Studio McLeod is an architectural practice based in London specialising in high-quality residential and art-related projects. Founder, Duncan McLeod recently completed Domus Nova's property on Earls Court Square. In line with its feature in the upcoming issue of Domus Life, we interviewed the man behind it all...
Duncan, tell us about Studio McLeod. What do you think defines your practice?
I like people. I enjoy the excitement that great ideas generate as much the design process. As a practice, we are always looking for possibilities to make amazing spaces, solving puzzles and sculpting natural light along the way because the reaction from clients, when you can create or transform something they hadn’t thought possible, is pretty special.
Our process has become a sort of ‘architectural therapy’ where we really listen to what clients want and try to understand why. This largely focuses on how clients want to live and so we show examples and alternatives so they can make an informed choice rather than simply following their initial ideas.
Building or renovating a home isn’t something you’re going to do very many times in your life. It’s therefore important that the client gets what they want, from a layout that works beautifully, to the spaces being amazing, down to little things, for example wanting to see their garden as soon as they walk through the door, wanting a tree house, or coming up with inventive ways to store a few too many motorbikes.
Can you tell us about your role in making residential architecture more exciting?
Our job is to see possibilities rather than obstacles. Understanding a client’s problems and finding an interesting solution is the aim.
For example, we had a client that said “I want small openings onto the garden and I don’t like skylights”. When we dug a little deeper we found that they just didn’t want to be blinded by natural light all the time and the small openings and no skylights were their solution. We presented a perforated screen idea which could open up giving them the choice of when to restrict light. This way the property value would increase rather than decrease, which it would have done with a permanently dark interior.
Getting clients excited about the design is important. I was with someone recently who had come to me with concerns about another designer’s proposals. The layout worked but had no spark. I found myself saying that if he didn’t look at the layout and think “that’s going to be an amazing place to be”, then more than likely it’s not good enough.
Experience has taught me that with design, there’s always a way! It’s a saying often bandied around the studio. When it comes to budget and programme I’d amend it to "There’s almost always a way". Budgets and programmes can be pushed but they need to be realistic. We work on some low budget but exciting projects. It’s just a balancing act being clear about where to spend money to get the client what they want.
I try to avoid saying no to clients. Saying no is the lazy option. I try to instill in the studio that we need to resist taking ‘no’ for an answer when dealing with other consultants and suppliers. Be nice, but keep pushing. It usually means we have to work harder but it’s worth it.
You recently created a wonderful property in Earls Court that is currently for sale with Domus Nova. What was the brief here and how did you meet it?
The brief was simple ‘make it better without extending’, given the property had three main issues. One, a very inefficient corridor which made up 21% of the floorspace stretching from the front door to the kitchen at the back. Two, the living room was at the opposite end of the flat to the kitchen. Three, the relationship of each room to the garden was awful, and could only be accessed through the small kitchen at the rear.
We chose to create an open-plan living/dining room and kitchen in the middle of the layout. This more than halved the amount of corridor space and placed the main living space adjacent to the courtyard garden. We opened up the corner of the building to install large glazed doors onto the garden. The master bedroom was enlarged and moved to the front of the property with a large ensuite bathroom and dressing room. The second bedroom/study and shower room were moved to the back where the kitchen was previously so it could benefit from views and access to the courtyard garden.
What elements of the architecture of this property are you most proud of?
The new position of the living/dining and kitchen with the courtyard garden has been the most valuable in terms of improved quality of life. Achieving this layout presented a number of hurdles with structure, means of escape strategy, freeholder consents, planning and building control. We discussed these with the client at sketch design stage and the client felt the improvement would be worth it. We’re very glad he did as it’s transformed a dark and awkward flat into a stunning home. The owner will now get to experience a spacious home and garden that will change throughout the seasons.
Is there now anything you would change about it?
We tested a lot of options in the early stages of the project. It’s the best way to avoid regrets. Extending to the rear could have been good to get top light in and make the rear bedroom larger but it was agreed that the rear room was already sizeable and the area behind the house, would be important for garden storage. French doors onto the front courtyard would have been nice, but again, it was very unlikely that the planners would allow us to amend the front façade. It would have been great to landscape and plant the front lightwell so it didn’t feel like a London lightwell, but I imagine the new owner will do that.
As a practice, which project to date has meant the most to you and why?
One of our early houses in Queen’s Park is very special to me. The client had faith in our proposals despite us being a new practice without a proven track record at the time. We proposed cutting a hole through the house to bring light into the entrance hall and they went with it. We work a lot with 3D CAD images which help the client understand what we are proposing but it was still a big decision and it was great they trusted us. The project was a real success. I got an apologetic call from the client about a year later. They’d had the property valued and the increase was too much to resist. It was sold a few weeks later for more than the asking price. It felt good that our involvement had helped improve the property and guarantee a higher value. We’re now getting to work with that client again on a new-build house just outside of London.
Also a garden flat we did in West Hampstead is also up there. The client gave me the biggest hug when we visited her a week after she’d moved in. She loved her new home and had a bit of a cry when saying thank you. That was very special!
What lies in the future for Studio Mcleod?
There are four of us in the practice at the moment. I want to keep the practice relatively small and grow organically with the workload. We don’t take on every project; I think it’s important that each client gets a personal service. We want to continue with the refurbishment and remodeling projects. I’ll always enjoy those puzzles. We’re also working on some new-build houses at the moment including one with an inspirational client for his dream home. He contacted us without having a site or the money. He had the means to earn the money and wants to commit to building a house in three years. He was told by one architect and some of his friends that it wasn’t possible. He was then recommended to us and when I got his email, I admit, my first reaction was similar, but then I think I got it; he needed something to aim for otherwise it would never happen. We agreed to do early stage designs with him and produce a book which documented the process together with a series of framed visuals to hang at his home or office. It was another example of the ‘architectural therapy’ idea. We worked to understand what places and spaces make him smile, what kind of places make him feel relaxed or excited and have weaved these into the design for his new home.
TV and magazine culture seems to have made an architecture expert of everyone. What do you think people should really know about architects and architecture?
It’s great that more clients are exposed to good design; it makes our job a little easier. There are so many free online resources for inspiration, clients can now easily browse and get a feel for what they like. We work a lot with Pinterest. It becomes an online mood board / scrap book for each client and project where we can all post images. They can be a lot more involved if they want to be.
In terms of what people should know about architects and architecture; get an architect involved in the very early stages, even before you have found a plot or building. They will be able to advise on all aspects from location to costs and should be able to reassure you and get you excited about the project. They are also likely to see possibilities and opportunities that you don’t.
A well-designed home can change your life for the better. Choose an architect that you get on with, it’s a long process and they are going to know where you put your pants. The process can be a lot of fun, the architect can take on the stress and guide the client through the different stages. Have the attitude that everything is possible. Once you understand the hurdles you can assess which are worth jumping. There’s always a way!
Discover more about Studio McLeod on the Domus Nova Architecture Guide
Studio McLeod The Studio, 320 Kilburn Lane, London W9; studiomcleod.com