Ask the Architect: FaulknerBrowns Architects

Lee McLaughlin, partner at FaulknerBrowns Architects, answers ADF’s questions on what makes him tick, design approaches, and current and future issues

What has been the most satisfying project you worked on?

Our Hebburn Central project was particularly pleasing in many respects – notably that we achieved something outstanding, having been appointed from day one to a contractor client. A lot of people in the industry bemoan the challenges of design and build and so forth, but that project made a significant contribution to the industry and its community – it was visited by the Stirling Prize judging panel but was unsuccessful – next time perhaps.

How far do you get involved with developments in materials and what is your favourite recent example?

We take inspiration from precise construction detailing and material technology, and we push this on most of our projects, no matter how primitive the product we are looking at. Take stone for example, and the staircase Foster + Partners designed for Apple at Orchard Road in Singapore. A thesis in craftsmanship, precision and materiality.

Are you able to take an experimental approach with materials on projects?

We are constantly searching for new materials, systems and processes by which to deliver architecture. Taking a reductive position on design seems even more relevant today in our busy lives. Simplicity and rationale are key. Emphasising clean lines and designing for manufacture and assembly are paramount for us and we put a lot of research and development to test on Hebburn Central. We worked closely with steel fabricators to optimise the material cuts to avoid waste and meet fairly optimistic commercial targets, the architecture has an expressive respect for the structural capability of its frame and its materials. We created an entirely bespoke envelope system composed of large format weathered steel, aluminium and glass – it needed to have a monolithic industrial character that was focused on proportions and off-the shelf lightweight systems weren’t right.

Is there a big difference between working with public and private clients in general?

In general, no, they are the same. It’s all about inspiring the individuals involved and taking them on the journey.

Do you prefer masterplanning or doing the fine detailing?

They are inextricably linked. A masterplan is just as applicable to the design of a cup as it is to the regeneration of a new quarter in a city. You can’t set a grand vision and then walk away and leave it to others. It’s all about commitment. The best architects understand the impact of their lines, their sketches at every scale, be that the city or how a piece of stone turns a corner. As T.S. Eliot said, “Between the idea and the reality…falls the shadow”. There is a great difference too between what one dreams up and what actually comes to pass in reality. A masterplan and fine detailing are absolutely linked.

Is BIM more of a money-saving tool than a boon for the design process?

It’s powerful at the right stage and I have been lucky enough to work with some talented people who can boss it in a way that we hadn’t seen at the start of our journey. It’s powerful in the production and coordination process, its role in the design process is open to interpretation, but we have some very talented people ensuring it’s a boon for us.

What stands in the way of genuine collaboration currently?

Nothing, it’s just about appetite.

Has Brexit affected your practice and what are your hopes and fears?

It is still quite difficult to tell for us. We work in Europe and beyond and we are focused on continuing that. You mentioned collaboration – Brexit feels like the antithesis of that.

Are you managing to juggle working in practice and your academic teaching work successfully, or is it still a challenge to be mastered?

We have been, and continue to be, heavily involved in running teaching units at a number of universities and it’s great to be part of a practice that offers something back. We are ambitious as a firm and thankfully big enough to manage practice and academia between all of us, with some talented colleagues taking up the more demanding side of academia. I am lucky enough to hold visiting tutor and examiner roles at institutions in England and Ireland, which works for me at the moment. Perhaps that might increase, but we have a lot to do in practice at the same time. It’s all about balance.

What single challenge or innovation would make an architect’s job easier?

Who wants the easy way out? Some of us enjoy the pain!

From your experience how do UK commercial projects differ from overseas examples as a designer?

For us it’s all about process, and this is constant. So far our approach has been transferable between our UK and international projects. We don’t pronounce a difference, and that’s really important to us and how we work.