No more than a series of dilapidated farm buildings tucked away in the depths of the West Dorset countryside, Wraxall Yard has been sensitively and handsomely transformed by Clementine Blakemore Architects.
We caught up with architect Clementine Blakemore to find out more about the project, its sensitive renovation using local materials and how she went about creating an accessible space that was still beautiful.
Another Country: What were your first thoughts when Nick Read approached you about the Wraxall Yard project?
Clementine Blakemore: I met Nick through the furniture designer Alice Blogg, who I was working with as part of a collaboration between the Dorset Wildlife Trust and Hooke Park – the Architectural Association’s rural campus, where I had studied some years previously. I was thrilled by the possibility of continuing to work in an area I had come to love, on such an interesting and worthwhile project.
I first visited the site in the summer of 2018, and whilst the scale and scope of the required renovations were a little daunting, the unique character of the buildings and the exquisite setting was very inspiring.
The project also presented an excellent opportunity to develop retrofit skills within the practice, which will be valuable in the coming years as we hopefully move away from demolition towards adaptive reuse, helping to minimise the construction industry’s significant carbon footprint.
Through our initial conversations, it was clear that Nick would be an ambitious, astute, and passionate client, whose values aligned closely with my own. Given I only had a handful of much smaller projects to my name at that point, I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me such a brilliant opportunity, and trusting me to deliver the scheme successfully!
AC: Tell us about the early design process. We heard you held consultations with disabled people to understand how to accommodate their needs.
CB: At the start of our appointment, we carried out a Feasibility Study to better understand the possibilities within the site and help define the brief for the project. We visited a number of projects in the southwest offering rural experiences to disabled people, including ‘care farms’ and residential accommodation.
Typically we came away feeling inspired by the activities on offer, but disappointed by the quality of the environments, which often felt institutional; this galvanised our ambition for the accessibility of the scheme to be integrated as elegantly as possible.
Once we had begun the design work we were faced with specific decisions about what to include in light of the constraints of the existing buildings and budget, bearing in mind that the accommodation would be used as short-term holiday lets rather than permanent homes. As the project was a renovation, there were no requirements to meet Part M of the building regulations, and so we worked closely with the Centre for Accessible Environments to determine the most suitable provisions. Through them, and via our own research, we found individuals and organisations such as the Ceiling Hoist Users Community, who provided further insights and advice. For example, it became clear that a height-adjustable section of the kitchen worktop including the sink and hob was a requirement in each cottage, but the overall length of the worktops could be less than specified in Part M. Additionally, we decided that a ceiling hoist would be provided between the bedroom and bathroom in one cottage, with the ability to retrofit a second one in another cottage should there be extra demand in the future.
AC: The original building features have been handsomely and sensitively restored, did you use local materials and craftsmen?
CB: Using local materials was important not only in terms of quality, appearance and authenticity – but also to reduce transport emissions and ensure that the embodied carbon in the building fabric was as low as possible. All existing materials that could be salvaged were reused; stone walls were repaired or rebuilt using lime mortar with additional stone from local quarries added where necessary, and timber trusses were carefully repaired where possible – using simple and robust details in keeping with the agricultural character of the buildings. All new timber structural members were formed from homegrown Douglas Fir, and left exposed.
Unfortunately, a lot of traditional building skills have been lost – so it can be a struggle to find craftspeople with the knowledge needed to work with materials such as lime mortar, which requires a lot more care and time than cement. We worked closely with the main contractor Stonewood Builders, the engineer Structure Workshop, and a Clerk of Works, to ensure that a high quality of craftsmanship was maintained throughout the works on site.
AC: Avoiding clinical feel was an important part of the brief, how did you tackle access needs in such a beautiful and calm space?
CB: We were eager to find solutions that were technically suitable but didn’t compromise on design quality. We sourced the accessible features in the kitchens, including a height adjustable worktop and pull-down shelves, from Howdens, but specified a bespoke stainless steel worktop and birch ply door fronts – ensuring that the materials were in keeping with the agricultural character of the buildings. For the bathrooms, we specified products such as sinks with integrated grab handles, mitigating the need for wall-mounted railings and thereby reducing the visual clutter in the space.
In terms of the furnishings, Another Country was very helpful in modifying the design of the dining tables to better accommodate wheelchairs – but we really struggled to find height-adjustable and profiling beds with rails that looked attractive, and would sit well with the beautiful timber furniture used elsewhere. In the end, we sourced the frames from a company that was willing to provide them without the plastic veneer surrounds, and then commissioned a local carpenter to make solid Douglas fir panels that could be fitted to the frames. It was a relatively small move, but one that was really successful in making the accessible bedrooms feel as domestic, elegant and comfortable as any of the others.
AC: You selected the Hardy collection by Another Country, which has its own design heritage in Dorset. What drew you to this collection?
CB: We’re really interested in capturing a sense of place in our work, ensuring that although contemporary, the buildings feel connected to the vernacular character of the local area. From this perspective, the fact that the Hardy collection was inspired by the history and landscape of Dorset, and that some pieces are made locally, was very appealing. Given the spaces are being used as holiday lets, we wanted to use something very robust and relatively safe to bump into! The warmth of the oiled oak, which will be able to withstand the patina of use over time very well, and the softly rounded corners of the frames, seemed particularly well suited to our brief.
AC: Is there one feature that really stands out for you?
CB: The relationship between buildings and the surrounding landscape is something that was a key driver behind the early strategic design moves, and I think works really successfully in the completed scheme. As well as learning from the existing buildings, we researched other agricultural typologies through books such as ‘Traditional Farm Buildings of Britain’ by RW Brunskill. One of the things we came across was the idea of a Breezeway or roofed passage between two structures. This inspired not only the main entrance into the courtyard from the car park, but also the route from the courtyard towards the orchard and down to the boardwalk. In combination with two existing gaps between the buildings, these create views and access out towards the woodland and pasture on all sides.
As well as providing opportunities for guests and visitors, as a not-for-profit Community Interest Company, Wraxall Yard is also running a volunteer scheme in collaboration with the Dorset AONB as part of a drive to get young people with mental health and/or addiction issues engaged in the countryside. In a way, the restoration of the buildings has been a catalyst for a series of holistic social and environmental endeavours aiming to improve people’s quality of life and the natural world. This is more of an impact, rather than a design feature – but one that I’m very proud of.
AC: What’s next?
CB: I took a sabbatical once the building work at Wraxall was completed to spend some time with my young children, but am now back in the studio working on a number of projects in London. These include a low-carbon music recording studio on an infill site in Hackney, the renovation of a listed building in Kentish Town to be used as a potter’s studio, and the renovation of my own house, in collaboration with my partner Ed who is also an architect.
We are currently recruiting in order to expand the practice team, with the longer-term goal of working on larger, public projects with the same kind of environmental and social ambitions as Wraxall, and tangible benefits for the wider community.
You can read more about Wraxall Yard here