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Interview: Rachael and Matt Austin, Austin Design Works

PUBLISHED: 13:03 08 January 2019 | UPDATED: 13:03 08 January 2019

Brother and sister Rachel and Matt Austin, Austin Design Works (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM

Brother and sister Rachel and Matt Austin, Austin Design Works (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM

© Thousand Word Media

Siblings Rachael and Matt Austin are carrying on a long tradition of architectural excellence by creating exceptional buildings and stunning landscapes at their family practice

Building a brick shed in their back garden is one of Rachael and Matt Austin’s earliest memories. That, and being immersed in nature and the beautiful garden their mother Elly created at their childhood home in Sussex.

Making things was a way of occupying the siblings’ time, and their architect father David never denied them access to the power tools.

Aged just seven or eight, the pair were already adept at construction and landscaping, thanks to David who was “always building something”.

For decades, he was at the helm of David Austin & Associates in Nailsworth, which Rachael and Matt now run as Austin Design Works. David’s father Charles was also an architect, and so it’s perhaps no surprise that Rachael and Matt followed in the family footsteps.

Rachael started her career as a landscape architect for Colvin & Moggridge in Lechlade, Matt as an architect at specialist conservation architects Purcell in London.

And so when David stepped back from the day-to-day running of the company, the siblings saw it as an opportunity to create a design-focused practice, running their own business a way to remain engaged in active practice.

Rachel Austin, Austin Design Works (c) Andrew Higgins/TWMRachel Austin, Austin Design Works (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM

Both are intensely pragmatic, and it’s their desire to drill down into the process, to understand every aspect of the build, that sets ADW apart.

That, and the fact that it’s surely one of the most creative practices outside London.

Everything they design is eminently buildable. Crafted, yes. Beautiful, absolutely. But at ADW, you’ll rarely find purely conceptual stuff.

With Rachael’s talent for landscape design and Matt’s vision for exceptional buildings, they’re the perfect partnership - with a healthy dose of sibling rivalry.

ADW works across private domestic and commercial sectors, creating jaw-droppingly vast, multi-million pound country homes - think Charles Augustus Magnussen’s Appledore lair in the BBC’s Sherlock. This glass-fronted masterpiece is in fact Swinhay House, built for Sir David McMurtry, founder of Renishaw.

On the other hand, you’ll find them desigining bespoke accommodation blocks for special needs educational providers.

Brother and sister Rachel and Matt Austin, Austin Design Works (c) Andrew Higgins/TWMBrother and sister Rachel and Matt Austin, Austin Design Works (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM

In the middle, you’ll discover projects for Ecotricity - Dale Vince’s green energy giant – or drawing up plans for the new canal-side Stroud Brewery, re-modelling beautiful old pubs and winning major awards for projects like Museum in the Park’s secret garden and pavilion in Stroud. There are sublime modern extensions to ancient Cotswold cottages and beautifully landscaped country estates. There are swimming pools and sunny terraces, dream kitchens and cottage gardens, tin sheds and country piles.

There are community projects, too, which Rachael and Matt are passionate about.

For them, it’s all about improving the environment for everyone, whether that’s a CEO building a £10m country house, a FTSE 100 company looking for new offices or a special school needing beautiful, functional accommodation in a peaceful sensory garden.

These two are incredibly talented - and equally incredibly determined not to be pigeon-holed.

“I don’t think anyone would look at our projects and be able to say ‘oh, that’s an Austin Design Works project’,” says Rachael. She is at pains to point out the breadth of their portfolio, of which they are both justifiably proud.

“People say, ‘you can’t do a school, because you haven’t done three schools in the past five years’,” she says.

Brother and sister Rachel and Matt Austin, with their father David, and their staff at Austin Design Works (c) Andrew Higgins/TWMBrother and sister Rachel and Matt Austin, with their father David, and their staff at Austin Design Works (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM

“Because when you think of a school, you think of a classroom or a science block.

“We’ve done educational projects, a lot of them, but they’re not your typical school.

“Architects do tend to get put into boxes, but our skill is design and creating spaces that fulfill a function whatever the sector.”

“The target audience for us is people that want to do something out of the norm,” Matt continues. “All of our work, in one way or another, is not normal, bespoke, it takes time. It’s not a great way to make money, but it gives us a certain satisfaction.

“There’s nothing in our portfolio that is a standard response.”

Awards have come thick and fast for ADW. The practice is a egional finalist in the 2019 Civic Trust Awards, alongside high profile projects like the Tate St Ives, for Stroud’s Museum in the Park, which was also Highly Commended by the Landscape Institute. There have been citations at the Structural Timber Awards, CPRE and the Landeszine International Landscaping Award.

Brother and sister Rachel and Matt Austin, with their father David (c) Andrew Higgins/TWMBrother and sister Rachel and Matt Austin, with their father David (c) Andrew Higgins/TWM

New clients arrive through word of mouth and ADW’s stunning website, filled with exquisite photographs of projects.

In terms of cost, ADW may be similar to many other architects in the region. But they’ll certainly be the most thorough in terms of the concept, design, planning process and execution.

“We’re providing a double service, often, for these projects,” says Rachael. “The landscape design and the architecture.”

“Clients like the combined service,” Matt adds. “They like the way we take them through the process in such a considered way. We’re all about process and getting them what they want.”

Process is a vital part of what Rachael and Matt do.

David, who pops into the office regularly to check on the team, still insists on building incredibly detailed wooden scale models of all the projects they work on.

Museum in the Park in StroudMuseum in the Park in Stroud

It’s this attention to detail that informs everything they do. They work analytically, getting a kick out of problem-solving on-site. Constraints, Rachael says, just fuel their imagination.

“It’s not just a case of the first answer is the only answer,” Matt adds. “It’s about having options.”

“It’s a very collaborative process with the client,” adds Rachael. “We believe that by creating better environments, improving the setting and the facility, the results can be tangible.” This might mean increased footfall to a retail outlet, because the setting is beautiful or encouraging visitors to spend more time in an invitingly-designed museum, lingering in the cafe for lunch - or even boosting the health and wellbeing of those who work in or use a particular space, reducing the eventual burden on the NHS, all of which has a financial value.

Time, it would seem, is most definitely money.

For Rachael and Matt, designing buildings and their setting isn’t just about creating a space, whether for residential or corporate clients. It’s about invoking an emotional response while being sympathetic to the landscape and the environment.

On initial site appraisals, both will be there to ensure this underpins the whole scheme and their long-term relationships with planning consultants and local authorities mean the client almost always gets what they want.

Swinhay House, built for Renishaw founder Sir David McMurtry; which featured in the BBC drama SherlockSwinhay House, built for Renishaw founder Sir David McMurtry; which featured in the BBC drama Sherlock

“We do consider everything,” says Rachael. “The daylight, orientation, wind direction, sun paths and views. It’s about creating excitement, a sense of anticipation, a journey through the site and the building.”

It might be walking into a building to see light pouring in from a double-height atrium, or a stunning view framed by a window.

“It’s central to our process because it has to happen from the start,” adds Matt. “We deal in the subjective. We have to make the subjective, objective and we do this through the design process.”

And for them, the Cotswolds is the perfect region.

“It’s inherently beautiful,” says Rachael. “It’s such a varied landscape. The high wold and Severn Vale is so different from the Stroud valleys, and there’s a fabulous mix of people and talented fabricators and skilled craftspeople of all kinds to call on. We’re so lucky to be here, creating buildings and landscapes that people enjoy.”

Visit the Austin Design Works website here.

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