Stephen Taylor Architects elevates a Somerset farm store with inventive construction techniques allied to a sense of place, finds Brendan Woods


Brendan Woods

David Grandorge

Niall Hobhouse, the client for Stephen Taylor Architects’ second building at Shatwell Farm in Somerset, has long experience of talking to and dealing with architects. Cedric Price, Peter Smithson, Florian Beigel and Philip Christou are just some of those who have been involved in proposing buildings, follies and monuments over the years. Many conversations concerned the relationship between architecture and ‘landscape’, and Hobhouse acknowledges that those with Beigel and Christou were among the most significant in developing his own ideas, recalling Beigel’s observation that “It’s all landscape”. As the site is developed that particular charm that certain valleys realise is evident here. It is a charm that is to do with the scale of the place and of the ideas coming together.


Taylor’s first building at the farm – the Cow Barn – certainly had that sense of enchantment. A standard Atcost ‘shed’ was elevated into architecture by the addition of arched timber gable ends accompanying a colonnade of rough-fashioned field concrete columns, itself reminiscent of Lyon limestone used, for example, at Soufflot’s Hôtel-Dieu, which Taylor knows well.

The interior has a quiet architectonic feel with the precast lintels bracing the brick crosswalls in a Kahn-like way”

So what looks like a fairly simple building from a distance becomes more and more sophisticated the closer one looks. The gentle slope to the trabeated front elevation subtly reveals itself, for example, cleverly disguised by the character of the jagged brick columns built out of snapped headers and filled with concrete. The building is an essay in invention, in the intelligent use of vernacular building techniques, thereby transforming the graphic into the tectonic.

Projecting headers are used to create two ‘good’ faces to the brick gable walls, as the offset compensates for the uneven lengths of the bricks; traditionally nine-inch brick walls had one ‘bad’ face that was often rendered to deal with unevenness. This device, allied with the ‘sparrow-stepped’ gable tops (a diminutive version of the Scottish crow-stepped gable) gives life to a simple element. The stepped brick coping will gradually attract moss and damp, but as the top five or so courses use a hard sand and cement mortar this should not affect the interior or the life of the wall.

A decision was taken early on to precast the giant lintels, which also form gutters – their V-shape is expressed at the ends to give the game away. This concrete stands in contradistinction to the field concrete opposite, and therefore signals this building as more ‘civilised’ than the house for beasts, but Taylor admits that the decision did cause problems, not least because of the lintel’s great weight.

Allied to the concealment of the gutter was the decision to bury the downpipe in the end pier, which again is consistent with the idea of this storage building as ‘sophisticated’, but to my mind misses the opportunity to enjoy the splash and gurgle of West Country rain. Maybe it’s an urban predilection that fails to appreciate country manners.

The interior has a quiet architectonic feel with the precast lintels bracing the brick crosswalls in a Kahn-like way. The inline trusses were developed by the Timber Frame Company to allow the two-bay-wide spaces to enjoy the full volume of the section without interruption. The ceiling is in sterling board and laminated timber. Sound construction, quietly exposed. Sliding doors clad in crinkly tin are also proposed, hung from the interior face of the precast lintels.

But it is the row of four ‘dog-tooth’ brick columns that attract the most attention. I immediately associated their roughness with animal inhabitation, not unlike the ribbed concrete of Casson & Conder’s Elephant House at London Zoo (1965). I imagined cows dealing with itches on their way in and out of the ‘shed’. But no, the textured brick surface is intended to withstand accidental damage by vehicles backing in to load or unload materials.

And so I sense that we are being seduced by a series of recondite architectural elements combined in a skilful way to create an enchanted world removed from the everyday, occasionally straying into the picturesque, but always seeking to enjoy the possibilities of inventive construction techniques allied to a sense of place. A certain kind of architecture that is characteristic of the English landscape tradition: stylish, ironic in its references, playing games with scale, and charmingly eccentric.

Additional Images


Stephen Taylor Architects
Structural engineer
Engineers HRW
Construction manager
Paul Rawson

Furness Brick: Chapel Blend
Brickwork contractor
Keith Watson
Engineered timber
Pollmeier: BauBuche
Marley Eternit: Profile 3