Akin Studio winner of Marley sponsored AJ small projects awards

AJ 2022 winner Atkin Drovers Bough The winner of the 2022 Architects’ Journal Small Project Awards, or AJ awards for short, is Drover’s Bough. The small project by London based Akin Studio has also been called a treehouse on stilts. The project was shortlisted from 170 entries of projects with a total contract value under £299,000 and then selected as a winner from the final 20 projects.

We spent a bit more time with Louis Jobst and Ross Keenan, the practice directors, to learn more about the project, their ethos, and their professional journey. Akin Studio was formed in 2020, but Ross and Louis have a history rooted further back. They met for the first time at Kingston University in 2006. Their paths crossed again at London Met. Whilst they both continued working for different architectural practices, their shared experiences and beliefs led them to join forces on various small projects.

Drover’s Bough was one of those projects. I asked what attracted them to the project; Ross said, “We are committed to creating bold and interesting buildings, but we want to balance that with respect for the existing environment. Disturb as little as possible, reuse materials, minimise waste.” I am keen to find out if this is something that goes beyond this project. Louis answers, “We always think about the afterlife of the building to make sure the imprint it leaves is as minimal as possible.”

Drover’s Bough is undoubtedly a legacy of that. I try to delve deeper into the concept itself and the more technical details of the project.

How do we build bold whilst treating our surroundings, nature, and history with respect?

Ross takes us to the very beginning: “The client initially came to us with the idea of creating a treehouse to provide accommodation as a holiday-let. To allow visitors the experience of living within the tree canopies in an isolated location.” So far, this sounded like a relatively straightforward treehouse project until Louis explained, “We took a walk through the land, and the most suitable space was at the end of a drovers track that was used to drive livestock from the fields. It was a great location, but the trees were not suitable for a treehouse, and we did not want to disturb them.”

Louis adds, “In addition, the client insisted that not one tree would be cut down. Even the planners expected trees under a specified diameter to be removed for ease of construction. But the client stood firm, albeit making things much harder.”

I wondered how they overcame the challenge of not using trees as part of the build for a treehouse project. Ross continued, “We decided to design a treehouse on stilts to preserve the trees. We then used screw piles to ensure we didn’t impact the land with unnecessary concrete or cause damage to the tree roots, whilst allowing nature to thrive below the building.”

Judging from the pictures, the result is a tranquil space embraced by branches. Louis continues to describe the view : “The trees are as close as they could possibly be. When the wind is blowing, the trees gently tap on the sides of the treehouse. We used bifold windows on the east-west side as casement windows would have clashed with the trees if you opened them. Visitors can reach out of the window and touch the trees.”

I am starting to appreciate the tremendous amount of thought, detail, and craftsmanship that went into the project. I already know that Ross, Louis and the client went further in the effort to preserve resources, reuse materials and create as little waste as possible. They describe this as a ‘primitive approach to sustainability.

Sustainability through extending the life of materials, reuse of products and waste reduction

I learnt that the client used to be a cabinet maker, and they were keen to proceed with the project as a self-build. This was to balance the need to keep the budget down with the will to leave a significant mark of detailed craftsmanship on the project but as little waste as possible.

The excess material from the oak stilt frame structure was used internally for some of the joinery work. The leftover larch from the cladding was used for the decking outside. All the timber fixed underneath the building was decking reused from another project in Oxford. Floorboards and insulation were also reused from another nearby project. The idea of leaving no trace went beyond reducing waste from the construction of the treehouse and incorporated plans for its dismantling and reuse. It definitely feels like this project left no stone unturned in ensuring that its environmental impact is minimal.

Ross explains, “Yes, leaving no trace, or minimal trace, was part of the ethos for this project. We also wanted to ensure the building could be dismantled and materials reused at the end of its lifetime. The oak structure is bolted together with bespoke steel flitch plates to enable this. The screw piles are driven into the ground and could be removed if required. This approach is close to our hearts. We are experimenting with reuse of buildings, thinking about their afterlife, and looking at leaving little impact on the ground.”

Can sustainable construction be supported ‘from within’?

I wondered how this translates into day-to-day projects in the middle of London, where Akin Studio is based

Ross says, “As we know, sustainable materials are often more expensive than standard, more harmful equivalents. Although we keep specifying more sustainable alternatives, the client often doesn’t have the budget and finds it hard to justify. Louis continues, “Manufacturers should take the lead to develop more sustainable materials. Everyone is looking at grants for more sustainable technologies, but we should look at all the components of a building. Perhaps incentives for people to choose sustainable options?”

Louis added, “We have the oldest housing stock in Europe, and we should be looking to retrofit these buildings whilst retaining the aesthetic. Make sure we don’t infringe on their historical value but at the same time make them suitable for modern living.”

What is next for Akin Studio, will winning the AJ Small Project award change their direction?

Ross starts, “Being a small emerging practice, it’s important to gain exposure in such a competitive industry. Winning this award is certainly a step in the right direction.”

Louis adds that they are working even harder now, post-award, “We would like to maximise the interest created by the award. It is great to win the small project award at this practice stage.”

The Drover’s Bough project started in 2015 and finished in 2021. Six years of work. I ask what has changed in that time. Louis explains, “We have learnt so much since then and have evolved as a practice. We are excited to create architecture that builds on the ideas of Drovers’ Bough.

Marley is proud to continue to support new, starting practices and help shape a more sustainable future for us all. We can help with small projects with large ideas, please get in touch.

Category: Architecture