Earth-led design

Words by Dan Warden


“The good building is not one that hurts the landscape, but one which makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before the building was built.”


© All photos Chris Hewitt Photography


This quote from American architect Frank Lloyd Wright could be considered something of a mantra for Cornish firm, Arco2 Architecture. Championing ‘earth-led design’, Arco2 designs buildings with the future in mind, although not in a way that leans solely towards looks. Of course, as you’ll see in the images across the coming pages, Arco2’s buildings do look good – contemporary, sleek, certainly built with the modern owner in mind. But when Ian Armstrong, Co-Director of this stellar Cornish company, talks about the future, he’s referring more specifically to sustainability.


It is Arco2’s belief that by exploring your vision through a sustainable lens, you can discover innovative, modern architecture – designed with your health, comfort and wellbeing at its core. “18 years ago there was no opportunity for sustainable architecture within Cornwall and no practises specialising in low-energy buildings,” says Ian, as I ask how it all began. Seeing an opportunity, along with Co-Founder and Director, Nathan Davis, he took the opportunity to start a specialist practice with the sole purpose and passion for sustainability.

They first started out from the loft of a house, Ian explains, eventually taking over most of it. Before long, he says: “We needed a new premises to expand. We purchased a former Forestry Commission building and used this as an experimental platform to showcase what we do. We undertook the alterations and conversion ourselves, during and after working hours, before eventually moving into our award-winning healthy, natural and sustainable office.” This was nothing short of a master stroke – not only providing themselves with the perfect base of operations, but also demonstrating to potential clients exactly what they could do, and more importantly, what they were about. But not just that. “It enabled us to expand and further experiment with sustainable buildings, developing, prototyping and building pre-fabricated straw bale and sheep-wool insulated buildings, alongside our day-to-day projects. We were,” he continues, “and still are, living and breathing sustainability.”

Both Ian and Nathan are Cornish, Ian having spent all of his working career here and, in his words, “not wanting to leave Cornwall.” Nathan has worked further afield, with experience in quantity surveying and building, prior to a life in architecture. I ask what, if anything, is different about architecture here in the Duchy. “Cornwall is a diverse county with coastal, moorland and urban areas offering a wide range of architecture and projects,” answers Ian. “We always hear how Cornwall is so laid back but actually, when you are busy working, you don’t notice it! The lifestyle and beauty here is what keeps people in Cornwall, and what draws many of our clients and tourists to the county.


© All photos Chris Hewitt Photography

“Cornwall has always been blessed with Innovators,” Ian continues. “It is a county filled with very talented people, creating opportunities in many industries, including sustainability.” He elaborates that Cornish architecture is distinctive and recognised for its sustainable approach. “Nature and natural materials feature strongly within the well-admired heritage of mining, which as you might expect includes some of the finest quality slate and stone in the world.” And this feeds directly into the Arco2 ethos, which is, as Ian tells me: “To design well considered, site-specific, bespoke buildings that are respectful to the landscape and the environment. “All of our buildings are designed to be low energy, healthy and comfortable to enable a better lifestyle for our clients, whilst at the same time being robust, beautiful and sustainable.”


© All photos Chris Hewitt Photography


As an example, Ian refers to Featherbeds, a low-energy family home in Feock, with a separate building containing an indoor swimming pool, yoga room, workshop and garaging. Originally purchased with planning permission to convert and extend a poorly built barn, Ian explains that with the project came an element of risk – that the replacement dwelling would not be supported by either Cornwall Council or that of the local Parish. This is where Arco2’s experience came into its own.


The client brief was to replace the existing dwelling with a new family home; it should be sustainable and self sufficient, whilst making the most of the site. Key to the brief were natural light and private views of the secluded valley locale, and also that the building should include areas of single and double storeys, using natural materials such as stone, timber and green roofs, in conjunction with modern materials like zinc. The brief demanded a contemporary design that respected the area’s natural landscape and heritage, one that enabled the inside spaces to bring the outside in. It also required the incorporation of Californian, Balinese and Cornish architectural styles. In short, says Ian: “It was quite a challenge!”


That said, he continues: “The project was a success, in terms of design, construction and end product. We were able to ensure that the Parish Council were supportive throughout the process, inviting them back at the end to show how the quality of the scheme has proved to be good for the area as a whole – creating something to truly be proud of.”


Projects like this have helped Arco2 to nurture a rock-solid reputation for helping clients realise their aspirations. But with a portfolio that only continues to grow, how do the Directors find time to enjoy their own lives in Cornwall? “Downtime is tricky for both of us,” Ian admits – an answer I was already half expecting. In fact, he elaborates: “Having built our own homes, building has been our downtime! That said, surfing, running, paddle-boarding and fishing are passions of mine. Getting outside and enjoying nature and what Cornwall has to offer is a good relief from sitting down all day; we are so lucky to have the coast, moors and countryside so nearby, especially important during lockdown.”


Onto the ‘day to day’, and a large part of Arco2’s portfolio is made up of projects for clients moving to Cornwall, who are looking to move and build their dream homes here. With an ever-growing list of architectural firms vying for this business, I ask the obvious: why choose Arco2? “Our sustainable ethos and award-winning architecture,” is Ian’s straightforward reply. “We push the boundaries of design; we’re Cornish, so we fully understand and appreciate the unique environment here, and we have our own sustainable construction company – ADD Sustainable Construction Ltd.”


© All photos Chris Hewitt Photography


But it goes deeper than that; it’s as much about the company’s proven processes, and having read briefly about Arco2’s three-key phases – Discovery, Design, Delivery – I ask Ian to walk me through them. First of all, the Discovery Phase. “This initial stage is vital. It allows us to understand our client’s lifestyle, needs and ambitions, which in turn inspire the design. Discovery encourages each project to be founded upon sustainable living principles, and sets the path for truly unique architecture.”


The next phase – Design – is by and large what it says on the tin, but it’s fundamental to the Arco2 process. “Designs are created with a focus on the client’s needs for comfort and wellbeing,” says Ian. That said, all of Arco2’s buildings are engineered to be robust – to minimise ongoing maintenance and reduce running costs “through fundamentally sustainable design features”.


Finally, the Delivery phase. This, Ian reveals, “is where your architecture project meets [and often surpasses] the aspirations of the journey, and where the building begins.”


Let’s take a look at another recent example: Waterhouse, near Wadebridge. With views over the river Camel, Arco2 were employed to design a replacement dwelling, to provide a site-specific and bespoke design tailored to the client’s needs, without compromising on energy efficiency. It was crucial they remained sympathetic to the rural setting within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. “The finished result has completely transformed the lives of our clients,” Ian tells me, “opening the setting up to its beautiful estuary views and creating seamless transitions between the inside and outside spaces. What was once a typical 1980s Cornish bungalow has now been replaced with a low-energy dwelling with lifetime benefits. It’s a light-filled, spacious and modern family home, one that better connects with its location and makes the most of its wonderful setting.”


© All photos Chris Hewitt Photography


It’s clear, then – why clients not only choose, but recommend Arco2 to others. Especially this year, after two lockdowns have left people around the UK in search of a healthier, more sustainable at-home lifestyle. And at a time when sustainability has never been higher on our agenda, as we look to build a future that sees us dwelling harmoniously with the world around us, we must look at every aspect of our being in order to make that happen, a concept that has been at Arco2’s beating heart since its very inception.


arco2.co.uk