Designed by SHH, Coach House is a new 6,000 sq ft restaurant and cafe at one Britain's most historic sites - Hatfield House. The project has just scooped the 'Best Cafe or Fast Food Award' at the UK's prestigious Restaurant & Bar Design Awards 2012.
An existing tea-room for visitors to Hatfield House was already operating on the estate, with profits contributing to the ongoing costs of maintaining the historic property. Its simple format, however, was no longer equal to the demands being placed on it by the high volume of visitors. A new design was commissioned to enlarge the cafe and restaurant space and this coincided with a major master plan for the house and grounds, initiated by Lord Salisbury and undertaken by Brooks Murray Architects. The master plan was aimed at expanding alternative revenue sources, as well as improving year-round access to the grounds for visitors. The restaurant, housed in a former 19th century coach house, was to be joined by new retail facilities in the surrounding former stable buildings.
The brief to SHH from operators Levy Restaurants and the Hatfield House estate was to create a facility with day-long and year-round appeal, which would provide a quality food service offer for visitors to the new attractions in the grounds; tenants of the office space in the adjacent buildings; visitors to the main house in season and destination visitors from the surrounding area, where good eateries were in relatively short supply.
"This was a large logistical project carried out on a short time frame," commented Brendan Heath, SHH Associate and Project Leader. "The service aspect was particularly demanding in terms of the budget, with new air source heat pumps, all new electrical services and hot water boilers required, which necessitated an upgrading of the electrical sub-station."
SHH worked very closely with Levy Restaurants' in-house Innovations Team on the development on the design concept for the Coach House project. The guiding design principle was for the restaurant to look at home in its nineteenth century setting, whilst at the same time being undeniably contemporary. The key to achieving this was selecting materials that made direct reference to those used in the surrounding buildings; using them in an almost hand-crafted manner and applying them to very simple forms. "As we were designing a space within a former working building, we felt that anything too pristine would be out of place, so the materials are used in a very honest way," explained Brendan Heath.
The restaurant has been expanded to include two floors and now provides 70% more floor space than the original tea room. Kitchens, food service counters and seating are situated in an L-shaped ground floor area, with a direct connection to the outdoors through a new glass extension, created as part of the overall architectural works. The first floor provides additional seating, accessed via a new spiral staircase within in a generous void and before opening out onto a roof terrace with views south towards the main house.
Operationally, the new offer is designed around three distinct service points: The Bakery, The Deli and The Chef's Table, providing flexible usage and hours of operation.
"The materials we used for the counters of the three offers combine tiled fronts, solid oak framed tables and zinc counter tops," commented Brendan Heath, "with a slightly different configuration for each. The zinc counter tops were acid-treated to give them a well-worn look."
The Bakery, open from first thing in the morning, offers breads, cakes and pastries with the ovens placed on full display to entice customers with the smell of fresh baking. Also serving tea and coffee, this counter operates continuously throughout the entire day.
The Deli and The Chef's Table begin operating from late morning and primarily serve lunchtime customers. The Deli counter offers salads and sandwiches, with The Chef's Table serving hot food direct from the kitchen - now visible through the new, full-height opening formed in the rear structural wall. The high visibility of the kitchen, with its central cooking island, underlines the emphasis on fresh food, made to order.
"Customers are served so much more quickly and effectively now," commented Helen Craddock, Concessions Manager at Hatfield House, "which has improved the guest experience. From the display of food to reducing queues, the whole space flows and works very well for both staff and customers. The Chef's Table is a real focus point and the theatre created for customers being able to see the chef cooking and serving the food has provoked many wonderful reactions. Customers love to be able to see that all our food is cooked, prepared and baked in house."
Revealing texture was also an important part of the design. Next to 'The Deli' counter, the render was removed from one of the building's original walls in order to expose the red brick behind, in the process revealing holes, timber in-fills and iron nails from previous building work. This sits alongside black-stained rough timber boards used as cladding for the full height back bar joinery, a direct reference to the material used on the outside of the building. All of this sits on a new tiled green slate floor.
The new all-glass extension opening onto the outdoor courtyard uses solid oak flooring as a means of emphasising its separateness from the original building.
The first floor, with its exposed black steel roof trusses, continues this use of oak flooring, with the connecting staircase taking the form of a new black-painted, cast aluminium spiral stair supplied and installed by Albion Designs.
"For the furniture and lighting, we took the approach that the context could not be more British, so we made a conscious decision to specify products by British designers - or designs with a strong British connection - wherever possible, as it was such a great place to showcase their work," Heath added. This includes tables and chairs from local manufacturer Ercol; Tom Dixon's Offcut stools in untreated oak; and Audrey bar stools from Naughtone.
"We mixed natural and black-stained oak furniture throughout," explained Brendan Heath. "The building's exterior uses lots of black timber, so that also became our starting reference for the choice of material. We also didn't want natural oak sitting on natural oak, so we chose to use natural oak furniture against the slate floor and black-stained oak in areas with natural oak floors."
Bespoke oak bench tables have been installed adjacent to the food service counters, with two further bespoke communal eating tables in the adjacent overspill seating space. The latter integrate display shelving in welded mild steel. "We deliberately left the weld marks visible," commented Brendan Heath, "to continue the language of honest material use." Book-ending the tables, and working in conjunction with the three dramatic Fontana Arte Chandeliers designed by David Chipperfield, the shelves help to create a greater sense of intimacy in this area. Additional shelves behind The Bakery and The Deli counters utilise the same methods of display and material detailing, creating continuity between the spaces.
The only elements without a British connection are the hand-blown, coloured glass pendant lights used as a feature in The Bakery area. These are from Niche Modern in the USA, from whose extensive range SHH chose seven shades, suspended at different heights, to create a striking focal point. "This was simply the best product for the space," Heath explained "and so we made an exception for it."
The honest material language also carried through into graphic communication. Wood was salvaged from trees felled by the estate's foresters during winter grounds' maintenance, with the stumps then used as support plinths for external hanging signs, and dressed wooden blocks for internal signage and menus. For these, SHH devised a system of metal crooks of various heights to be inset into the timbers. The estate's onsite blacksmiths undertook their production, with the final choice of ornamentation up to the smithy who made them. In this way, no two loops and twists in the crooks are the same. "We drew up a simple sketch and handed it over" explained Heath "and everyone was delighted with the finished result."
As a final element, the washrooms were also given their own distinctive treatment. "The new bathrooms were fairly small so there was limited opportunity to make an impact," Brendan Heath explained. "As wall space was the most abundant surface, we took traditional Victorian floor tiles, flipped them and applied them to the wall behind the basins giving an effect not unlike a tapestry. Toilets in a restaurant environment should always be given the equivalent amount of consideration as the front of house areas. Anything less would jar with the overall experience."
"The refurbishment has changed the dynamic of the restaurant and has made it a brand new and exciting place to work," concluded Helen Craddock. "Our staff are so proud to work in an award-winning restaurant and it shows in their commitment and attitude. Customer response has been fantastic - often the first word you hear them say is 'wow'! Compliments come in constantly, not only on the food and the service, but the design and the feel of the restaurant too. Turnover has increased by over 20% compared to last season."