Interview with Carl Turner, 2013 winner of the RIBA Manser Award

Architect Profile / Architecture / Culture / Design / Europe / Interview / Sustainability

Carl Turner talks to us about Community as it matters to architects, home-builders, home-owners and even renters.

For a studio that has won awards for small, Carl Turner Architects is thinking a lot about big. That is, the namesake architect is at work on the bigger picture of communities and community-building. He's at work streamlining architecture as a business, based on the unique role his studio takes on as designer, builder, contractor and developer. He's translating that to a community of architects he aspires to form, inspired by younger generations of designers (rather than thumbing his nose at potential competition). He's considered how to make affordable private rentals more wonderful, bringing the overshadowed concerns of a minority of home-dweller types (the renter) to fore. But most importantly perhaps, he wants his native United Kingdom, the most powerful nation in the Eureopean Union, to step up its architecture game already. He talks to Paperhouses about how. 

Paperhouses: Firstly, congratulations on your Manser Award and RIBA prize. What does it mean for you to be conferred a prize? What do you think of the structure of the Prize?

I think the idea behind it, of trying to encourage innovative thinking and housing in the UK, is crucial, because everybody realizes the UK lags behind in innovation in Europe. It's in the doldrums really. Housing is developed without architects and the field's been marginalized. So I think as a way of holding up an example (of architecture) to the housing industry, it is a really good thing, and for smaller and younger practices, it's a huge deal if you win or get short-listed… it's difficult to say whether it makes a difference but I've spoken to previous winners who've said that it's made a big difference to their practice. It gives larger developers the confidence to work with a smaller practice. I think that's the main thing, actually. It's more the recognition. It's not winning the award per se but the boost it gives you, for the confidence to actually work on slightly larger projects.

Slip House. Photo by Tim Crocker

You say the UK is lagging, but can you elaborate on that a little?

I think we got some really good architects and have produced some really good buildings but particularly in the housing sector there's a big suspicion of contemporary design. The house-building industry builds traditional-looking houses. Obviously there's no choice in the marketplace, so most houses look like they were designed fifty or a hundred years ago. They're not particularly well-insulated, not particularly green, and I think that's a very unhealthy, un-social way that we're building. There's no social cohesion in these estates and houses. I think generally, there's a perceived fear of modernism and building houses that are contemporary, particularly in suburban areas and the countryside.

In the cities there's more of an uptick of what you might call contemporary housing but even there it's at a higher cost-end. The actual quality of the housing is fairly poor: very very small flats, very low ceilings and not much thought put into… I mean if you compare it to the type of thinking that's going into Dutch or German housing at the moment, they're really leading the way. A lot of the renewable systems we use say, in my own house, are German systems. Not in any of the design but in the components; they're made in Europe. I think that's a big problem for the UK.

Do you think, and I'd only be guessing that this might be the case without any backup, but that this has anything to do with a lag in technological innovation in the UK? Because it sounds like when you're talking about insulation and renewable energy and component parts, that it's technology. Is there not a local interest in technological streamlining?

It's a slow uptake. We're an island nation. We're kind of isolated. I think in terms of people using technology in cars and mobile phones and computers, we're right up there. In terms of software design and things like that, too. But somehow in the building industry we're behind and I think there's just a general reluctance to take risks. It starts with the finance. It's difficult to borrow money from banks to build houses that aren't made of brick with pitched slate roofs; to make different houses. Banks are very risk-averse. But also there's this idea that people in the UK like to live in traditional-looking houses. So there's that kind of pressure. There's a general suspicion of the tin-frame building, which is massive in Europe.

In the UK lots of banks will not lend money to developers for tin-frame buildings, but as we know, if you want a low-energy sustainable house in Europe, you have to be thinking about some kind of timber technology as a way of locking in carbon, getting high levels of insulation… There's also the cost. Things are being imported from Europe. The cost of those things is very high. They've started to incentivize renewable in the UK and I think that's helping. That's a kind of carrot and stick they've introduced, for sustainable homes which are being ramped up now.

Stealth Barn. Photo by Tim Crocker

You pointed out that it's not just the bank's risk-averseness but the end-user's; the potential home-owner's idea that they have to live in a traditional house. I definitely think of a brick house in an English countryside when I think of English houses, but what do you think of tradition, or traditionalism. Do you believe it's over-fetishized in the English architectural landscape? Is there a place for it or to integrate it into modernism?

I think we're living in a fantasy version of old England and actually most of the British countryside is an artificial landscape. It's almost like we're talking about going back to a time 100 years ago as if it were somehow frozen in time. Obviously it's been a constantly evolving process. I think another problem we have is the whole green belt issue, so the fact that you can't build in the countryside is another pressure. Something we've been thinking about lots recently is, say you're a working class person living in the city.

