You can do much more with less if you challenge briefs and commit to well-made construction, directors Carlos Sanchez and Tom Benton tell Chris Foges
‘Our focus in architecture is twofold’, says Carlos Sanchez, co-founder with Tom Benton of London-based Sanchez Benton. ‘First, on materials and the act of building. And second, on a duty of care to the city. We approach projects from both ends – at 1:1 and at the urban scale’. The commitment to building well, adds Benton, explains the reticence of the practice website, which offers only snippets of news and glimpses of work in progress. ‘We decided early on that if we were confident in one thing it was pushing construction quite hard in unusual ways, so we’d limit publication of renders and wait to be judged on the work’.
That confidence came from a shared background with a strong grounding in the poetics and pragmatics of making buildings. The pair, now in their late 30s, met in the office of the late Jonathan Woolf, and reconvened at 6a Architects where they delivered a Stirling Prize-shortlisted studio for photographer Juergen Teller.
Confidence came from a strong emphasis on the poetics and pragmatics of making buildings
Their own office was established in 2017 and grew quite quickly; it’s now 13-strong. ‘A practice works best when you can all have lunch together,’ says Sanchez. ‘And a team of this size could build anything’. The studio, in a small industrial building in Clerkenwell, has the air of a workshop. Shelves lining the walls are packed with models and bits of timber, brick and tile. More samples are scattered across the two large tables around which the whole team sits. ‘There’s always materials testing going on’, says Sanchez. ‘It gets messy’.
That inquisitive attitude has benefits beyond professional satisfaction and buildings that are a pleasure to experience, suggest the architects. Retaining control over the way buildings are made gives influence beyond the project itself. ‘You can vote with your specification’, says Sanchez. ‘Our push to use bio-based materials like hemp is about reducing carbon but also intrinsically about supporting the development of local industries.’ And in the practice’s early projects – domestic renovations, galleries and public work – it was vital in creating architectural opportunity within stringent financial constraints.
‘If you can take time you can do a lot for a little,’ says Benton. ‘We can be quite cunning, moving quickly on some things to concentrate on others’. And in every project, says Sanchez, the architects aim to work out early which parameters are fixed, and which might be challenged to create potential.
That’s evident at Peveril Gardens, an RIBA Award winner in 2022. Southwark Council had initiated a public art competition, anticipating new installations in a gritty area around the Old Kent Road. Sanchez Benton proposed that it would be better to improve something already there – a redundant 1960s parking structure next to the busy Bricklayers Arms roundabout. A first-floor terrace has become a landscaped public garden, dotted with exotic plants. Necessary repairs provided the opportunity for a visual flourish: lined in zesty orange waterproofing paint, the walled garden is a vivid oasis of colour. In the undercroft, artists’ studios are enclosed by custom-made glass and timber screens.
‘As a practice, it would be easier just to worry about the general look of things, and not to detail so much, taking on extra liabilities,’ says Benton. ‘But by understanding every component and getting directly involved in procurement we can deliver something better than standard systems for the same price.’
Commissions likely to offer bigger budgets have started to come in. Will the same value-seeking approach prevail? Yes, they say; they’ll just push clients to be more ambitious. ‘We’re working on a couple of projects now’, says Benton, ‘where we’re trying to build for the very long term, using structural stone and green oak. And the environmental targets are extremely high.’
Sustainability is a central preoccupation, inextricably linked to concern for construction. One manifestation is a focus on the whole lifecycle of buildings. At Low Line Louie, a temporary café in Southwark, using dry mechanical connections throughout ensures all elements can be reused.
Avoiding the catalogue-shopping approach to specification takes effort, too. A house on site in London’s Borough Market has a frame of ungraded green Douglas fir. ‘It’s a beautiful, sustainable structure for a quarter of the price of any other timber’, says Sanchez. ‘But to use it we had to get someone almost out of retirement to grade it quickly and cheaply’. Likewise, using second-hand brick for its low embodied carbon required patient work with reclamation yards to ensure consistency. ‘Our worst nightmare would be to ship fake London stocks from China’, says Sanchez. ‘You have to draw a line’.
That is not merely rhetoric. After the practice won consent for its first housing scheme, to be built with complex timber transfer structures, the developer got cold feet and insisted on steel and concrete. ‘We decided it wasn’t a building we want to deliver’, says Sanchez. ‘You have limited time as an architect – why spend it on this?’
It was a disappointing result for a practice especially keen to work in housing, but projects on the go are otherwise pleasingly diverse. A three-storey arts complex in Bermondsey has been consented, and a timber-framed community centre in Hackney. Four warehouses are being retrofitted on Passivhaus lines to make flexible studio space. More public realm opportunities should be forthcoming, too, following listing on London’s ADUP3 framework. Though these are a step-up in size and complexity, the architects insist the ethos underpinning projects to date is scalable. ‘We always want to know how the bigger picture is resolved in an architectural proposal at the scale of a room or a piece of furniture’, says Benton. ‘It is hard, mucky work, but we can’t shake the interest in very well-made things’.
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