Construction Times interview with Robbie Kerr

February 6, 2023

A leading Chinese newspaper, Construction Times, recently interviewed Robbie Kerr which included his views on integrating modern technologies, achieving sustainability, the China market and designing for Chinese local culture.

Article translation below:

As the leading practice specialising in Classical and Traditional architecture and contextual urban design, ADAM Architecture is a UK-based and award-winning international architectural firm for the restoration and adaptation of significant historic buildings, new luxury private homes; new commercial and public buildings; housing developments, masterplans and new urban designs ranging in size from village extensions to major new town developments. ADAM Architecture sensitively and effectively integrate holistic sustainability and the latest technology into projects.

Recently, Robbie Kerr, Director of ADAM Architecture interviewed by Construction Times and said, “The proportions of Classical architecture have many parallels with the best of Chinese architecture and there is a chance for ADAM to blend the best of Classical architecture in a 21st century China.”

In the process of refurbishing the historical buildings, how does ADAM Architecture integrate the modern technologies while keeping its “original” look?

Robbie: This is the challenge of our generation, and it is one that we are fortunate to be well placed to do. Our core understanding of traditional design and details means that our DNA is already rooted in these historic buildings. We fundamentally understand how they were originally built and how they need to be maintained to allow them to function in the low carbon intent they were created. We also understand what are the fundamental elements of the design that are integral to the ‘original look’ or the significance of the building. Of course, many of these buildings have poor standards of performance by today’s requirements but by understanding the building we can add the layers needed and keep the original intent. On a practical level when we piece modern technology into historic buildings, we often do it with the greatest of care, looking for hidden spaces within the building to run the services and technology, whether this is behind panelling or in discrete corners of a building. There are so many solutions when the eyes are opened to the historic details.

China aims to achieve Carbon Dioxide Peaking and Carbon Neutrality. How does Classical architecture achieve sustainability?

Classical architecture has evolved over centuries and so comes as close to any architecture for being timeless. The focus on sustainability is a significant trend that is shaping future Classical buildings and Traditional and Classical architecture is incredibly well placed to build (literally) on this.

The principles of this approach to design is to look to local, low technology solutions to adapting to climate, building with materials that are often local, often with low embodied carbon, and often with significantly more thermal mass than Modernist architecture. This does not need to be a copy of the past, and the trends in the living styles of our clients, many of whom are international means there are amazing opportunities to weave in traditions from around the world. I currently have a project in the centre of the UK that will be carbon negative achieved through the combination of low carbon materials, sourced within 25 miles, with an array of technical solutions to generate and reduce energy use in the building. The landscape design has been conceived to enhance biodiversity and provide space for the young family to grow their food. The style of the house is vernacular to the area but with a plan designed around how the family actually live, with larger open plan areas.

Classical architecture and the principles of spatial planning in these buildings lends the designs to be adapted for maximum solar gains, to capture the benefits of thermal mass and to integrate cross ventilation. There are so many passive design elements that help the sustainability of this style of building.  Working with traditional and classical approaches to architecture is not widely taught at university and therefore in modern practice we are very much a leader. Our buildings respect culture, embrace tradition, respond to climate and adapt for the future. They are inherently sustainable.

Besides refurbishing the historical buildings, ADAM is also specialised in designing new classical architecture. What are the similarities and differences between these two areas?

Often there is not much on first appearances, or that is what we would like you to think. The designs of the new buildings are informed by the understanding of the historical precedents. The difference is that the new buildings are perfectly crafted for people, families, clients living today, not 200 years ago. Inside the houses will often reflect the taste of our clients today, they might reflect the international trends or cultures. And there is far more technology in these new Classical buildings to make them perfect for today.

Many architecture firms specialised in modern design has entered China market. As the leading practice specialising in classical and traditional architecture, why did you choose to enter China market at this moment?

There are two reasons, the first - following my research and experience, classical architecture has been adapted to reflect local, cultural identity around the word from Peru to Cuba to China. There are some exceptional examples of classical architecture found in China. That’s why we always want to enter Chinese market.

There are some exceptional examples of classical architecture found in China. Classical Architecture has the ability to be flexible, it’s a set of rules that can be adapted to meet individual situations.  The other area of our work contextual design demonstrates our ability to understand the DNA of what makes each place different and special, we have the ability design in a versatile and broad manner. All these strands combine to give me confidence that we can remain relevant and appropriate for projects in China. The second is that having grown up in Hong Kong, I have a very special part of my heart for China and would love to find opportunities to return and practice here.

What do you think of China’s architecture market? Any new concept that ADAM can bring to China market?

China has a richer architectural history than Europe. It has the most captivating and beguiling buildings from Xinjiang province to Hubei, to Hangzhou (and many more). The layers of history and culture are so richly embedded in the buildings. More recently there have been many international style buildings that have been distinctive for the period that they have been in, there has been many that are less successful but the best of this style is often found in Chinese cities. Classical architecture is a niche. It is not the mainstream and yet it represents something of the highest luxury, of the highest refinement in architecture to some people. For those that are discerning we can deliver the best, we can deliver something that is articulate and executed with the precision that the human eye naturally loves (often without knowing quite why). The proportions of Classical architecture have many parallels with the best of Chinese architecture and there is a chance for ADAM to blend the best of Classical architecture in a 21st century China.

In many Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, new buildings coexist with historical buildings. ADAM is specialised in western-style architecture design, how does the company design China’s traditional buildings according to Chinese local culture?

New buildings can sit comfortably next to old buildings if they understand scale, environment, and the urban context. There is nothing in the approach of ADAM Architecture that negates this. Indeed, though a Western practice, our starting point for any new building would be to understand the traditional architecture of the area and to work with this. This is not a superficial aesthetic understanding but a cultural and environmental one. In this way the old and new begin to sit together as a complementary piece and not simply a juxtaposition. I am really excited by such challenges; it is this sort of thing that gets me excited personally and professionally.

Read a pdf copy of the article

6 February 2023