INTERVIEW: David Wolff on the architecture of super-prime

The man behind some of London's most ambitious and successful resi projects

When HNWIs and high-end developers decide to create something really special, there’s only a handful of firms with the creds and expertise to deliver. With a portfolio including some of London’s most ambitious and successful resi projects, David Wolff’s Notting Hill-based practice is one of them. Here’s the man himself on inspiration, discretion and how designing accommodation for oil rigs set him up for a career in super-prime…

  • David Wolff What made you want to be an architect?

I love the creative process and the satisfaction of creating environments and buildings which are visually attractive and comfortable for people to use.

  • You set up in David Wolff Architects in 1979; what was your very first commission and how different does the practice look in 2015?

Coming from South Africa originally, in order to work in the UK I had to be self-employed and therefore I had no choice but to set up my own practice. I started with designing accommodation modules and associated facilities for the oil and gas industry and became skilled in that field, including the writing of the Guidelines for the Design of Accommodation units which was used as an industry standard. On reflection, this skill taught me how to use space in a very compact way, understand materials and the complexity of assembling all the parts together to form an environment that would be comfortable for workers to reside in an alien environment for weeks on end. I was taught a very detailed skill in the course of undertaking this type of work, which has certainly helped in how thoroughly we work on all our projects, which now tend to principally cover the high-end residential and commercial sectors.

  • What does your local area mean to you?

The local area means a great deal to me. I love working and living in a vibrant urban environment and the office is conveniently located to nearby projects in prime central London.

  • Your experience takes in accommodation modules for oil rigs, super-prime resi houses and high-end commercial developments; which are the commissions that you personally get most excited about these days? 

Any commission excites me. I love creating spaces, designing and constructing buildings. Each site is different, so every commission is a challenge. The design of accommodation modules for oil rigs was incredibly technical and required an immense amount of detail and precision, but I would say it’s the creativity that goes into the design of high-end residential developments that excites me the most.

  • You deal with the majority of the front end client liaison and the final stages of construction on site; how important is it for you to be involved in each project?

I enjoy all details of the design and building process. The issue is that time prevents me from getting involved in the detailed technical aspects of some of our projects. As a practice we are able to conceptualise projects and take them through to fruition; in the implementation of our design we will work with our clients from the planning stages and conceptualisation of the project through to the construction process. This gives us the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of our endeavours realised, of which there is no greater feeling for an architect.

Eaton Square
A Wolff Architects project on Eaton Square
  • The practice is well-known for taking on demanding architectural briefs; what’s the most challenging project you’ve ever worked on?

There isn’t a particular project that springs to mind although there are numerous aspects to consider depending on the commission. The recurring challenges lie in planning, technical issues and the human aspect in dealing with clients, contractors and fellow professionals.

  • You’ve delivered some extraordinary subterranean leisure complexes for your clients in recent years, notably on Winnington Road (below), Avenue Road and Eaton Square; do you think councils like RBKC and Westminster have got the balance right in terms of their basement development policies?

Yes, I do. If you look at the larger picture, we are not talking about huge quantities of properties relative to the size of London, with only around 5,000 basements built per year in the city and only in carefully selected areas. The construction of these basements has brought many trades to London and has certainly assisted the city’s economy in terms of the materials and labour that is required to undertake these projects. We always need to look at the building of projects within the context of the environment in which we work and we ensure the design of the basements is suitable on a case-by-case basis. The trend we have seen is for basements to be increasingly implemented for individual owner-occupiers, rather than blocks of flats as in the past.

Winnington Road

  • How well does the planning system work in general in London and how would you improve it?

It works relatively well and is continually improving. Some Councils are offering quick pre-planning services and there are also fast track planning processes being put in place, although the major issue with these Councils is that they tend to be fairly understaffed.

  • How successful do you feel London’s developers and architects have been over the last 30 years in terms of both preserving London’s heritage and moving things forward?

Relatively successful. I do find it an issue that as architects, with many years’ experience, our work is judged by planners and heritage consultants who have not had the breadth of training or experience that we have. Their outlook can therefore be limited at times. Sometimes the result does not turn out as dynamic or successful as it could have been if architects were to be given a freer rein to express themselves.

  • Your projects have included some pretty amazing features, from spas and home cinemas to winter gardens and Ferrari red garages; what’s the most extreme request you’ve ever had?

When one is working in this market, it is important not to have or express value judgements and we are never shocked by a client’s request or expectations. Discretion is key to what we do and we are always happy to implement a design around a client’s wants and needs, whether it be a basement complex including an indoor swimming pool and spa or a luxury courtyard and garden area.

Avenue Road
Spiral staircase, Avenue Road
  • Where do you take your inspiration from?

From anywhere and anything. It is important to be observant all the time, wherever you go, whatever you see. Visual aspects of the built environment and human behaviours is imprinted in one’s brain and hopefully that manifests itself when designing and creating new environments.

  • Having worked on some of the capital’s most opulent mansions, it must take a lot to impress you; is there one particular house that stands out as the best you’ve ever visited? 

We have completed many properties, all of which have outstanding features and we’d like to think they all stand-out for their reasons. As a design-led practice, we look at each commission as individual and we create the most aesthetically pleasing designs we are capable of for each of our clients.

  • Have you seen an increase in clients looking to develop their existing accommodation instead of paying the extra stamp duty that now goes along with moving?

Not really. The cost of moving is so considerable that the trend not to move has been going on for some time, especially after the economic downturn in 2008. However, we have noticed that the prime residential market has dropped slightly, possibly due to the increase in stamp duty and taxes imposed on individuals and companies, especially if properties are purchased under the company name.

Egerton Crescent
Redesigned house on Egerton Crescent
  • Have any other interesting trends emerged amongst your HNW clients in 2015?

Although we have seen a slight downturn in the demand for prime residential homes over the past year, our clients still want as much comfort as possible. But that is a moving and endless aspiration.

  • Is there a building you wish you’d designed or hope to design?

We are well-equipped and happy to design anything, covering a range of different sectors. We are keen to undertake more mixed-use schemes, boutique hotels and country estates to add to our ever-growing portfolio of work. It is important that we, as a team, work on a mixture of developments in the practice and we do not want to be cast as a particular type of architect or compartmentalised, other than being considered as quality designers.

  • How important is discretion and how do you reconcile this with getting new business?

The majority of our business is through ‘word or mouth’. This is partly due to the high profile clients that we have, meaning it has not always been possible to advertise some of the projects or commissions that we have undertaken or are currently working on. We have a reputation of being very discrete and hopefully that leads us to new business through the contacts we have within the industry.

  • Where would you like to see the practice in ten years’ time?

We are happy with the size of the practice, but would like to improve on the variety and scale of work we undertake. We have recently extended our offices by opening a new satellite office near Oxford in order to run projects more efficiently out of London and to find a variety of projects outside of London, in other excellent catchment areas such as Oxford. We believe that modern technology allows offices to work in tandem, no matter where they are and gives employees a different choice of lifestyle and opportunity to live in the city or country.

  • What would you tell your young self if you could roll back the clock?

Keep focused, gain experience and take on-board all advice along the way. Don’t run before you can walk.

Avenue Road
St John’s Wood mansion by Wolff Architects