Small feels good for Cairngorms practice Brown and Brown

Words:
Isabelle Priest

Work-life balance is at the core of this Future Winner 2020 practice in rural Scotland, a husband and wife team that is very selective of its projects – and its clients

Andrew and Kate Brown in their new studio at Strathdon.
Andrew and Kate Brown in their new studio at Strathdon. Credit: Reuben Tabner

The conversation I had with Andrew Brown on the Friday after I visited his practice Brown and Brown in the Cairngorms didn’t really reflect my experience of going there. We were catching up by video call because such was the snow on the Monday that the schedule was virtually abandoned. The sunshine the previous day was glorious but 24 hours later what is usually a one-hour journey had taken three. The direct route was impassable and the nearest detour was two hours. There were no tracks in the road, the risky driving made worse by my being in a hire car. By the time I arrived at Brown’s studio 500m up off the main road through Strathdon, it didn’t feel safe or sensible to stick around. The revised plan was to head towards Aberdeen to see some projects but when his daughter’s school rang to say it was closing early that got cancelled too.

Consequently, the first thing to say about Brown and Brown is that although its website says Inverness and Aberdeen, it is actually rural and operating in sometimes extreme conditions. The firm is headed by Andrew and his wife Kate. The pair met while working for a large commercial firm in Glasgow after Part 1 (taken at Strathclyde and the Mac respectively) and they’ve stuck together during the contortions of their careers. Kate specialised in conservation and did a master’s in planning, Andrew qualified as an architect. Today, Brown and Brown is an evolution of the small design company Kate founded when they lived on the Isle of Skye after working for the Highland Council, but I get the impression she takes a back seat on public-facing duties. She’s in charge of the practical and financial side of the business and didn’t join the call. Andrew deals with enquiries and design.

 

  • Portsoy Boatbuilding Centre, 185m2 interior for the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival.
    Portsoy Boatbuilding Centre, 185m2 interior for the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival. Credit: Nigel Rigden
  • At Portsoy a timber structure sits inside existing stone walls in the local conservation area.
    At Portsoy a timber structure sits inside existing stone walls in the local conservation area. Credit: Nigel Rigden
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When I visit their studio – a monopitch freestanding building next to their 1980s house (which they plan to redesign) – there’s also Michaela Hunt, a Part 2 who relocated from Suffolk in February. Perched on the hillside, the studio’s minimal lines cut a sharp box against the fogging sky and land. The team moved in the week before; the external timber cladding was yet to go on. All black outside, inside the studio becomes all white and a wood burner sits in front of a panoramic floor-to-ceiling window. With four desks, a meeting table and low cupboards, the warm, man-made serenity offers a striking if surreal contrast with the outside.

The building is about creating work-life balance for the principals, extracting the office from the house. Andrew works flexitime between 6am and 2pm and Kate doesn’t have set hours. They are building a practice around their lives. Location is one aspect, though Andrew is from Glasgow and Kate from Yorkshire. They ended up here after practice in Edinburgh – Andrew at Richard Murphy Architects then briefly RMJM, Kate at Simpson and Brown – via Skye where Andrew worked for Rural Design, which seems to have been particularly relevant to the architecture he now produces. He then got a post at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University that prompted the move and enabled the launch of Brown and Brown in 2010. He did that until five years ago.

What’s attention grabbing about Brown and Brown though, especially given its inclusion on a list of firms we tip to win big awards, is its reluctance to grow, an attitude that perhaps stems from their experience of being at big firms when the financial crash hit and seeing millions of pounds worth of work and dozens of staff lost in the space of a weekend.

‘We don’t want to be on the ladder of increasing size and importance of projects,’ says Andrew. ‘We turn down most non-domestic things we get asked to do. We find a lot of freedom in domestic.’

