a response to clients and the surrounding context of a project, the ethos of the practice was portrayed clearly by speaker and partner Matt Vaudin; Stonewood Design “works by listening”. The practice prides itself on having the ability to develop a vision bespoke to client and place, encompassing user requirements and client satisfaction. With a specialised team, Stonewood Design has the ability to diversify and use their expertise in a wide range of projects ranging from museums, prep schools and sustainable housing communities. Delivering excellence within these fields, the young practice already boasts a superb array of awards. Most remarkably, Stonewood Design was awarded the RIBA National Award, for the project Myrtle Cottage Garden Studio. This award celebrates architecture of the very highest level, demonstrating the practice’s sensitive approach to beautiful rural landscapes.

As presented by Matt Vaudin, context, craft and the appropriateness to place are the key focus of the practice. Preoccupied with materiality, local resources and collaborations with local craftsmen, Stonewood Design’s “work is founded in building”. Vaudin explained how, as a practice, they “enjoy how things are put together and care passionately about the detail” which is portrayed perfectly by their most prestigious project, Myrtle Cottage Garden Studio. As the practice was still very much starting out at this time, this unique and challenging project offered them an opportunity to showcase their skills, expertise and passion for design. Working tirelessly with the client, the design grew out of a concept idea to create a retreat, consumed by the rural landscape. The team hoped to achieve a design which “worked seamlessly with the natural forms and levels of the garden”, whereby the building itself became a harmonious part of the landscape.

Working with local craftsmen and builders, the team developed a design which evolved from the undulating, organic forms of the surrounding context. Due to the unique nature of the rocky hillside, the team worked closely with the onsite construction team in order to respond to the site in the most sensitive and appropriate way possible. The design team created an intensive planted roof which appears to disappear into the flora of its surroundings. So much so that “the local deer community, have been spotted wandering over and around the Garden Studio” - a certain testament to the concept. The walls become stone garden walls which retain the undulating level changes on the site, and perfectly designed windows are located at key locations, to frame and make the most of the stunning context. The Garden Studio is clad in pre-patinated copper; the iridescence nature of the selected material, effortlessly blends with the natural colours of the landscape. The interior itself is preoccupied with creating contrast. The internally soft, crafted materials which line the surfaces, take on another architectural language which responds in a very different way to the exterior. Through Vaudin’s presentation of this project, the passion and expertise of the practice were clear.

“Building a ship inside a bottle”

A parallel project takes forward the concept of a “building within a building”, in order to overcome and respect the conservation and planning laws concerned with listed buildings. The challenge faced by the team was the intervention of a Gallery into a 17th Century Grade II Listed Home Farm Barn. Together with the client, the design team aimed to sensitively and creatively manage the interface between the home and the barn. The client wanted the home and the barn to merge together seamlessly and respond to each other and the surrounding context sensitively. The theme of contrast is evident throughout this project. The intended design was to be warm, dry, light and airtight, and was to be used to house a personal collection of watercolour paintings. Stonewood Design responded to the clients requirements and conceived the idea of a timber carcass held within the existing stone walls of the barn. The lightweight timber structure, which in its concept is a “reversible” intervention, sits delicately within the existing barn. The warm tones of the light structure is an absolute contrast to the heavy, cold stone of the barn and only intervenes with the floor in a few strategically placed moments.

The client poetically described the project a “timber Viking long boat within a dark storm”. Stonewood Design took this idea and made the decision to cantilever the structure over the existing floor, giving the impression of a floating vessel which is launching forth. The details of this project are exquisite. The roof of the gallery space “undulates around the existing Barn trusses, creating a cast of the negative space”. As the project was intended to house paintings, the client poetised the idea of, as well as hanging artwork on the walls, framing sections of the existing barn structure itself, as a poetic detail to celebrate the extraordinary craft of the 17th century building, and convey the idea that this architecture is a work of art in itself.

There was a real sense of teamwork and prominent warmth in the way in which Vaudin reflected on the relationships with clients throughout both case study projects. Stonewood Design appears different to many other practices, in the way in which they focus on building a strong, personal relationship with each client from the outset of design. The practice prides itself on being able to listen, respond and deliver with regard to the client’s requirements, often exceeding expectations. This primary ethos, coupled with the string of awards and publicity that followed Stonewood Design projects, all seems to translate as a certified success story. Of course, as Vaudin stated, the strong position which the practice retains today is a direct result of dedication, teamwork and passion. In this sense, the practice has surely become a precedent for any other emerging practices and graduates to value, admire and abide by. The practice model teaches important lessons of innovation, integrity and respect, all of which point towards continued success and prestige in the coming years.

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