I think people are terrified of change as well. We were just short-listed for a housing competition in the UK to re-imagine what suburban housing can be, so we're engaged in this whole debate in the office at the moment. Looking at what is the ideal of a garden-city-suburb. What would that look like now? In this particular instance they've asked us to design a suburb for private rental housing. I guess what we're trying to do is bring two ideas together: One, of a city's density, what we refer to as that Rear Window “Hitchcock moment” where you're getting that interest and intensity of looking at other people's lives across the courtyard. The second is this imagined fantasy of living in the countryside. Currently if you live in the suburbs you're quite isolated. You live in a box with your own garden, maybe. You won't know anybody. You might know two or three of your neighbors. No community, no central space. There may be a village green but it's all fairly lame. We're trying to imagine a “best of both worlds” approach whereby people live slightly closer together in blocks in three different typologies. They actually have more space around them, and we're looking at the whole idea of guerrilla gardening and the landscape and growing food as the  ingredient that can make this new kind of rented community.

Supernature imagines a new type of community-focused suburban landscape where the emphasis is on quality of life and not home ownership.

What makes this competition interesting is that most all UK housing is built for sale. The other problem in the UK is our reluctance to rent. If you live in rented housing you're a second class citizen, or you're on your way to be able to afford to live somewhere. It's a completely un-European way of thinking, and obviously not the case in America. So, they're asking us to imagine what housing could be like. How could you attract people in the UK, who have this huge resistance to rented accommodations? How can you make buildings where people will go, “you know what? I'd rather live in this rented accommodation.” That's something we're trying to untangle. It's about quality and space, and spaces where you can build community through interaction.

I understand how you work on design with a specific owner, having client-relations with them and what not, but how do you design for a renter? How do you design for an unknown? I mean with a renter presumably it wouldn't be permanent but who are you envisioning? This is germane to Paperhouses as well, but there isn't an end-user until there's an end-user, right?

Right, well in the competition, for instance, we're imagining three different typologies that may suit people in different stages of their lives, but they're all based around the idea of a courtyard. Where you have a shared entrance courtyard with space around it. The big idea is that there are different spaces and different typologies. If you look at existing projects in our portfolio, our architecture is about creating spaces that are fairly interchangeable using industrial materials. We try for large floor-to-ceiling heights and try to make spaces that are nondescript so a bedroom can become a living room, for example.

I guess our architecture is about making spaces that are fairly neutral. We're accused regularly of being fairly minimalist (laughter). We're waiting for a kind of occupation.The stuff of people's lives gets moved in and that should be that. That's when it becomes home. We believe in a fairly neutral architecture that's inhabited and is customized and made more personal. I think sometimes when you design a space too tightly around someone's personal needs, it's their personal needs right then and then actually it becomes sort of the wrong space for most people in time.

That's such a good point. While people talk about context, they don't talk about the temporal context. It's always about location and place. I'm also fascinated by this idea of the neutral design, and this goes in concert with what you said about change, but the potential homeowner has changed, too. I mean that home-owner and the family unit have changed themselves. You mentioned something about community, but there's also the architecture community, such as with the younger designers you mentioned in regards to the Manser Award. Do you think there are more people interested in architecture today, compared to when you started your practice?

Definitely. Like there've been a lot of new TV shows such as Channel 4's “Grand Designs,” and I was actually featured on it. There's also home-makeover shows and I think it's helped to break down the suspicions of design, that somehow design is just for the elites and that having a contemporary house is really uncomfortable (laughter). Like, “how can you possibly live in a place that looks more like a gallery or museum?” I mean we regularly have people come to the house and they really like it but they nearly always say “I could never live in a space like that.” But as we point out, we always tidy up before they come. It's not always quite this tidy. (Laughter)

But I think there's definitely an acceptance and a lot more buildings in the public realm that are contemporary and open to the public so the suspicion of modernity has broken down recently. People are definitely accepting more and more design. We're seeing more and more people everyday, stopping outside our house, photographing it. Particularly with local teenagers; they really really love it because it's new and different and shockingly modern in the older context. But I think particularly teenagers seem to buy into it.

I think it helped that people also saw us working on our house, building it, so they realized we weren't just wealthy people with no connection to the space. We were actually pouring all our own money into this project.

That's great. I like this aspect of participating in the building, because I know in the US especially there's this almost church-and-state divide between designers and developers or sub-contractors. It's a stereotype, but…. well I'll use this moment to segue. Can you describe your studio a bit? Are there any office practices or rituals that make Carl Turner UK unique?

Yeah, I mean I think we have developed an unusual working methodology though I don't know that we'll stick to it that rigorously now that we're getting a bit larger and working on more projects. However, essentially to date, we've operated as architects and contractors, for all our projects. This is still pretty unusual. I guess in the US it's what would be called a rural studio approach, where we're very interested in the link between the thought and the process of thinking and making. So that missing link… it's a link I think has been largely lost within the design profession, because designers now sit in an office at a computer screen becoming unaware or unaccustomed to working with materials. I think having come through the Royal College of Art background where we were architects in an art school context, where all the other students–sculptors and product designers and car designers–were making things. We were always feeling a bit envious at the end of the show, when the furniture designers had a chair while the architects just had some drawings pinned to a wall. We left university and set up a company where we started off making furniture, almost throwing in the design bit. We'd be earning a living building furniture for people. That evolved into extensions and small projects. We realized we were able to get a lot of experience in building projects quickly because we took the extra risk. Many architects want to sit back from the actual process but we realized there was a big gap in the market, where clients were interested in just having one team that was responsible for everything. It was a big transition for us, from guys graduating with no experience to now, and I'm not saying it's the best methodology that everyone should follow but it was a unique path for us to follow.

