Paul Archer founded his award-winning London-based architectural practice in 1999. Paul Archer Design is well known for its meticulous high-end work in the private residential sector, from extensions and new-builds to the renovation of historic listed buildings. Across all its projects, the practice seeks to apply the most sustainable solutions to a Modernist aesthetic.

While most other architects would give their eyeteeth to work on large-scale projects, Paul eschews them, actively choosing to specialise in small-scale residential design instead. He explains why this is, describes how he encourages his staff to get to grips with DIY, and his reasons for doing so.

While Paul may think small in his work, he relaxes on a grand scale - on the tops of mountains where the view couldn’t be bigger. He tells us more about that, and his experience of designing a new house for his parents, with a little help from his sister. He also reveals the secret behind one of his most successful designs…for now let’s just say it’s out of this world.

The interview begins with a question about Paul’s recently published book, ‘Old to New’, which documents the first 10 years of Paul Archer Design and features 26 detailed case studies of the practice’s residential work…

You’ve included four essays in ‘Old to New’, one of which is entitled ‘Cultural Shifts in House Design’. In terms of interiors in particular, we’d be fascinated to hear what some of those shifts have been, and where you think we’re headed next?

The biggest shift of the last 20 years has been the almost universal requirement for the big, open plan kitchen/diner. This I think has been pretty well documented. But a slightly subtler idea has been the influence of hotel design on the home. As people have become more travelled, they have seen all sorts of great hotels from around the world.

The most obvious consequence of this is the growth of the large master suite. This is in effect a hotel room, and tends to be laid out in a very similar way. Equally, the master ensuite is seen as a space to enjoy, and is now more and more open plan with the bedroom. A nice twist is that this often means that you put the WC in its own little room - back how we used to do it in the early 20th century!

Is there anything else?

One of the other big shifts in house design is how we deal with storage. Modern life creates more and more 'stuff', so we need more and more space dedicated to simply storing it. Good storage needs to be in the right place, and appropriate to what you’re storing. For example, kids toys need storing near where they are playing, which in turn needs to be near where parents can keep an eye. Put the toy cupboard upstairs and nobody will tidy up! This is key if we want to keep spaces uncluttered.

Also, it’s probably worth mentioning the biggest visual shift of the last 10 years. Most people used to 'style' their homes in a very coherent aesthetic - 'modern' or 'Victorian' for example. These days people are much more relaxed and tend to mix things up a lot more. We'll do a very minimal interior, and the client will be happy to have antique furniture. I think related to this has also been the strong trend for 'pattern' making - mixing Moroccan encaustic tiles with Vola taps.

Staying with interiors, what are some of the key factors in your own design philosophy?

The key approach to our interiors is empathy for the client. We discuss at length how the clients live, and design the space around them. This is partly the dynamics of the family, but it is also the little details…What do you do when you come through the front door - where do you put your keys? Do you take your shoes off? So, as a designer, you try to put yourself in the client’s shoes as you design their spaces.

In 2006 you were commissioned to design a new-build house on a plot of land near Bristol… by your parents. What was the experience of having mother and father as your client like?

Designing for my parents had its good and its bad parts. Generally they were very forgiving when I was experimenting with some of the details. But both of them were in similar businesses - mum run her own soft furnishings/interior design company, and Fred (my step father) ran a window company. So they knew the ups and downs of the industry and had no unrealistic expectations. This made it a pretty pain free design process.

The build process was more painful as the contractor went bust at the beginning of the recession, leaving lots of defects to sort out. It means that when I visit for the Christmas holidays, I'm still noticing small improvements.

Still keeping things in the family, your sister, Sally Archer, is an environmental consultant who worked with you on your parents’ new house. Has she been a big influence in your passion for sustainability?

I've always discussed the environment with my sister, so I think we influenced each other. I was coming from the detail of a building approach, and she was more the grand, national vision.

You’re known for your conviction that ‘small is beautiful’. What is it that makes you turn away large-scale projects that other architects would jump at as stepping-stones to expansion and acclaim?

It’s mostly about control! When projects get too big you lose the personal design touch. I think most of the best buildings are houses - and the reason is partly that every detail has been considered - and normally by one person or a small team.

