Since 2014, Marcus Rowlands has been creating beautiful, bespoke structures for clients in and around Nottinghamshire. Born in Arnold and now based in Carlton, he studied Textile Design at the Glasgow School of Art and worked for many years in education, as a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, at various FE colleges and running community art workshops, before launching his design and build company, Sheltered Spaces. He tells us about his design philosophy, the character of wood and the joys of cabin porn...
How did you get into this ‘bespoke architectural design’ lark?
Right before starting Sheltered Spaces, I was working in education doing art workshops – particularly with lads who were troubled – teaching them how to build things outdoors, like shelters. That could be pretty tough. I was also bringing up my kids as a stay-at-home dad, and I got to the point of thinking I just wanted to be a labourer because then I wouldn’t have to think and could just do what I was told. So I did. I worked with someone who was very generous and kind to allow me into that world, because I had no experience whatsoever and, after a while, I realised I could do it myself.
You have a background in Textile Design. Has that been useful in this venture?
Massively – everything I was taught about seeing things differently and emergent thinking. When I was producing work for exhibitions, I was making big fabric sculptures that people could bounce on and climb in and lie on.
Do you view your projects now like art installations?
Very much so. I come from that mindset, in terms of aesthetics and the spirit of the place, the way you might enter a space and the quality of the light.
Light seems something you view as especially important in your projects...
Well, I suppose life is about dark and light. Growing up, I spent a lot of time exploring the dark and as I get older I spend more time in the light. Metaphorically and emotionally. That’s what I’m drawn to – the illumination of something. But then the light wouldn’t work if there wasn’t the dark. Some of the buildings I make or the corners of structures, I’m aware that the shadows which are made are just as important as the light. One of the best things is being invited back to a project by a client and them telling me how light moves about the space and how the shadows change over the day.
Working with, as opposed to for, your clients, seems key to your approach...
I’m very aware that people don’t always have positive experiences with builders. We all have horror stories. Going into someone’s home and building in their space is an intimate thing. I want it to be a partnership right from the beginning. I’m not interested in telling people ‘I’ve got five options you can pick from’. I want it to be different each time and I want the whole process to be positive.
So how does the process start with a client?
Some people will draw what they want, if they feel comfortable with that. Some will show me a mood board of things they’ve seen on the Internet or show me a beautiful image on Instagram and say, “I’d like that.” I say, “Okay, I can do that, but that’s oak and will cost you £50,000.” Then they say, “I don’t want that,” and we go from there.
You say on your website you use ‘natural materials’, but isn’t all wood natural?
A natural material which has been injected with something or treated with an arsenic product doesn’t end up very natural, does it? A lot of materials used in the building trade are pretty poor and there’s a lot of waste.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time exploring the dark and as I get older, I spend more time in the light. Metaphorically and emotionally. That’s what I’m drawn to – the illumination of something
Sorry to be ignorant, but are woods really that different?
Oh, yes. They have different grains and colour and different properties and it affects the way you can cut and carve them and put them together. Accoya is currently the most sustainable timber and larch is a fantastic British wood. In the UK, we tend to associate building with bricks, cement and steel, but go into Scandinavia and North America and it’s all wood.
Looking through past projects on your website, we especially liked the Vinyl Cabin...
That was the client’s main theme – now we’ve got kids, where can we put all our music? The cladding is based on vinyl records being stacked on a shelf.
Do you do all the work on projects yourself?
It’s mainly me, though I will bring in specialist craftspeople if I need to. Recently I’ve started working with my daughters, which has been an absolute joy. I couldn’t work with anybody during lockdown and my youngest daughter in particular has been involved with building two cabins… and she now knows the difference between a good and bad electrician!
That is a useful life skill! The building trade is still male-dominated – do you feel you’re challenging a few gender stereotypes?
Well, if I was on a big construction site, maybe, but we are working on our own – though a client recently said he saw me and my daughter having a break after a hard morning’s work, laughing together, and he thought it was beautiful. It’s a treat for me – seeing my daughter doing ten-hour days.
What are your plans for Sheltered Spaces?
I’ve been having a conversation with a friend in Canada about impermanent spaces. We’re interested in the notion of buildings that decay and that show signs of impermanence. The word ‘folly’ comes to mind. Structures that warp in the sun or channel the wind to make a sound or things growing on a building… the idea of a green roof but exploding it to something bigger. I’d also like to build spaces that are not just ground-based. Something that’s hovering in the air, on stilts or wires, or something underground. Indulgent, but beautiful.