Awards, Interviews, Kiss House, Kiss House Team | 01 May 2020
Crisps, climbing and other things with Adrian James co-founder.
Introducing Adrian James, a senior chartered architect and a co-founder of Kiss House.
We talk to him about his career to date and learn about some of his highlights. Along the way we discover his love of jumping off high things and passion for gospel singing. We uncover a family bet that he would never become an architect (which looked like it might come to pass when his first job was as a computer programmer). Plus, we learn about his insatiable appetite for crisps — especially when they’re rucksack squished and being consumed up a mountain.
We started by asking Adrian about what he does.
Adrian can you tell us what you do?
I am both the principle architect at Adrian James Architects in Oxford and co-founder and principle architect at Kiss House. The two are different but complimentary.
At AJA we design all sorts of buildings, but a major strand of our work is housing where we design predominantly bespoke homes, meaning each is essentially a prototype. Conversely at Kiss House we approach home design differently — we work within guiding principles and an over-arching product concept to create house types that can be customised to a customer’s needs and lifestyle.
There is cross-over between my work at AJA and Kiss House, but I enjoy exploring the different approaches. I lead the design process from inception, through planning and procurement to completion at AJA. Whilst at Kiss House I work with a set of design details and a more controlled aesthetic, I also assess sites and manage planning to ensure we have the optimum strategy for each application.
What makes Kiss House a special project to work on?
“We are constantly honing and refining to make it better and better as we go. It is all about perfecting and excelling.”
Most of the houses we design in my day job, we re-invent the wheel doing something unique and different each time. All well and good and very enjoyable, but hard work and fraught with possible pit-holes. What is different and special about Kiss House is that it’s more like designing a car or a plane: We are constantly honing and refining to make it better and better as we go. It is all about perfecting and excelling.
Can you give us an overview of your career to date?
I trained at Cambridge University (it took years and years) and then I cut my teeth in well-known large practices in London, before breaking free and following my own path. I established Adrian James Architects around twenty-five years ago and I’ve nurtured it devotedly in the brave and immensely enjoyable pursuit of design excellence and invention in favour of commercial gain.
“I’ve nurtured it devotedly in the brave and immensely enjoyable pursuit of design excellence and invention in favour of commercial gain.”
Can you share any career highlights?
As an architect, designing buildings and getting them built is a hugely rewarding career per se, but it certainly helps to win recognition for what you do. I’ve been fortunate to win many prestigious awards, including a few coveted RIBA awards. In fact, after a run of 5 RIBA awards in 6 years I was selected to chair the jury panel for the 2018 RIBA South Awards.
Winning the award for the Best Concrete Building in the UK was a great moment. This is probably because the humble but exquisite house we designed got the gong, ahead of some truly immense concrete structures — a real David and Goliath moment.
Another highlight was when I saw Sandpath (the project that helped inspire Kiss House), for the first time after it was completed. I had developed the concept design but had not been involved in the build, so it wasn’t until the house was complete that I had any idea of whether the original vision had been achieved. I’m delighted to say that seeing the completed Sandpath was a revelation. It was exactly as envisioned, spot on in every aspect. That it went on to win so many awards including the Sunday Times House of the Year, as voted by the public was a wonderful added bonus.
Ultimately though, nothing is better than being told “the house is a joy to live in, I feel like I’m on holiday every day with so much sky and light,” and having positive feedback from a building’s inhabitants.
“That is by far the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve done but also probably the most joyous.”
What are you passionate about?
Apart from architecture — doing it, seeing it, living it, I love singing. For the past ten years I’ve been in a gospel choir singing at concerts, weddings (very special) and even in the BBC Gospel Choir of the Year Final. It took me several years to gain the courage and experience to sing solos. That is by far the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve done but also probably the most joyous.
“I want to walk at midnight through the Baths of Caracalla.”
What is top of your bucket list?
I love climbing high things and jumping off high things, and generally I hold with the idea that the holiday begins where the road ends, the great outdoors. But what I would like to do one day, when the pace slows a bit, is head off to mankind’s greatest achievement by far: Rome. I’ll spend a few months savouring every Baroque extravaganza, every side alley, every catacomb and every pizzeria, and best of all, every mighty ruin. I want to walk at midnight through the Baths of Caracalla.
What was your first job?
Computer programming. This was before the internet, smart phones, or any CAD. It was a time when computers were specialist kits for working out esoteric problems, like the strain on an airplane’s wing structure by applying finite element engineering. We used an early computer language called Fortran; I spent a couple of weeks writing a programme to enable 3D objects, bits of engines etc, to be viewed in perspective from any given point in space. I actually enjoyed it.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Crisps. Lots of crisps.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be an architect. When I was about seven, my brother bet my sister sixpence, old money, that I would not be an architect. Twenty years later, after too many years of training, I eventually qualified and got my RIBA certificate. Sixpences were no longer legal tender by then but luckily my mother kept a few back for the Christmas pudding each year, so we dug one out of the kitchen drawer and had a ceremonial handover.
What's your favourite word and why?
Too many to list. If we just focus on architectural terms, there are so many to enjoy: A few common ones: Architrave; dado; finial; and many more esoteric: Mutule; modillion; ovolo, gutta; quoin; spandrel; voussoir. I think my favourites would be the two that E.E Cummings uses in his poem: “O to be a metope now that triglyph’s here.” (N.B. this only scans if you pronounce ‘metope’ met-o-pee.)
What designer or artist do you like and why?
Somewhere between Louis Kahn and Edwin Lutyens is my idea of perfect architecture. The extraordinary sense of weighty, timeless resonance in one (not unlike the ruins of Rome) and the unparalleled gift for pleasing proportion in the other. But actually, Michelangelo knocks everyone else into a cocked hat.
Which book changed your life?
The book which should change my life and everyone else’s is “There’s No Planet B” by Mike Berners-Lee. A beautifully structured and written handbook to the parlous state of the world and what we can and must do about it. But it’s somehow not heavy or depressing. In fact, it’s a rollicking good read.
Where are you happiest and why?
On top of a (probably Welsh) mountain, with a fresh breeze, clouds skitting overhead, views to the Irish sea and tiny white dots of sheep far below, tired from the climb, back against the rocks, with lifelong friends (or family, obvs), eating a rucksack-squished sandwich and crisps.