You graduated in architecture from Liverpool University in 1991, then two years later you moved to Hong Kong to work for Tonkin Design. There, you worked not only on residential projects, but offices and restaurants too. So what made you want to specialise exclusively in private residential design when you returned to the UK?

Residential design gives you a fairly unique contact with the end-user of your product. Most other work is for a committee or company - not individuals - and often not the people actually going to live in your design. The best

feedback is when a client says we have changed their lives.

And, for you, what was it like to live and work in Hong Kong? Any particularly vivid memories of the place?

Fast, furious, ‘can do’ - all sadly a bit lacking in the UK.

In the course of your career, what would you say has been a) the lowest point and b) the highest point?

The lowest point was losing our first house commission back in 2000, as we couldn't find a building on the budget.

The highest point was publishing ‘Old to New’, and having it shortlisted for the Best British Book of the Year Award was great. Seeing all your best work together in one beautifully printed book is very satisfying. Seeing that book on the shelves of the RIBA bookshop alongside all the big names is surreal, and thrilling.

And do you have a favourite project (you can mention more than one if it’s too hard to narrow down!)

The one that's stood the test of time is the 'Middlemiss Flat' (above) pure glass box. It’s one of the simplest, and purest projects. Everything is reduced to the basic, cleanest, simplest detail, yet it works on a very human sensory level. It is not about minimalism - the experience of being in the glass space, surrounded by greenery, with the light bouncing off the reflection pool is wonderful.

Overall, though, my favourite is ‘Green Orchard’ (below)- but I think the best is yet to come.

As well as designing, you’ve also lectured at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Greenwich University, North London University and Cardiff University. What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I haven't taught for a while now. I decided to give the time to my son, who is now 11 years old.

Can you think back to when you were teaching and say what you enjoyed about it back then?

Teaching tends to be a two way process. The student sparks a response in the teacher - and the teacher thinks of things they would not otherwise have done. I now do this with my associates in the office. But in the early years I had no associates, so interaction with students was a valuable source of ideas.

On the flip side, I tried to give my students a sense of their own creative potential. A teacher shouldn't impose their view of architecture, but should help the student develop their own ideas. I ended up employing a lot of my ex-students. They know that I like them to contribute to the creative process, not just do what I say. Some come back many years after they left university.

And what is the most important piece of advice you would give to students of architecture and design?

Decide whether you want to follow a 'master' or do your own thing. Different schools have one or the other - Liverpool was ‘do your own thing’.

You once said that you ‘have to immerse yourself in the building process before you can really develop as an architect’. Can you elaborate on that please?

I think this refers to the idea that you can only design beautiful details if you fully understand how they are put together. I try to get all my staff to do DIY so they get a feel for how to use a drill, how a brick feels. When you can imagine yourself as the builder, you can design better.

What first made you want to go into architecture and interior design?

As a kid I was always building models. I saw some architectural models in a planning department in Bristol, and thought, “That's for me!”. Sometimes I wonder if I should have stuck to just building the models though!

What would you say inspires your work?

Everything: and when I say everything, I do mean everything. So everything that you encounter day to day, and everything you see whilst on the move. I spend an hour a week looking at architectural books, and I spend a lot of time travelling. Exposure to new ideas, or reviewing them, is really important to me.

For example the design of Middlemiss Flat was inspired by a picture I had seen of an Apollo space mission space helmet, which offered an all-round glazed viewing field.

And what would your perfect day off entail?

My perfect day off – which I do often - is normally on a mountain in Cumbria, Snowdonia, or the Scottish Highlands, where you can’t see any buildings! I'm London-based these days, so it involves a bit of travel; but if you leave London at 5am, you can get on the mountains for 10am. The ultimate is sleeping out, high up, with just what you can carry on your back.

Otherwise, I do a lot of endurance sport - swimming, running and cycling. All good for staying fit, but also freeing the mind to think.

Gail Taylor


Img 1: Green Orchard – Will Pryce (Photographer)
Img 2—3: Kelross House – Will Pryce (Photographer)
Img 4: Middlemass Flat – Paul Smoothy (Photographer)

Img 5: Green Orchard – Paul Archer
Img 6: Green Orchard – Will Pryce (Photographer)