Drawing board: Long & Kentish Porthmeor Studios
MJ Long and Rolfe Kentish discuss their refurbishment of Porthmeor artists’ studios in St Ives, Corwall
What is the architectural and cultural importance of Porthmeor Studios?
MJ Long They’re the only remaining example of a building type that used to stretch all along the beach at Porthmeor. The rest have been turned into holiday flats.
The 18th century engineer John Smeaton built a wall to stop sand washing inland, and fishermen built against the wall and used the cellars to press pilchards, and the lofts to dry and repair the nets.
In the early 1880s, after Whistler and a number of other artists came to St Ives and found that the light was fantastic, suddenly many artists started coming to work there. One converted a fisherman’s loft and by the end of the decade virtually all the lofts were studios. =
There was one period in the 1950s when there was an astounding list of distinguished artists working there, including Francis Bacon and Ben Nicholson. Meanwhile the cellars were still occupied by fishermen and still are. The relationship between them and the painters has always been quite good. They’ve always been slightly amused by each other.
What state is the building in?
MJL It was built using mining construction techniques and components – massive concrete walls, 60ft [18m] long recycled mine logs, cast iron columns plus beams from ships. There are also masonry walls and the upper superstructure is a timber frame with slate cladding, which is in a terrible state. The building was actually beautifully made but there has been water damage and it was in such a poor condition that English Heritage was willing to pay for emergency repairs.
Rolfe Kentish It has been threatened with collapse. It is a timber, concrete and masonry building that has had no maintenance so it has leaked for years. The artists just put down buckets for the water every day. Some areas have rotted and it gets worse the higher up you go. The top floor was a problem because the windows blew in. Many of the sash windows are full of sand and don’t work. It’s very raw.
What approach are you taking to the refurbishment?
MJL We’re trying to make the studios sound without changing their character, in a way that is consistent with their history. It is a question of getting familiar with every board in the building and making individual decisions on each one. The challenge is how to fix it up after years of neglect and get the building maintained in the future. The Borlase Smart John Wells Trust tries to keep the studios for serious artists who can’t afford to spend a fortune on rent. So rather than charging more, the approach is to get a few more artists in. We’ll have room for 18 by pushing the roof up and getting in two new starter studios, and by subdividing some of the very large ones.
We’re not making a big deal of the new additions. We’re just filling in where there could logically be more accom-modation and doing what has to be done in a simple way. To deal with the condensation we’re putting in wood burning biomass stoves and setting the base heating at 10˚C. Artists don’t want to work in a very heated environment – it’s not good for paintings.
In the cellars we’re putting in insulation, drainage and fire separation.
RK In the first phase, we’re creating a whole level of public space for exhibitions entered at ground-floor level from the street and stretching through to the beach side. In the cellar there will be a learning centre about pilchard fishing and more studios. Above the public level is the School of Painting, which will have two studios on top rather than one. There will be a new lift going up to the school and down to the studios to make it far more accessible. The second phase will be the rest of the studios and the cellars.
What new materials are you introducing?
RK We’re using lots of industrial quality, galvanised fittings. It won’t be like the slick, seamless white space of some West End galleries. We’re repairing the original studio walls and putting in fire protection and wiring and also installing a new 8ft-high [2.5m] plasterboard painting surface. This is mounted off the wall so that it could be removed if need be in the future.
MJL The new floors will be local Douglas fir and we’re using Cornish oak for the new external staircase on the street elevation – the current one is falling down. We’re taking out the corrugated plastic roof lights in the studios (which aren’t original) and putting back white-painted timber mullions and simple double-glazing.
The sashes are being overhauled where possible or replaced with new versions.
What are the main challenges?
MJL You have to deal with each corner separately and not do the same thing everywhere. We have to achieve fire and acoustic separation but everyone was very fond of the character of the studio walls. So where things aren’t rotten, we’ve kept them as they were on the inside, taken off the slates and repaired the structure and put in sound and fire insulation and then put the slates back. We’re not trying to straighten anything out – one wall bows by 250mm.
What is the programme for the refurbishment?
RK The first phase will be completed this July and the rest will follow a year later. It is a very enjoyable project. We go down to visit it every week.
MJL We’re old-fashioned architects working with an old-fashioned builder. It is a great pleasure.
Slate roof: Traditional material meets contemporary standards
Replacing the slates on the roof and walls of the studios is one of the biggest challenges of the refurbishment project. Over the years, nails had rusted and roof rafters had slipped with the result that they were in such poor condition that they couldn’t be salvaged.
In the refurbishment, Long & Kentish is using new scantle slates from the Delabole quarry – which provided the studios’ original slates – in north Cornwall. These weather to a silver grey and attract a particular lichen that gains a golden hue in the summer. Since the ridge tiles are impossible to buy new, the architects are using reclaimed Bridgewater ones.
The roof slates will be wet laid in diminishing courses from 355mm at the eaves to 255mm at the ridge. The exposed face decreases from 100mm to 12mm. Vertical slates are also wet laid on battens and counter battens, but in equal courses with a lead apron flashing on the top course. Beneath the slate is insulation, tongue-and-groove timber wall linings, a vapour membrane and a stud wall.
A particular difficulty was combining the traditional slates with contemporary standards for ventilation and insulation. Unable to source appropriate fittings, Long & Kentish, in consultation with English Heritage, designed bespoke metal vents and stainless steel trays for the ventilation. Stainless steel meshes keep insects from getting beneath the tiles.
The slates are attached to battens set on counter battens to give sufficient ventilation beneath the slates to avoid condensation. A breather membrane is incorporated beneath the counter battens. The first sub-batten is made of oak to withstand the elements; the rest is Cornish soft wood.
The specification for the slate roof was developed by the architect with Stuart Meigh of JS Roofing, Terry Hughes, stone roofing adviser to English Heritage, Nicki Lauder, project officer from English Heritage, and Viv Stratton from Cornwall College.