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Luke Tozer & Tim Pitman - Pitman Tozer Architects

12th Sep 2013

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Pitman Tozer Architects was founded by Tim Pitman and Luke Tozer in 2002, who continue to grow in their West London studio with great success. The firm have an unwavered expertise in contemporary sustainable design and creating beautiful low-energy buildings. They were critically acclaimed for The Gap House, a narrow new-build terraced London townhouse which won the prestigious RIBA Manser Medal in 2009, and that's now home for Luke Tozer. Since then they have developed a reputation for designing and delivering elegant and practical housing on complicated, heavily constrained sites. When we meet Luke, he’s in The Gap House - a simple, elegant and beautiful Notting Hill townhouse. Conceived at around the same time as his first son, the house is a testament to architectural resilience. We grilled one half of the firm in question about exactly what they think of London property and the secrets to their success...

How did Pitman Tozer start?
As friends and now business partners, we trained together and then shared a flat in Trellick Tower in Notting Hill. We both have a shared love of architecture and had one eye on the future and the way an evolving world would affect the industry that we wanted to work in. The practice grew from there. We always knew that we would have a dedication to quality and the emphasis is very much on realizing client aspirations and creating a great body of work rather than growing the practice.

What is the practice working on right now?
At the moment the practice is working on a scheme for the Peabody Trust in Bethnal Green, which is a collection of 67 flats in a mix of private and shared ownership. The brief here was to create an integrated living environment where there would be no divide between the two elements. With so many shared ownership schemes now having to be cross-financed by the sale of the private element of the development, great architecture supported by excellent management is the way forward. The scheme supports our ethos that good architecture should be available to everyone. We are also working on a couple of private houses, two on Northumberland Place for separate clients, a penthouse on Cadogan Square, a flat near Tottenham Court Road and a sixth form centre for an independent school in East Sussex.

How have you seen your local area change and what have been the factors that have contributed to that?
Values have changed a lot and now people look at ways to increase investment in their property, knowing that that this will make financial sense when they sell. Basements are still top of most people’s list although in some parts of West London roofline changes are significant, particularly if you have the support of your local planning office which are trying to direct people towards developing above ground rather than below. Open-plan space is still king, particularly in family homes, as room to move around definitely has a positive effect on the way we live. The most interesting architecture challenges are creating the bigger, more adventurous open-plan spaces that people want to live in. This has been penned as ‘Notting Hill-style’ and it’s true. In the 50 or more houses that we have been approached to design over the last decade, nobody has ever asked me for separate spaces. Storage is also key to a clean-living house. Our remedy is very much to plan storage into the spaces that you don’t want to use, like small and dark places under the stairs.

How effective is the message about sustainability and energy efficiency being relayed to local authorities and consumers?
Architecture is constantly changing and planners are now more receptive to low energy measures. As professional practitioners, we all want to try to encourage people to live in a more environmentally aware way but this will only be achieved in wider circles with central and local Government support behind us. All local authorities have their own foibles largely due to a lack of funding. We fight against this every day. At the moment there is a perfect storm of lack of supply of housing at the either end of the market coupled with rising prices and slashed budgets in affordability. The way it’s being tackled is that educated local authorities are charging much higher fees for pre-application which is driving better, more well-thought architecture. You need to produce a better level of information just to get it into the system.

Historically you have achieved some significant projects. What have you most enjoyed working on?
My own house, The Gap House, was the most challenging and by default, the most rewarding. We developed our house when my wife Charlotte was pregnant with our first child and so there is a real mixture of emotions attached to it. It was hugely exciting but we knew from the outset that it would be extremely difficult. It was a real chance opportunity as sites in West London are so rare and there were lots of sleepless nights wondering if it would actually happen. We bought the side return of one property which was part-owned by a neighbour who we did a land deal with, and the rear garden. Access for the site is narrower than an average garage and so we had to use specially developed machinery to enable us to pile for foundations and dig out bore holes for our ground source heat pumps. The design for the house was then to be a staggered-build with larger square metre spaces on the ground floor, gradually growing narrower to the top of the house. It was a real opportunity to test out new and emerging technology that we would later use for other clients, and flex our design muscles in terms of creating a great family house. With my wife as the main client, the latter was of supreme importance! Developing from scratch meant that the outcome had very low-energy features by developing from scratch. We are definitely proud of what we have achieved as a practice with the Gap House, and its creation has resulted in us working with Kensington and Chelsea Council to show how low-energy features could be incorporated into an average family home.

Do you have a dream project that you personally would like to design and build?
A dream project, hmm, that would be a house on a hill overlooking the sea with a chapel attached to it. The gradient would give uninterrupted views from every part of the house and the chapel is an indulgence really - the thing about religious architecture is that it has no other need to fulfil other than to inspire.

How has the average West London client changed? Is the international community dictating changes in the way houses are developed and refurbished?
Everyone comes with their geographical baggage and you have to work with that. In Notting Hill though the international influx has raised the aspirations of what people want, including what existing local residents want. What runs through all expectations though is a demand for a certain standard of workmanship. The area seems to attract people with a genuine interest and love of good design. The other unifying feature is that nobody has a large garden so you really have to maximize the connection between the small garden or courtyard that you have, and the internal spaces of the home. Living locally and having had to achieve this in my own home has really helped me as an architect to understand how best to make this connection between inside and out.

How important is it to achieve a balance between residential and commercial project for the practice?
Each type of project comes with its own challenges and we relish the processes that every new job presents. With our work for Peabody we have to manage extremely tight budgets over a large site. Our private residential projects might have a greater budget over a smaller site. Each type of job is equally exciting though because of what you want to achieve at the end of the process. The work that we do has a bearing effect on the lives that people live in the properties we create, be it an individual family in their own home or a residential block of tenants. Through good architecture we like to think that we make people happy and improve their living environment.

How do you see the landscape of London changing? What’s the most exciting aspect of new architecture in the Capital right now?
London is constantly evolving and to say it is an exciting place to be right now would be wrong. It has always been a very exciting place to be, as as Londoners we largely embrace and understand architecture extremely well.

How important is it to nurture the next generation of architects? What is Pitman Tozer doing to attract new talent?
It’s very important to bring new talent into the practice to keep your focus sharp. However our aim is also very much to nurture the talent that we have [six people] as each person makes a very big difference to the skills that are available in the workplace.

What’s the next phase of Pitman Tozer?
Our residential projects are getting more complex as people want to try to achieve different things with their homes. There is also always an eye on the ‘what’s coming next’ and so future-proofing our schemes is important to ensure that the architecture will function in the way people want it to in the future. Our commercial projects are tending to get larger and so we are now doing a big scheme in Hammersmith for the Guinness Trust. The scale of our Peabody scheme means that we will probably attract more attention from housing associations and large scale developers in the future.

Pitman Tozer Architects, 103 Great Western Studios, 65 Alfred Road, London W2;