Profile: Justin Nicholls of Fathom Architects

We speak with Justin Nicholls of Fathom Architects about the approach the new architecture practice is taking

Words by Emily Martin

Brought up in Cornwall ‘living in a wood’, architect Justin Nicholls describes his childhood home as being on the complete opposite of the spectrum to London. He describes an ‘obsession’ with trees and light, yet also has a real interest with science and technology, coupled with a passion for concrete; he likes to find innovative ways of featuring materials in projects.

Becoming an architect seemed to be the obvious career path to take, but not before embarking on graphic design at Falmouth College of Art in the late Eighties. His true path was revealed when he opened a book to see a clown sitting outside the Pompidou Centre in Paris. ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to design stuff like that,’ he recalls thinking.

Fathom Architects’ StudioFathom Architects’ Studio

Today he co-runs architecture practice Fathom Architects, which adopts a light and material approach to its work. You certainly won’t see a ‘house style’. Still in its infancy, the practice is busy working on projects that include heritage sites, rural locations and urban projects. It’s a wide range of projects, from labs to listed private residential spaces, but each is unique and, importantly says Nicholls, in context.

‘We’re very keen to create buildings of their physical location; unlike say graphic design, architecture is one of the last design disciplines that is geographically fixed,’ says Nicholls. ‘So you’ve an opportunity to create something that is absolutely location specific and, if anything, a building should make a place more like it is when we’ve finished, rather than less.’

Justin NichollsJustin Nicholls

Nicholls co-founded Fathom Architects in 2016, along with fellow architect Jonathan Mitchell and creative producer Tom Shard, after spending some 13 years at Make.

Going through his portfolio of work you’ll see buildings with brass, stone and concrete, and other carefully chosen materials. Experience, both in practice and while in education completing his RIBA qualifications, has led Nicholls to use materials as a way of making a project site specific. But he also realises there must be a very practical approach to this, as a craft approach is not always a realistic solution.

‘[For example] concrete is such a difficult material to work in… especially when you’re standing on site, in the rain, with wooden moulds,’ he explains. ‘But I think the future is to take a manufacturing approach to materials’ selection and construction, because while we love handmade crafted materials they are not practical to build. So many elements need to be manufactured off site.’

CGIs of Fathom Architects’ scheme for the Christ Church project in Woking CGIs of Fathom Architects’ scheme for the Christ Church project in Woking

The use of material is an exciting element the practice incorporates into its project work, with another being light. ‘The way we use light to play on facades is very interesting; they look very different throughout the day and the seasons,’ says Nicholls while bringing over a large metal sheet with a dotted pink circular graphic on it. ‘This is what was used for client Stanhope, called The Pod, in White City Place, part of a rebrand for the area.’

The practice received the commission for The Pod with a very short lead-time of 10 weeks. A podcast studio, a nod to the site as the BBC’s former home and a temporary building, it cleverly uses dimensions that dodge planning permission, building regulations and even the need for a police escort when in transit, which helped save time. The surface of the facade is an audiograph of the first words to ever be transmitted over radio – ‘One, two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are Mr Thiessen? If it is, telegraph back and let me know’ – as transmitted in 1900.

‘We scripted the audiograph as sound waves coming out of each window and printed it as dots on to vinyl, which we then peeled it off and attached it to mirror finished aluminium,’ explains Nicholls. ‘But what’s interesting is sometimes, when you look at it, it’s really, really pink and other times you cannot see the pattern at all, only the reflection in the aluminium. It’s all to do with the light and what the sun is doing.’

CGIs of Fathom Architects’ scheme for the Christ Church project in Woking CGIs of Fathom Architects’ scheme for the Christ Church project in Woking

The practice is also working on the reconfiguration of a Grade II listed church in Woking, Surrey. The design, as submitted for planning permission in 2018 for its client Christ Church Woking, features a series of contemporary extensions, which creates a striking form to complement the listed red brick church. ‘It’s a really beautiful and finely detailed church, and we’ve been looking at a range of brasses and terracotta to use as part of the scheme,’ says Nicholls. ‘For us the key passion to materiality is how it changes with the environment, the weather and sunlight.’

With these and other projects on the go for the practice, Nicholls is continuing to explore other areas for development. Current research includes looking at textiles, namely the relation between weaving and brickwork disciplines. By exploring processes outside of the architecture industry he can seek innovative ways to bring them into projects.

‘It’s interesting, as architects you end up doing the harder bits of the building, whereas interior designers generally do the softer parts, so your palette is quite limited,’ says Nicholls. ‘But by exploring new ideas it gives lots of opportunities to be playful, and suddenly you are looking at a material in a completely different way to what an architect has been trained in’.

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