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Ask an architect: Phil Coffey

The founder of London-based Coffey Architects on what makes a good home, his favourite projects and the launch of his new off-shoot company

phil coffey architects london
Tim Soar

Since founding London-based firm Coffey/Architects in 2005, British architect Phil Coffey has worked on a brilliantly diverse roster of buildings, from RIBA-award winning private homes to libraries for the British Film Institute, City University and the Science Museum. Now, he’s set up a sister company to bring renewed focus to residential projects.

phil coffey architects london
Hannah Corlett

What made you decide to set up sister firm Coffey/Homes? We found the Coffey Architects website scared off certain clients. Mixing small and large projects had its difficulties in the office, too, so we’ve now restructured the team. It’s allowed us to provide a better service for our clients.

Do homes require a different skill set to other architectural projects? I’d like to think there’s not any difference but there really is. The bigger the project gets, the more it becomes about spreadsheets and junctions, and less about materials. But when you’re doing something small, there are more opportunities to craft things. You’re making something rather than just putting things together. I like the idea of making, which is why I think it’s helpful for young architects to start off doing residential projects, so they don’t just become spreadsheet architects.

What makes a good home, in your opinion? It should have a lot of light and be suited to its inhabitants’ way of life. That doesn’t mean it has to be particular to them. A home should suggest the way you might live without being too prescriptive.

phil coffey architects london
Japanese-style sliding screens feature in ‘Apartment Block’
Coffey Architects
phil coffey architects london
The light-filled living area of ‘Hidden House’ 
Tim Soar

What do you do if you think there is a better solution than what the client is asking for? There’s a difference between architects who follow what the client says and architects who tell the client what to do. We’re more towards telling the client what to do, but we still listen. Because what’s the point in employing an architect if you’re just going to tell them what to do? So we’re very careful about who we work with. It’s not because we’re pompous or picky, it’s just that we know what we can do.

Having designed your own home, what lessons did you learn? You recognise that it’s not just about the aesthetic. You have to be able to build it, afford the mortgage and add value to the property. It’s a balance. To do that, you have to understand the dimensions. When I designed my house on Whistler Street in London, I made the balustrade out of wire. The reason was that a normal handrail is 100mm, but on the turn it’s 300. By changing the balustrade, I changed the width of the stair, which turned the bedroom upstairs from a single into a double. That change was probably worth about £50,000.

What projects are you most proud of? ‘Modern Side Extension’ [for a London terrace] is probably the smallest project we’ve ever done, but one of my favourites. The client was out of the country when we did it – I think I only met her twice – but she wanted the project completed for when she came back. After we finished she told us ‘this has changed my life’. I also love ‘Hidden House’ [a one-storey dwelling in a London conservation area]; it has this transcendental quality that is just incredibly beautiful.

phil coffey architects london
Sea views are the focus of the new-build in Woolacombe Bay
Coffey Architects

Tell us about your current work. We’re building a house in Woolacombe Bay in Devon. It’s on an old quarry, with amazing views towards the headland. It’s basically a white wall, upon which sits quite a normal-looking roof. Inside, parts are completely black, with timber joinery, the horizontal view and a zenith light (a light source from above) makes it honestly like a spaceship has landed – it’s going to be amazing. coffeyhomes.com; coffeyarchitects.com

This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration February 2020

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