Irving Smith Architects (ISA) is renowned for considered and sustainable design and leads the way in the idea that less is more, creating buildings that sit lightly on the land. So, when it came to designing its new office, there was no doubt that it would reflect the ethos of the practice and be an inspiration in its concept and resolution.

ISA is located in Nelson, New Zealand, and the new studio colloquially named WallÉ, is in close proximity to the town and indeed its old premise. Principals, Jeremy Smith and Andrew Irving and their team, decided to create a bespoke environment that was crafted to their every need and the location was appropriate for a new building with just such a purpose-built space. Having tried to adapt the old studio to suit the various requirements of the team, this was the opportunity to custom-make.

As a practice ISA is particularly partial to trees and landscape and these, along with timber, figure large in every project undertaken. For their own studio, Irving and Smith have a tree that shades the front of the new building and greenery and gardens play an integral part within the interior design.

The building itself is three levels with tenancies on the ground and second levels and the practice sandwiched between, on the first floor. Ever mindful of the environment, the quantity and quality of materials gave rise to an equation of sorts, 1.5:0.5:1.0, that is, 1.5 the quantity of traditional concrete flooring to .05 of veranda space and 1.0 of timber structure.

In other words, the ground floor and shared entrance is made of concrete, above this (and the level on which the practice is located) all sides of the building are glazed and set back to provide an encircling veranda and then the final level is a lighter-weight timber construct. The object of the concept and then the design was to keep it simple, clean and authentic, following the ideas that have always informed the practice’s work.

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As Smith points out, “What we try and do with our work, the idea is we actually design by removing things. We try to get each element to do many different jobs. So, we need less, which is a sustainable process.”

The site is compact at 300 square metres but instead of designing the ubiquitous box with high concrete walls on three sides, the equation came into play, and afforded breathing space. Locating the open plan studio in the very middle of the building enabled the architects to create their own light-filled and well-ventilated space.

With sliding glass doors and windows on all sides and setting back the walls, they created an outside area that could then open up to become a part of the interior space. Planting flora on the veranda at every opportunity, the view and intake of light is softened. The vegetation will then grow up to the light and, when a new structure aside theirs is built (which will inevitably happen in the future), there will be green walls to surround and cocoon the inhabitants.

Inside the studio, materiality is minimal and informs the colour palette of honey, black and grey. The interior is open plan and the focal point of the space is a series of tables set together that becomes the place for gathering, meetings, to draw and make models and, when required, play table tennis.

The concept of the tables was developed when ISA, in collaboration with RTA Studio, was awarded the Te Whare Nui o Tutteata: SCION Timber Innovation Hub project (that received multiple accolades including a 2021 INDE.Award). The tables require no fixatives as the components simply slot together and have been integral to enabling and enhancing communication and connection between staff.

A reception desk with logo is at the entrance beside the lift and stair but the rest of the floorplate is populated with desks that face outwards towards the natural light and the veranda.

The structure, and the floor above the office, is made of Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) and the B-shaped structural beams overhead have been infilled with black painted fire-rated plaster board. Lighting has been locally sourced and, while the single pendant lamps are inexpensive, they work beautiful with their looping cords either clustered in groups or as a single spotlight.

Black pivoting screens provide privacy to the meeting room while maintaining the continual flow of space. Much of the furniture was brought from the old office and desks and shelving have been re-used and re-purposed.

While the design of the studio was a few years on the drawing board it was completed during the pandemic. When everyone could eventually return to the office the spatial flow of the interior proved to be a forward-thinking initiative as the team could open the studio up for ventilation, move around the veranda without crossing the interior and have meetings with distance.

What began as good design planning in the concept stage became a health and wellbeing attribute later on. Brilliant!

Incorporating their beliefs and ideas into their new studio, the team at ISA has created a little piece of architecture paradise in Nelson that provides all they require and more. By utilising creative thinking first and foremost, and considering the environment, the new home for ISA interacts with its surrounds, is sustainable and functional but best of all it is a place to create ISA’s incredible and innovative design.

Irving Smith Architects

Patrick Reynolds

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