London's top architects: Deborah Saunt

The first in a new series focusing on London's top architects. Philippa Stockley meets Deborah Saunt of DSDHA
Deborah Saunt's tower block of 120 new flats is the highest in the Olympic Village and most visible. The Gateway soars 14 storeys like an upended Toblerone. In 2008, she beat off 200 other practices to design the building that is already becoming iconic in newly smart Stratford, with its shopping centre and excellent transport links.

The Bosideng building and The Olympic Vilage
Saunt's work includes the Bosideng building in South Molton Street, in the West End (left) and The Olympic village tower (right)

People say the views are so great that it's where the VIPs stayed during the Games, and Saunt, in a rare boast, tips the area as the next Belgravia. When the flats have been converted (they will have kitchens added, for example) and go on sale next year, every single one will have a big balcony — as everyone deserves a garden or some sort of outdoors space — and fabulous views.

Prize-winning architect Deborah Suant
© Adrian Lourie
Prize-winning architect Deborah Suant
Saunt set up her practice, DSDHA, in 1998 with David Hills, and soon became no stranger to winning.

In 2010, its £26 million Christ's College Girls School in Guildford was short-listed for the biggest British prize of all, the £20,000 Stirling Award. The brick-built school, with its huge central atrium, won the hearts of critics and students, who adore it.

The atrium idea (which she also uses in her Olympic tower) opens up and unifies the space, and encourages a space to socialise and engender an important community spirit.

Saunt has just finished a public realm fellowship set up to look at ways of improving the area around the Albert Memorial and, with the energy of a Duracell bunny, has a busy domestic life with husband and two children, while building a new home for them all in Clapham.

What marks Deborah Saunt out is her passionate insistence that architecture should make our everyday experience better. Everything matters, from how you handle a domestic extension by creating more light, the right space and storage, to the effect that blocks of housing and remodelled streets can have on us, whether we live in them, or live with them around us.

Architecture can be pivotal: it can be the reason an area becomes better or worse, the reason houses gain value or lose value. Even her office, in an early Victorian social housing estate in Kennington, a cobbled yard of some of London's earliest live-work units, backs up her ideas. She says: "I am always promoting this sort of live-work mix of affordable work-space and housing. There are potters, glaziers, cleaners and a little café here."

The yard promotes the idea of "belonging" that Saunt says is particularly British, and is crucial in a successful city. She firmly believes that if you want to get the best out of people, you must make them feel as if they are actually part of something.

"Everybody should have a positive presence in society; no one should be made to feel second-rate," she says. "If you have a dignified environment to live in, you have a better sense of well-being. People respond to quality. We behave better if we are treated better. In architectural terms, making people happy doesn't cost much but it's easy to make people miserable."

Abell & Cleland building, Westminster
Abell & Cleland building, Westminster
Her ideas of using buildings to improve our daily experience will be put to the test when the £60 million Abell & Cleland Estate in Westminster, which she is working on for Berkeley Homes' Urban Renaissance arm, is finished (work is due to start later this year). Two ugly old Ministry of Justice buildings will be transformed with light-coloured stone exteriors and turned into 275 new homes. Even though the development includes both top-end luxury and social housing, if you glanced through the door of an affordable flat, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference, she says, adding: "It doesn't suddenly go to lino."

But there's more to it than that. She insists the new buildings will become a local landmark, helping people navigate their way through the area, helping to open up and improve the city "even for those who never set foot in them". She explains: "It's designed to draw you in."

It's the same with the extraordinary wedge-shape building she's building for Bosideng (a Chinese clothing company) which opens on to South Molton, Davies and Oxford Streets.

Looking from the snout-end like the prow of a great ocean liner, there is no doubt Bosideng will become a much-liked landmark building.

Meanwhile, Saunt has re-modelled South Molton Street itself, altering its shape to follow the meandering path of the ancient Fleet river that used to run beneath, and adding squat square bollards (that you can sit on), as well as doing their job.

But through it all, her own life helps her keep things real. So she always considers the experience of her buildings at a very human level. Added to the measured grace of many of DSDHA's buildings, this quality of approachability is what is so special.

"I'm a mum and a businesswoman," she says, adding that it gives her a rounded perspective. "I design from the scale of the kitchen sink up to the City, and I have no problem with that."

Deborah Saunt's 10 top tips for building a family home


1. To reduce the sense of confinement in small homes, if you have greenery nearby (garden, park, balcony, trees) make it as visible as possible to enjoy "borrowed landscape".

2. Wherever possible use natural light to make the day last longer and to feel the seasons change. For dining areas make the most of east and west light at the beginning and end of the day.

3. Broaden openings to create a generous view through your home out into the garden, patio or balcony.

4. Carve out a roof-light so light falls from more than one direction.

5. Convert your roof space.

6. Cut out a small "glimpse window" at eye level to add character and interest.

7. Good ventilation enhances your sense of wellbeing.

8. Make use of recent planning changes if you are not in a conservation area and add on. Extend out horizontally but be sure to use an architect to generate the most value and keep your home looking appropriate to its setting.

9. Look at where your space is under pressure from clutter and constriction inside. Plentiful storage is imperative.

10. If your home is congested and you have all your storage it might not be an extension that is needed but "room to manoeuvre". This might be done by opening up a stair landing — a simple but effective solution.

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