I think that comes across in our architecture: that attention to detail and quality and the way materials fit together. You only get that when you understand how those insights work, and also having to get the best out of contractors and sub-contractors. Because you know… you can empathize with them. “I've been there. I've under-priced a job, but do a good job this time and maybe next time we'll make our money back.” It's a lot of hand-holding and effort to get to realize good pieces of architecture. I think we have been quite unique and ground-breaking, really. As younger groups like Assemble, who were Cambridge graduates who after Part I decided they wanted to make things. They've actually short-circuited and now are building temporary theaters and things like that. They've actually just been put on the framework for the mayor of London, so they act as community architects. So these sort of younger practices out there that are following that path now are realizing that sometimes to realize and push buildings you have to be more involved. You can't just sit back.

I can see how from a client point of view how this is a wonderful business model or working relationship. It's very efficient, but I can also imagine there's a lot of pressure with these responsibilities for an architect to take on jobs that are typically farmed out. Has that been stressful?

I guess it has been stressful, but the way I see it, it's more stressful when you're removed from the process because the client still blames you as the architect for any problems. (laughter) If the builder's a nightmare and the costs escalate, you're ultimately held responsible even if it's not your fault. Actually you're powerless to do anything about it as an architect. When we were working on small projects we were able to reduce these kinds of erroneous pressures and we got a system together to be quite sure about costs we were giving. The dark spots about it were just about bad management; dealing with tradespeople.

Clients will be like, “these guys are fantastic. There are no falling outs, no arguments…” And we're like, “yeah right…” Obviously it was still going on but the clients wouldn't have to get involved because we were having the argument for them. The client wouldn't be in on it. But you know, there was a lot of financial pressure on us running a small business, but I think ultimately… unless you're growing in that way as an organization, you are slightly torn. Are you a designer or are you a builder?

But we've also acted as developer architects as well, which has been another interesting way forward. I'm just amazed more architects don't do it, actually, because it just seems clear that as an architect your skills lie in gaining planning consent on difficult sites and if you can do that yourself or if groups of architects can join together and do that, then surely that's a great business model. I guess it's only finance that stops a lot of architects from doing it but I think if architects would stop dreaming a little bit and just thought about the business of architecture, then things could be a lot better.

One of our next things we're thinking about is getting together maybe a group of ten architects, designers, artists, people like that and try to replicate the idea of my own self-built house as a group self-build. We would be modeled after the German Bauhaus Group. One architect takes control and builds a group of houses that are connected and each individual person has much more of a say in how a house looks internally and how certain things are. That's something we're trying to organize, and I think Paperhouses seems to fit into that quite well. What we've tried to call low-cost high-impact architecture. That it's all about ideas, not necessarily expensive materials and huge spaces. It's architecture built on ideas.

I love that. It reminds me of the MUJI business model (“low cost, no frills”), which was sort of making a virtue out of necessity. If everybody needs the same thing, why don't we make it something awesome? Paperhouses is based on a similar idea where at the core there isn't enough architecture for the middle class.  Since we're talking about it, do you have an idea of what your Paperhouses is?

I haven't started to think about it yet, but I was actually just reviewing the paperwork to refresh my memory. I'm interested in whole ethos. The idea of making the best house for the least amount possible. I'll be looking at simplicity and flexibility. We have these four things we talk about here–flexibility, legibility, affordability, and durability--as a framework. The idea of legibility being “what does a house have to look like?” What does a global house look like, in this case? Off the top of my head I'll probably think about what a child-like drawing of a house would look like, and start with that as an idea. Flexibility: one of the things we've been thinking about is “living over the shop” or home-working. People who have live-work spaces. Such as this place. The studio space is on the ground floor with my house above, but it's flexible. As you were saying, there are changing working patterns and families working more from home now… maybe you want to rent part of it out or sublet it. We believe the house should work around us, rather than us working for the house. The house is an asset that can be sub-divided or rented out. Durability is part of the sustainability thing, obviously; that it's long-lasting. Some things may be more transient but some things you want to be more durable. There's this idea of “buy cheap buy twice” so we're thinking about durability as comparable to sustainability. There's no point building cheap buildings that will fall apart.

I keep thinking about your relationship to developers and sub-contractors, and assuming the roles yourself and the principles going into design for something like Paperhouses, but what do you think is the ultimate responsibility of an architect vis-à-vis a client?

Showing them something they didn't know was possible. That's what an architect can bring to the table. A client comes to you with a brief, and you're testing that brief, maybe showing them something extra that they didn't know they needed. Not necessarily showing them something ostentatious or “more” but in fact showing them they may need less. I think we have the ability to think outside of the brief and bring something extra to a project above and beyond a surveyor or engineer who maybe thinks more pragmatically and linearly. I think an architect by their very training has this ability to jump around in a non-linear way and connect different ideas that are unexpected.

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Exclusive interviews with the architects participating in Paperhouses here