Moxon Architects’ self-built Cairngorms office makes an exemplary response to a sensitive landscape, finds David McClean
As you drive along the A93 towards the mountain village of Braemar, you would be forgiven for missing Quarry Studios, nestled into the hollow of an abandoned roadside gravel quarry. But that would be a great pity. Comprising an office for Moxon Architects and an adjoining cafe, the building sits on the edge of Crathie, a small village in the Cairngorms National Park notable both for being directly adjacent Balmoral Castle and for the nineteenth-century Crathie Kirk that serves the area, and which is perched on an escarpment above the River Dee. It is this natural rise in the land from which the original quarry was excavated, and which is now covered in woodland designated as a site of special scientific interest.
The complex provides a cafe whose gable end faces the road at the site entrance, and a larger studio for Moxon Architects, which was established in 2004 and also has a London office.
Remediation of the former municipal tip included safe removal of waste, remodelling of the ground, and protection of existing trees as well as the planting of young trees and native seedlings such as juniper. Rainwater run-off is directed to a wetland area in the centre of the site.
After the quarry had been abandoned for several years it was adopted as a municipal tip, and later acquired by Moxon Architects who saw its potential in a locale dominated by large land-owning estates, where sites rarely become available.
Strategically, the architects’ approach has been to create a design of minimal impact, both environmentally and visually. This is made manifest in the decision to work with the as-found contours of the quarry, and to colour the main body of the building black. Over time the quarry has been colonised by heather, grasses, juniper and self-seeding birches, and the muted colour of the roof and facades gives primacy of expression to the delicacy and richness of the landscape while emphasising the quiet simplicity of the architecture.
Drawings. The project has a gross internal floor area of 401 square metres with a 65-square-metre roof terrace, and had a construction cost of £1m. Moxon Architects was both the designer, the client, the cost consultant and (with Tor Contracting) the builder. The team was completed by structural engineer Graeme Craig, and CDM coordinator George Watt & Stewart Architects.
With the building located next to the main road through Deeside, the architects have shrewdly chosen to create a point of public interface – a public invitation – in the form of a small cafe by the site entrance. With the advantage of car-parking space in the landscaped heart of the site, this has proved highly successful, bringing not only custom for the cafe operator, but also architectural enquiries from interested visitors. Inevitably such an arrangement has the potential for conflict between publicity and privacy, but the modest scale of the cafe coupled with the architects’ acceptance of a degree of public curiosity enables the juxtaposition to be managed successfully.
The monopitch roof of the studio is angled towards the lip of the quarry behind. To the rear, clerestorey windows connect the interior and the roof terrace.
A colonnade extends from the cafe to the studio, and incorporates a screen wall of timber blocks that permits glimpses of a courtyard garden behind. The colonnade incorporates an outdoor seating area for the cafe.
Compositionally, the building comprises the two elements of cafe and studio, diagonally connected by a covered colonnade. Each is visually ‘pinned’ in place by a rectilinear chimney formed of board-marked concrete. A garage that faces them across the heart of the site provides extra storage for the cafe.
In plan, the diagonal wall that binds the two buildings also structures the internal organisation of the studio, separating the the private office of Moxon’s managing director, Ben Addy, from the main space and enclosing an intimate garden that is overlooked from it.
Constructed from large, square-sectioned lengths of Douglas fir stacked to form a playful screen, the wall affords glimpses through to the spaces beyond and incorporates a linear bench that overlooks a pond in the central yard into which rainwater naturally drains. Treated with a pale wash, the timber screen lends warmth to the main studio and ancillary spaces.
Spatially, the drawing studio which serves as the principal room looks onto a colonnade leading to the entrance, while the privacy of the meeting room is preserved by low-level glazing which also provides attractive views of the ground cover, shrubs, and slender birch trunks on the adjacent quarry bank. The interior offers a bright, airy and calm working environment for the growing office. Despite hard wall and floor finishes, acoustic attenuation is simply achieved through a ceiling lining of linear felt baffles.
Externally a flat roof forms a terrace accessed via an open stair at the rear of the building. It makes a pleasant and relatively private social space for the practice, and features an open fireplace integrated within its concrete chimney stack. This ‘pillar’ also contains a flue for a fireplace within Addy’s office, which imbues it with a pleasing sense of intimacy and focus. The building is otherwise heated by a ground-source heat pump with supplementary electric heating as required.
Sectionally, the design consists principally of a monopitch roof, whose apparent size and visual impact have been carefully controlled by aligning the fall to the angle between eye-level at the centre of the site and the quarry rim behind the building.
As upper Deeside is prone to experiencing extreme winter weather, the simple steel portal frame – manufactured locally by agricultural fabricators – has been designed to accommodate substantial snow loads. It incorporates a horizontal steel channel at the eaves that serves as a heavy-duty gutter while providing a crisp edge to the roof.
The monotone treatment of the building gives visual dominance to the overall form and proportion rather than to detail. This is further reinforced by a limited material palette consisting primarily of black aluminium roofing by Kalzip coupled with pre-finished black Thermopine, a heat-treated, highly stable timber cladding. The relative simplicity of the specification and detailing is juxtaposed with finishing that demands precision in execution, such as the mitred corners of the horizontal cladding. The crisp result is testament to the practice’s close relationship with the contractor.
Downpipe detail. A lightweight hybrid steel and timber frame was chosen for simplicity of erection and to minimise foundations, though concrete was used for the two ‘pillars’ that anchor each building around a hearth, and provide thermal mass.
Indeed, Quarry Studios was constructed by a firm in which Ben Addy has a stake – TOR Contracting – a connection that has allowed the practice to exercise an unusual degree of control. Delivery through such a relationship can also present challenges, not least in the control of costs in a project whose role is, in part, to promote a practice’s abilities. It is a test that Moxon Architects has passed admirably, balancing budget with quality.
A private office overlooks a partially enclosed ‘courtyard’ planted with native shade-tolerant species.
Quarry Studios is an exemplar of respectful contextualisation and intelligent, sensitive responsiveness to place, born out of keen observation. It is a quiet, unassuming building that displays great economy and restraint in the creation of an environment that enhances its situation as well as being an elegant and uplifting workplace. The building’s deft simplicity is beguiling, with carefully considered flourishes that elevate it beyond the ordinary to create an inspiring home for the practice, as well as a clever public signifier of its abilities.