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Embracing timber and modesty in design

Mary Arnold-Forster Architects (MAFA) is an award-winning small architect practice based in Dunkeld, Scotland. Known for their sustainable architecture that compliments the Scottish landscape of their project sites, we spoke to founder, Mary about how she approaches her clients’ briefs, using timber, forging relationships with foresters and why we need to embrace building modestly.

Analysing the landscape

When it comes to approaching a client brief, Mary goes through a rigorous and thorough investigation of both the brief and proposed site before starting the design. “The architecture comes out from the landscape. We look at the topography, the climate, the flora and fauna, the access, any man or woman-made structures, the local vernacular.”

In the case of their recent award-winning House in remote Assynt, Mary explains, “Assynt is a really stunning bit of Scotland, it’s heather and grass, and there is an awful lot of it. [The house] was about making the ordinary, extra-ordinary. I didn’t want a rock breaker there, I want to avoid breaking any more of Scotland. It’s why, instead, the building hovers.” The house is also an example of an architectural design that came out of the method of construction. Due to the remote nature of the location, the house was designed in modules and the house is a long glazed journey through separate pods to a view at the end of the home.

Image of Assynt house

Using timber

MAFA frequently use timber rainscreen cladding, breathing timber walls and wood fibre insulation in their designs. We talk about timber as a material, “We use materials to express form – there’s quite a lot of green washing with timber. I’ve heard of developers who will slap on a wood panel and call it a green building but it’s a bit more than that. [In Sandbank] we used larch to express form, but we also used wood fibre because the client was vegan. She wouldn’t have sheep’s wool…

“At the moment we are refurbing a school house with wood fibre, so we use wood in our retrofit and refurb projects as well…  Having a builder who understands breathing timber and insulation really helps..”

Collaboration is crucial

It’s a recurring theme in many discussions with architects who work with wood – but collaboration really is the key to a successful project. Mary is no exception, “we work really closely with the builders, we are collaborative, and so, those builders come back [for future work]. I know a lot about timber but I’ll never be an expert, so it’s important for me to listen to specifiers, to listen to foresters. That’s how it should be.”

Mary recalls a project in Knoydart, “We had a meeting with the builder – who builds only with timber -  the forester, the timber engineer. Everyone was talking and working together and the architecture comes out of a mutual respect of these relationships. We don’t distant ourselves from the making process and I like to understand the constraints of the products or materials I use.”

Changing the built environment

So what motivates someone who is creating such sustainable and conscious projects? Many of MAFA’s clients are self-selecting, they see Mary’s approach and come to her with a modest and caring brief. “They want to build less and we just do our absolute best not to specify plastics or metals. I always say to our clients very early on, we’re not going to use foam for insulation and they all go with it. People ask me if I am an ‘eco-architect’. For me, everyone is. We do this because it’s the right thing to do. [To build this way] you have to bend with what’s around and be adaptable. We don’t do generic architecture, everything is approached individually. We’re learning the whole time. Luckily, we get enough time to do lots of research on the sites, and I hope that is what is reflected in our buildings.”

But changing the built environment isn’t just down to architects, it requires collaboration and change across the construction sector. “What we do is a drop in the ocean compared to the big contractors and developers. Contractors are in charge and money is at the core of that. So, what we need is to make these [more sustainable] products affordable. You need to invest heavily in wood and forestry, the infrastructure and manufacturing of it. The architecture profession is full of good, caring people and ironically using CLT on a one-off house was interesting but actually CLT is much more appropriate for large, commercial projects.”

Keeping it local

Sourcing local, Scottish timber is also important to Mary, who works closely with suppliers such as Cromartie and Russwood to find local products. There are constraints to what can be sourced locally, both in terms of availability and quality. Mary explains that they are currently trying to find a Douglas Fir lining that can meet their quality needs. To help rectify these issues, MAFA are working with Makar on 3 collaborations. “We are bringing the site analysis, they’re bringing their process and rigour.”

However, Mary believes a wider commitment is needed from Government to embrace greater use of local timber. “We need a commitment from Government to fund a wood fibre plant… we need less desk jobs and more businesses and manufacturers making… We need more CLT and wood fibre insulation plants… We should be asking those countries that already have successful manufacturing plants for advice. We need the timber now -  we want the materials now.”

In addition to using more wood and adopting a more sustainable approach to design, Mary argues we just need to do less. “We need to build less as well – it’s not all about using nice materials. We do not need to fill space or a whole site for the sake of it. You do not need a kitchen with every gadget, you just need one that works.”

Another of Mary's projects has just been shortlisted in the RIAS 2022 Awards, you can view more of their work and learn about the practice on their website. 

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