As the pandemic started to engulf our lives with negative headlines, my mind turned to thoughts of illness and death, as well as economic impact and layoffs more often than I would have liked. In an effort to quieten those negative thoughts, I found solace in a daily sensory practice that is very dear to me: not music, walking meditation, or yoga, but architecture. As shops and offices shut down, friends were hesitant to visit and our lives became strangely quiet, I threw myself into making as a way of reconnecting with myself and finding a meaningful distraction.
I had been wanting to work on my house for a while. Steeped in a sense of ordinary yet no less fascinating history, it had been standing solemnly since around 1904, beginning its life as a workers’ cottage for the soap factory that had once stood opposite. Now, it was home to two urban professionals with very different lives, but the same universal aspiration: To make their house a home.
As a young architectural designer who – like the majority of architects – has drawn more than they could ever build, I had a somewhat controversial idea. Could I not just design the kitchen, but actually… make it? I had no experience, only basic tools, and definitely more enthusiasm than skills. I began to look around the house for inspiration, feeling the different surfaces from 120-year-old pine boards, to rugged red brick walls, and the limestone so ubiquitous in my little English town. There was something so enticing about the wood; the way the knots revealed small imperfections that gave it character, the way the boards and banisters had been worn smooth by generations.
I decided to respond with a contemporary birch wood design that took cues from the vertical lines of the paneling found throughout the house. I echoed them with smooth, tone-in-tone vertical wooden handles that were routed on the inside to provide perfect grip to one’s fingers, just like the tongue and groove panels were locked into each other perfectly. The more I worked with the wood, the more addicted I became to sawing it, smoothing it, and sanding it. I even enjoyed the smell of the sawdust. Soon, there was nothing more satisfying than running my hands along the surfaces and feeling first-hand the results of my efforts.
I left the wood on the show with a lick of good quality clear varnish, excited about the fact that the grain on the cabinet doors stood out, even more, when the sunlight shone brightly. It became a little moment of joy every time the winter sun creeped out and decided to grace the doors with a hesitant ray. As it responded to the weather, it became one of those small but delightful things that kept me going through the long, grey winter lockdown in the UK.
As well as the benefits of having had a project to keep me busy and a result to show for it, it has also helped me to grow in my practice. I got bolder and bolder in my ambitions and by the time the lockdown had mercilessly been extended for months, I had gone from completely gutting the room to learning how to lay a subfloor, do plumbing, install a kitchen, and add custom lighting.
Just out of education, site experience is so valuable, and gaining it in my own home was just perfect, where I was free to experiment and free from judgment, especially as a woman who enjoys building things. It was single-handedly the most rewarding project I had ever worked on. And what better way is there to experience architecture with all senses than to make it yourself?
Sarah Maâfi Sarah is an award-winning Masters student from TU Munich who holds degrees in both Architecture and in Art History. Her interests are also at the intersection of design and theory, as she loves creating architecture as much as writing about it. Having gained experience at renowned practices such as UK-based low-carbon designers FCB Studios and German minimalist architects schneider+schumacher, she is always on the look-out for innovative ideas that connect beautiful design and social responsibility.