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Somerset House a 2015 Design Is..Award Global Winner

Shaw Contract Group conducted interviews with all firms of Global Award winning projects from the 2015 Design Is…Award program. As part of this process, we share a portion of the response on our blog for readers to learn more about the winning projects. These are their stories.

David Skeels of Forme UK spoke with us about the design journey for this project.


Describe this project in one word.


How does this project demonstrate how design can impact users in a space?

Design is not always obvious. It is often what has been rationalised and omitted rather than what has been added and flaunted. A simple walk through Somerset House will expose you to the Arts – performance, culture, product, literature, photography, to food, people, light, and spatial curiosity through the various modern interventions now crafted into the structure. Somerset House cannot be described merely as ‘a building’. Part of it being Nelson’s home and historic administration base, it is now essentially an all public access inner sanctum, a village in the heart of the City enabling work and pleasure to cohabit in one unique environment.

Our approach was not one of historic reinstatement.  As modernists, we sought to rationalise, excite and interject where appropriate, to ensure Somerset House continues to reflect history of yesterday and today and extending these spaces into the 21st century. Of its time, the interior spaces reflect the elevational order, controlling spatial status from ground to third floor.Our aim was three fold:

  1. To return derelict historical spaces to profitable use.
  2. To enable public access through deft co-joining of the historically purposeful composition of dwellings, community spaces, function rooms, workshops, workspaces, retail and art chambers.
  3. To support the Arts and Creative movements.

Derelict spaces found at upper levels comprised roof voids with large timber supporting structures, ostensibly unusable. We adapted these to suit SME businesses and to provide inspiring creative units with good daylight and views of the river or public courtyard.

At mid levels, interior spaces vary with well proportioned rooms with large windows.  Also with excellent views, these are generally used for business units, functions and gatherings.

Ground floor spaces are open to public access. These are large, tall spaces containing access points for tenants, galleries and restaurant spaces with internal corridors of stairs, light-wells and lifts. We adapted these so daylight penetrates from roof to ground and our subtle re-alignment of cores, stairs and lifts clarify and simplify internal circulation.


Design is a process. Explain your journey.

The process is one of research, history, heart searching, and of negotiating and aligning modern commercial demands over autocratic regulation. We had to consider how to respect the listed architecture and at the same how to satisfy the need to make the property financially viable on a self funding basis. Essentially this was a journey of teasing out the great and the few not so great elements of the historic work, aligning modern design with respect to structural order all whilst fighting a budget. This was not a journey of evolving one single concept. We had to deal with each space and each opportunity as an individual project, with a seamless detail approach throughout.


What are the most important lessons you’ve learned through this project that you’d want to share with the designers of tomorrow?

It is as important to have a great team of fellow design consultants as it is to listen to your client and your specialists. There is always a solution. It may take a long time to arrive at that point, but if you follow the train of thought already laid before you, the solution will emerge. You will feel it within when it is right. Where interjections are to be made on great existing works, it is important to justify in your mind what elements are not so good and how any new intervention you propose will complement any previous work. At the same time, it is also essential to be bold and to offer something of intellectual value.

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