Instead, the firm has a ‘laser beam focus’ over what and whom it works with. Clients aren’t connected by job, wealth or location but personality. Brown and Brown even carries out light psychographic analysis (eg Myers-Briggs) to decide which relationships could succeed. It gets most projects through enquiries and word of mouth and has put a lot of effort into conveying the work it wants though its website. It pre-qualifies potential clients by sending them a six-question survey about what is important to them in a project. This precision came about in part through the help of a business adviser Andrew met via the Scottish Cultural Enterprise Office’s programme Creative Leaders in Transition. The mentor had founded a successful independent film company and has helped Andrew initially then both of them to figure out the direction of the business and give them confidence to say no when something isn’t right.

‘Doing good houses is about learning how people live and that’s a bit about learning who they are; it ties up with design,’ explains ­Andrew.
 

 

  • Spyon Cop, a £240k, 123m2 single storey holiday home under construction up a track in the Cairngorms.
    Spyon Cop, a £240k, 123m2 single storey holiday home under construction up a track in the Cairngorms. Credit: Touch 3D
  • Visualisations were used to help the client make decisions about the project.
    Visualisations were used to help the client make decisions about the project. Credit: Touch 3D
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Don’t mistake this for Brown and Brown not having much work, however. The practice has a 37 projects at different stages, a crazy number given the size of the team. It makes you wonder how true Andrew’s emphasis on work-life balance is. He talks about not working overtime, taking care of yourself to do your best work and being able to leave early after a productive day’s work, he certainly presents a convincing case, but I get the feeling it is all tightly controlled underneath too. 

The youngest of the practice’s clients is 26, the oldest in their 80s. Some own multiple companies, are CEOs, diplomats, one works in a library. Some live in London, some are local, some Scottish, English, EU or international. The most northern job is Thurso 3.5 hours away, the most southerly overlooks the Cumbrian coast. The cheapest is £135,000, the most expensive is effectively unlimited, but the mid-range is usually £300-400k. Projects are houses to live in, retire to or holiday from and the difference in budgets doesn’t leap out at you. With the freedom of choice of clients, the effort that goes into them is similar and that is evidenced in the designs. 

What unites the work is an approach to context whether a site is rural, as many of Brown and Brown’s projects are, or urban. ‘If you have such dramatic scenery it seems to me that should lead the buildings to go in the opposite direction,’ Andrew explains. A visit to Zumthor’s Vals Therme in his fourth year at university was the gamechanger. At just 17, he had been an extremely young undergraduate and he hadn’t known buildings could be that way, so considered – the manipulated views, light and shadow, a single material. It was then that Brown really started to develop an interest in architecture.

  • Brown and Brown’s 2015 refurbishment of Heath Cottage, the directors’ former home.
    Brown and Brown’s 2015 refurbishment of Heath Cottage, the directors’ former home. Credit: Nigel Rigden
  • Bridge of Don, an urban family house in Aberdeen. A water main across the site resulted in the living room being raised – and enjoying the views.
    Bridge of Don, an urban family house in Aberdeen. A water main across the site resulted in the living room being raised – and enjoying the views. Credit: Touch 3D
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Brown and Brown used to cite Scandinavia as an influence (Andrew did an Erasmus year in Gothenburg), but it seems his time at Rural Design was particularly formative. Until then he’d never designed a house and didn’t realise some architects spend so long thinking about, for example, door hinges. You can see its influence and that of another Skye practice, Dualchas Architects, in Brown and Brown’s stripped back architecture – albeit less vernacular, political, more Miesian and international. The very concept of the practice is a kind of east coast, Cairngorms National Park version, designing for not particularly hospitable places. It is pleased to follow the trajectory those firms helped set. And the authorities managing the protected landscapes it works in seem to agree that simple forms are less disruptive as the studio hasn’t yet had a project called in. 

‘We’re quite Scotland-centric, not by choice, just how it’s worked out,’ says Andrew. ‘Realistically, I don’t think people see us from outside our geographical area and that’s OK, it can take a day to travel to a site. To get to our job in Lewis, you’ve got three hours’ drive from the office then a three-hour ferry and an hour’s drive on the other side. There are only two boats a day so if you aren’t on the early one you might have to stay over. But these are wonderful locations that you want to work in… The weather has to play a part to a degree.’ 


Read about fellow Future Winners 2020 Napier Clarke, BEaM and Stonewood Design