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A449 Architects: ‘We are enthused by the challenge of working with an existing form’

A449 architects edinburgh blakeburn 001

AR_EA Scotland: A449 Architects

A recession, Indyref, Brexit; Matthew Johnson’s timing in going it alone was certainly bold. Setting up on his own in 2010 after a stint at RMJM Edinburgh, Johnson’s firm A449 has recently made the transition to a ‘micro-practice’, taking on a Part 1 graduate and a part-time office manager to help manage a significantly growing workload. Prior to this it was just Johnson at his kitchen table – unglamorous, perhaps, but the highest ranked single-person practice in Scotland – drawing up what could be called a Scottish Borders vernacular: steep pitches, timber, glazing peeking from behind old walls. 

‘While the housing market slowed, it created a market for alteration and extension projects as the desire and ability to move reduced,’ says Johnson. It is perhaps no coincidence that his early experiences growing up around building sites for home extensions – ‘seeing the detail drawings, exploring after hours and seeing the positive impact it had on family life’ – have made the firm a dab hand at this line of work. But despite this, A449’s breakout project was a new-build – a family home in the conservation village  of Gattonside. ‘We continue to instil the qualities that won us that commission’, says Johnson, ‘an appropriate response to the site and context, simplicity of form, maximising internal spatial quality and a restrained material palette.’ The firm’s ideal projects are those that allow a story to be continued, often grappling with conservation areas or crumbling structures – ‘we are enthused by the challenge of working with an existing form’, says Johnson.

‘We continue to instil the qualities that won us our first commission - appropriate response to site and context, simplicity of form, spatial quality and a restrained material palette’

Some short-term slowdown following the EU referendum is expected, but although the political climate has been more tumultuous than usual, Johnson says the practice (or he himself) ‘came to  the decision several years ago to deal with these conditions and manage fluctuations in workload … we felt the best way to do that was to be our own client, and we believe this is a good model for practice’.

Word of mouth, however, sees A449 continue to receive more work around the Highlands and Islands, with some commercial and third sector projects in the pipeline. ‘We have a continuing issue around micro practices not getting anywhere near the final stages of publicly procured projects – to the point that we have chosen not to bother.’ Instead, Johnson reserves the most praise for those clients who put trust in the tiny practice back in 2012, before they had a roster of built works and a second RIAS Award under their belt, won this year for the extension and restoration of Blakeburn Cottage (above) in Roxburghshire. ‘We have been overwhelmed by the reaction of the client … the way she talks about the positive impact the building has had on her life is very rewarding.’

‘Scotland will one way or the other remain in the EU, and independence will eventually happen. We are really optimistic about this’

Contrary to how a similar practice in England might feel, Johnson has faith in Scotland’s future,and looks set to benefit from an architectural scene growing in confidence. ‘We will one way or the other remain in the EU, and independence will eventually happen. We are really optimistic about  this, and the opportunity to emerge into a progressive country is very appealing.’ Johnson’s aims for the practice are also progressive – ‘we intend to scale  the practice up, but have a wider plan regarding community engagement, to create an inviting hub where the community can access information and resources about all aspects of the built environment.’

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Image courtesy of A449 Architects