Digby Harris is part of the partnership which continues the legendary Yorkshire practice of Francis Johnson & Partners, the most accomplished country house architect of his generation. The hallmark of a Digby Harris building is the wonderful choice and handling of building materials, whether brick or stone. Mr Harris says: ‘Francis used to lament that he never built a stone house. By good fortune, I am now on my third.’
Smooth ashlar facing stone is relatively cheap compared to what it used to be, thanks to modern cutting techniques. One client found a sandstone quarry near Richmond producing a lovely golden stone. Stone slates are coming from Northumberland. ‘They’re the only quarry producing riven slates of the northern variety, brownish rather than the black you get in the West Riding.’
The key to his success is the choice of suppliers. For bricks, he often goes to the York Handmade Brick Company, which produces colours, sizes and shapes to order.
Mr Harris describes standing with one of his clients on a packhorse bridge looking at a modest farmhouse the client wanted to transform into an elegant house. ‘I think what you want is a model farm,’ he said, thinking how careful Classical massing could give more presence to the building without competing with the family mansion across the park.
He explains ‘I begin designing at quite a small scale on a sheet of A4, which can quickly be faxed to clients. This is a good way of getting commitment at an early stage, allowing me to work up detail later. A lot of our clients have family furniture and pictures. I find it better to work with these than to have a completely blank canvas.’
Ten years ago, designs would be given virtually cold to the planners. Now, a large amount of back-up material has to be submitted visual impact assessments, historical reports, ecological surveys and so on.
He laughs when I ask him about sash windows. ‘I am now on the last single-glazed house we shall be able to build. The problem with double glazing is that it’s never guaranteed for more than 10 years, and that’s the time when seals start to go. The likelihood is that they will have to be replaced, and that probably outweighs the loss of heat from single glazing in carbon-footprint terms.’
Aesthetically, he says, the best way to get the right proportions is to mirror the chunky glazing bars of the early 18th century. If you want thin astragals of the late Georgian kind, you have to form a lattice over a large sheet of glass. Visually, this works well, but if the double-glazing seal goes, it will be difficult to replace the glass without damaging the frame.
Internally, he favours stone floors with underfloor heating. ‘We use a Tadcaster limestone which has veins as fine as the hairs on a horse’s mane. It takes a good polish.’ Manufacturers warn against the use of oak boards above underfloor heating: ‘They cup.’ His solution is to use a plywood backed laminated board with a quarter inch of oak on top.
‘All our clients now want a big kitchen-cum-living room except at the highest level where there is a chef, but even then, there’s probably a family kitchen to make tea for the children. One of my main concerns is to get clients to use their dining rooms. If a dining room is too sombre, it’s less likely to be used for breakfast or lunch.’
How does he handle the ubiquitous conservatory? ‘People do want them, but they are often unattractive.’ In order to strike the right note, Mr Harris looks for inspiration to the glasshouses designed by Decimus Burton, ‘something with a strong Classical character in stone or iron, and definitely not with Victorian frills’.
Robert Franklin Architects (featured in February 8) has moved to The Stables Studio, Clifton Mill, Clifton, Banbury, Oxfordshire, OX15 0PE (01869 338166)
Francis Johnson & Partners, Craven House,
16, High Street, Bridlington, East Yorkshire YO16 4PT (01262 674043)
RIBA Yorkshire, The Green Sand Foundry, 99, Water Lane, Holbeck, Leeds LS11 5QN (0113?237 8480)
Brierley Groom, 2, Holly Tree House, Harwood Road, Northminster Business Park, York YO26 6QU (01904 794794)