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Plum Lines

Published on 13th April 2019

There’s a little house that’s embedded on a steep, wooded slope in a remote corner of Wiltshire that has garnered an almost unreasonable amount of attention. True, its modern, 1960s design is eye-catching: lots of glass and wood, and an asymmetrical roof slanting down in an aesthetic echo of the hill into which it sits. Architect and owner of the Ansty Plum property, Sandra Coppin, seems slightly baffled by the one-bedroom house’s fame in the press and its array of awards – from the RIBA South West Small Project Award to theTelegraph’s Homebuilding ‘Best Renovation’. “There’s definitely a renewed interest in post-war architecture,” muses Sandra. “There’s a heroism, a courage and bravery – a tenacity and invention in our post-war buildings that the public are now beginning to enjoy.”

There’s clearly a lot more to the place than a minimal summer house which cost a mere £5,000 to build in 1964. Back then, it was designed by architect David Levitt for a partner at Ove Arup as something of a folly. Some years later, a studio and garage was added by Brutalist architects the Smithsons – all smooth concrete and stone. Six years ago, Sandra and her husband spotted it when they were seeking a weekend retreat to give their family more space from their small flat in London’s Highgate. When they bought it, they realised that a sensitive renovation was required – something in which Sandra and her business partner Bev Dockray have plenty of experience.

Sandra’s first degree in Environmental Sciences is a telling starting point. She is still passionate not only about the environment, but in finding ways to face the ever-looming housing crisis in this country. On a smaller scale, the Ansty Plum house is a great example of conservation and environmentalism. Coppin Dockray – Sandra and Bev’s practice – is dedicated to reducing waste on site. A third of landfill waste in this country comes from the construction industry, Sandra says.
“As designers and architects, we have an obligation to make sure that our buildings produce as little waste as possible.” During work on the Ansty Plum house, anything that wasn’t toxic was retained. “We removed asbestos and polystyrene and plastic packaging and so on,” she says, “but everything else remained on site, where it was re-used or went into spoil that then determined the external landscaping.”

Zinc roofing that was no longer fit for purpose was re-used for flashing, and dressed over simple door blanks to make outdoor tables. Bricks from the floor – damaged during the lifting process and tarnished with ancient glue – were used to build up the terracing by the studio entrance. “Rather than taking buildings apart and transporting them across to landfill sites,” she adds, “we keep those elements on site in order to reduce the problem that we’re creating.” And it’s not just the reduction of waste that is commendable in the Coppin Dockray philosophy – the improvement of the eco-performance of a building is vital in today’s world of climate change. “It’s not just about putting photovoltaics and wind turbines and those sorts of things onto buildings – we like to take a more fundamental and less visible approach.” The awards and attention are as much about the fact that the renovation reduced the house’s energy use by 80%, as about the style of the renovation itself.

Aesthetically, the building has been rebuilt to retain all of its original 1960s style, yet still feels bang up-to- date. Sandra contracted a number of local craftsmen to work on the project – people who had experience working on historic buildings, but had never worked on post-war buildings. They rose to the task: “What was interesting is the real commitment they showed to understanding the building, understanding its DNA and working in the best way we could to achieve what we needed to achieve.”

Both Bev and Sandra have carved a niche as a successful architectural practice in what is a very male world. Sandra has her theories about why the drop-
off rate in this industry is so high for women after graduation. “Architecture is a long game, and often women’s careers are disrupted. There is a culture of very long working hours – which is often not suitable, especially for women who’ve got young children. It is difficult to take time out and return to work; it’s often difficult for women to work less than full-time.” She and Bev have been lucky enough to gain experience working at renowned practice Niall McLaughlin, before setting up on their own. They were also lucky that they staggered having children, so that Bev was able to take on more of the work when Sandra’s children were very young, and vice versa when Bev’s were born. They have built flexibility into their work, and it’s highly effective. “Because we started our practice 5-10 years after many of our colleagues, we’re pretty fast, strategic and executive in our work,” says Sandra.

Coppin Dockray’s studio is in Sandra’s duplex flat in Highpoint II – a Modernist block in Highgate. The interior of the flat has won accolades, too – especially its sweeping spiral of a staircase and the Corbusier-inspired colour palette. The view across Hampstead Heath through the massive floor-to-ceiling windows is surely as stimulating as it gets. Their flexible working pattern doesn’t mean they stint on commitment to their projects – but it does mean they are selective about what they take on. Almost more important than the architecture, says Sandra, is the relationship with the client. “Often a project will take five years. So what’s important for a client is that they feel comfortable and trust that their architect will work in their best interest. We know that it is often a very stressful process for a client – so we need to make sure we will like and respect each other through the project and after completion.”

While Coppin Dockray has a wide portfolio of work – from residential new-builds to the design of Roxie Steakhouses in London – it is the renovations that seem to be attracting the most attention. Re-furbishing and improving energy efficiency is just one key factor in fending off the housing crisis in this country, says Sandra. “I think housing is a massive problem that needs to be attacked on many different sides. And using our existing building stock is fundamentally important, but it’s part of a greater strategy of freeing up more land.” She is particularly disturbed by the tearing down of post-war buildings that fail to get listed status – such as the Brutalist Robin Hood Gardens estate in East London. “There are two things happening here: the physical waste of tearing down our buildings, but also the cultural waste that comes with it.” The estate in question is highly contentious, however – while many architects and historians fought to prevent the demolition of the Trellick Tower-esque buildings, a large proportion of the residents hated living in them.

For all the high-impact renovations with which Coppin Dockray has made a name for itself, Sandra says she really prefers working on new-builds. It is an exciting challenge to work solely within the constraints of a site rather than in an existing structure. As a highly creative firm, each project is a learning process: “It’s really about having more creative impact and as a way of testing ideas – for the practice, new-build houses are a lovely way to do that. It’s also a lovely process for private clients. It’s a very enjoyable process.”