Hugh Broughton, founder of Hugh Broughton Architects, reveals five of the essential collaborators that have helped the practice on schemes from Greenwich’s Painted Hall to Halley VI Research Station
Martin is a conservation architect in the strictest sense. He’s a SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) scholar steeped in historic building knowledge.
We first met 10 years ago when we were working on the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, where he is surveyor of the fabric. We weren’t strict conservation architects – the client was looking for unusual thinking but knew we’d need our hand held on the more challenging conservation aspects. That’s where the relationship began with Martin. Now, every time we do a heritage project, we automatically call each other up and see if we can do it together.
He is very generous with his advice, but the relationship goes much deeper that. We share a lot about managing projects and even our offices; he’s become a friend and confidant. And we check with each other that we’re doing the right thing for the buildings we work on together, which is so important on such sensitive projects. He’s always a very good thermometer into whether we’ve got it right, or whether we’ve pushed things too far.
We collaborated with him on a project to conserve and improve visitor access to Clifford’s Tower in York. For this, we talked to him about the building’s history, and that guided our intervention. This was robust – a new glulam structure in the middle of the tower supporting walkways and a roof deck above. Martin went round painstakingly assessing every single stone to see if any needed repair or replacement, and advised us on how our new structure could interface with the historic fabric. But most importantly he talked to me a lot about the suitability of the intervention within the scheduled ancient monument and how it would preserve and enhance the spirit of the place.
We recently worked together on the restoration of the Dockyard Church at Sheerness. It had had a catastrophic fire in 2001 and was left as a roofless ruin, so was on Historic England’s Buildings At Risk register, and now we’re working on a project to protect Roman mosaics in Nea Paphos, Cyprus, which we won in an international competition.
It’s not a cosy, complimentary relationship. Instead, we have robust conversations, and as a result, both the project and the relationship continually improve.
John is a joiner from Brighton. I met him when I was at Troughton McAslan, and he was making joinery for the office. When I left in 1994, I asked him to do the joinery on my first job – a flat in west London – and we’ve since spent our whole careers working together. He’s contributed to almost all our projects; I even got him a walk-on part at the Halley VI British Antarctic Research Station, where he made the coffee tables.
Over time we’ve established a kind of shorthand when we work together. John is brilliant at working out how to make what we want. He works in all sorts of materials and has a real understanding of architectural space, and how his joinery will relate to that.
He did all the shop fittings in the Painted Hall undercroft, and we just knew that when we wanted any corners to be mitred, there wouldn’t be any short cuts. He’s also able to price jobs very accurately because he knows what we’ll be looking for. One of my favourite things we did together was a librarian’s desk for Thomas’s London Day School in Clapham. We wanted the front to be entirely made of books, with fat books at the edge like keystones. John bought some job lots of books online, but they weren’t really appropriate for a primary school – Jilly Cooper and Margaret Thatcher’s biography, for example – so we decided to turn them round so you could see the pages not the spines, and it worked really well.
It can be very difficult to achieve long-term collaborations in the atmosphere of short-term procurement. Good main contractors, however, can recognise the benefits of selecting someone the architect is happy with, like we are with John. He’s now like the practice’s family joiner, and has worked in the houses of all the HBA directors.
Steve Clarke is contracts director of Coniston – the contractor for our work at the Painted Hall and Sheerness Dockyard Church. He’s a master builder in the old-fashioned sense of the word, which is quite rare. Nowadays, most builders are construction management companies rather than builders themselves, which can affect their understanding as they have to rely on the input of the subcontractors. Coniston however employs direct labour.
Steve is an incredibly collaborative soul. He’ll look to find a way to solve a problem rather than exacerbate it, when other contractors might see it as an opportunity for an ‘extra’. Projects are a real partnership – he’s always available to help sort things out if there’s a problem. I’d like to have him on the tender lists for all our jobs, and it’s almost always a disappointment when they don’t win the job (with the exception of Simpson, which was the excellent contractor on Clifford Tower).
I think our relationship works so well because we have a shared ambition – a concern for both very good quality detailing and the building’s legacy. At the Painted Hall, Steve totally got the idea that we were looking for subtlety – interventions that you could hardly see. And for the undercroft we were able to work with him to come up with quick solutions when there were unforeseen challenges. During excavations, for example, we found glazed tiles that were part of the kitchen of Henry VII’s Greenwich Palace, and evidence of where they had kept beehives in winter. This discovery could have caused a frenzy and been hard to resolve, but because of Steve and Martin Ashley’s calmness, we found ways of protecting what we found rather than letting it hold things up and become a big headache for the schedule.
When we won the competition for the Halley VI British Antarctic Research Station in 2005, the biggest project we’d built was a district HQ for the Girl Guides in Wimbledon. I realised that we’d need some expert help on the facade – the last thing we wanted was the snow getting in. I was recommended Sean Billings, an amazing character with such energy and a great Irish sense of humour. Sadly, he died shortly after we finished Halley VI. We’d also worked on the project with his son Colman, and he was the obvious person to ring up when we won the competition for the redevelopment of Scott Base for Antarctica New Zealand.
Colman is an industrial designer and talks about cladding in a way that’s intelligible rather than baffling. Our project architect has learnt so much from him in the same way that we did before when we worked with his father. With Colman, we talk about more than just the design of the cladding – it’s really important having people like that to share things with.
When I was a student in Edinburgh, Ted Cullinan was a visiting professor and he taught us about the importance of designing simultaneously at a scale of 1:1000 and 1:2, so that the concept is informed by the making. Working with Colman helps us do this too, discussing issues such as wind impact, snow penetration and meltwater run-off at an early stage. The project is being built in New Zealand and shipped out in eight massive sections. Some preparatory work is under way but the project won’t be fully finished until at least 2028.
We’re also working on a couple of other Antarctic projects with Colman, for the British Antarctic Survey and Australian Antarctic Division, and it helps that we can transfer learnings of what went right – and wrong – from the different projects.
RWDI are the go-to people for snowdrift modelling, which is highly specialised. I think this process is crucial for designing a project in Antarctica. We first worked with them on Halley VI during the competition, when the firm was assigned by the client to assess the shortlisted schemes. It wanted all the schemes to be as workable as possible and wasn’t interested in anyone stumbling, so RWDI helpfully advised us to put our buildings all in a straight line rather than in an X shape, which would have been a disaster for snow drifting.
For Scott Base, we worked with microclimate experts Jan Dale and Megan Dicks very early on to discuss the roof shape, the plan shape, and the design of the elevations, and this was a big influence on our concept. Later on, there was the key moment when we tested our model in their laboratory in Canada. The testing is an iterative process. They use a water flume and introduce sand into the water tank with a current that is calibrated to mimic snow and wind conditions. They then put the model into it and the sand drifts around the model in the same way as snow would. This process is fine-tuned with the help of photographs and input from those with site experience – they might have to vary the speed and direction of the current or the size of the sand.
The outcome gives us a greater understanding of how our design responds to the conditions – we might find that the sand accumulates in ways we don’t want. Jan and Megan can then suggest different ways of orientating the building or part of it, and can make quick changes to the model so we can test it again. Working at speed with them like this is amazing and can help us refine the shape of the building, its height off the ground, where we put the access, even where we put the windows to avoid them being sand-blasted by winter ice and summer grit. They then give us a very detailed report. If we make changes later on in the process, we can check back with them to understand what the implications might be.
Because we have worked with Jan and Megan on so many projects now, we have developed a shorthand in communication. Their input has become integral to the design process.
Hugh Broughton founded Hugh Broughton Architects in 1996
As told to Pamela Buxton