AJ Small Projects 2023 shortlist revealed

This is the 28th year of the award, which celebrates the best in built architecture and structures realised on a small budget: this year up to a contract value of £350,000, the limit increased to reflect inflation.

The award is the AJ’s annual showcase of the best in low-cost design from the best designers. Previous winners include Rashid Ali Architects, Carmody Groarke, Haworth Tompkins, David Leech Architects, HawkinsBrown, Kate Darby Architects and Mole Architects.

This year we received more than 170 entries from all around the country, which were whittled down to a shortlist of 20. They range from a boathouse to a bench, a prayer room to a workplace-cum-recording studio, and a bridge to an urban garden and play structure.


On 3 May, the 20 shortlisted architects and designers will present their projects to our judges: Esther Everett, head of design development at the London Legacy Development Corporation; Pedro Gil, director at Studio Gil; Ross Keenan, director at Akin Studio and the winner of last year’s award; and Fiona Scott, director at Gort Scott.

The judging will be followed by a celebratory event where the winner will be announced. This year it will be held at the offices of Morris+Company in Hackney: join us there. It’s free to attend but tickets are allocated on a first come, first served basis.

Register for the free AJ Small Projects award event

All entries to AJ Small Projects 2023 are free to browse in the AJ Buildings Library.

A readers’ poll to select the public’s favourite project will be open from tomorrow, when the final 10 shortlisted projects will be revealed.

AJ Small Projects is sponsored by Marley




This ‘small place to stay’ in Glasgow was born out of an unusual collaboration between three practitioners – Duncan Blackmore, Simon Harlow and Lee Ivett – during Covid lockdown, blurring the lines between developer, architect and maker.

Taking its name from a found nameplate, Ferguson is a 25m2 single-room apartment occupying part of the ground floor of a Victorian tenement that had fallen into disrepair. The project aimed to create movement and flexibility within a small space.

Existing structural openings have been raised and new ones inserted to create a three-dimensional layout that can be ‘strolled around’. A mezzanine level containing a sleeping area with high-level views across the apartment sits in the existing 3.4m-high volume.

In plan, all functions have been pushed to the edges, forming one ‘main’, unprogrammed space, arranged laterally to capture light from two large, south-facing windows. Contrasting with the simplicity of this open space, function is signified through intense use of colour, formal architectural tectonics and material experimentation – particularly in the patterned shower room, cast red concrete and yellow fibreglass detailing. FW

Location Glasgow | Start on site September 2020 | Completion September 2022 | Gross internal floor area 25m2 | Client Duncan Blackmore | Funding Private | Structural engineer Design Engineering Workshop | Services engineer N/A | Main contractor Silo Design and Build | Annual CO2 emissions Not supplied | Embodied/whole-life carbon Not supplied | Photography Pierce Scourfield

See more photos and drawings of this project in the AJ Buildings Library

Pirouette House


This practical, playful extension overhauls a 1980s single-aspect, ex-local authority home in Islington, extending its life, improving insulation and creating cross-ventilation while maximising daylight to its north-facing elevation.

The project utilises cost-effective, low-carbon materials, with extensive use of timber, which forms the main new element – a cloister lining two sides of a courtyard garden. Designed as an outdoor room, its external façades are enlivened by deep red fins sitting on a pigmented blockwork plinth with contrasting silver larch boards. The timber frame extends to form a bench to catch the midday sun.

Internally the kitchen, dining and living spaces ‘pirouette’ around a triangular blue column. This, together with other elements in primary colours – a yellow bookshelf and terracotta-red stair – animate the interior spaces, which are also given warmth and character by Douglas fir beams and boarding and diamond-shaped skylights casting patterns of light. RGW

Location London N7 | Start on site January 2022 | Completion July 2022 | Gross internal floor area 113m2| Client Private | Funding Private | Structural engineer Simple Works | Services engineer N/A | Main contractor MM Projects | Annual CO2 emissions Not supplied | Embodied/whole-life carbon Not supplied | Photography Nick Dearden

See more photos and drawings of this project in the AJ Buildings Library

The Boathouse


This boathouse provides shelter for a single boat and, in the manner of a folly, is not strictly required for that purpose.

Sitting in a prominent location passed by up to 1,000 people a day, including pedestrians, cyclists and rowers, the project had to be both beautiful and low in environmental impact.

It is made of local British larch and, except for the roof and substructure, not a single screw or metal bracket has been used. The primary frames have been constructed using Japanese timber joints while the floorboards and sarking boards are fixed using wooden nails. The larch was rough-sawn and left undried, minimising the energy required to prepare it. Untreated copper used for the roof is 100 per cent recycled. 

The substructure, which presented a challenge to find a material that wouldn’t warp when wet, is formed of end-of-life scaffold poles hand-driven and jointed to give the required depth and strength. Built to last 60 years, it is hoped the scheme will become an established part of the River Cam scene at Ferry Lane in Cambridge, much like the nearby bridge, from which it can be viewed. FW

Location Cambridge | Start on site March 2021 | Completion December 2021 | Gross internal floor area 60m2 | Client Joel Gustafsson | Funding Private | Structural engineer Cambridge Architectural Research | Services engineer N/A | Main contractor N/A (self-build) | Annual CO2 emissions Nil | Embodied/whole-life carbon 22.8 kgCO2e/m2  | Photography Matthew Smith Architectural Photography

See more photos and drawings of this project in the AJ Buildings Library

Igus Courtyard Café


This project sits within a courtyard of the existing Igus Headquarters factory in Cologne, Germany, which Bryden Wood originally designed in 1990. The café has been created as a breakout or respite space for employees and is a pilot project for replication across all eight courtyards of the building.

Its design consists of four glazed ‘pods’, which divide up the courtyard and are formed by a lightweight ETFE canopy on a steel frame. Their form echoes that of the skylights of the original building. Following the existing grid, the new envelope works around a central yellow pylon in the courtyard, its transparency intended to dissolve the boundary between interior and exterior.

The ‘pods’ are entered by double doors from all four sides, giving the café flexibility as a multipurpose, reconfigurable space.

The spaces are enclosed and heated in the winter, but sliding and pivoting glazed perimeter partitions allow them to be fully opened up in the summer months. RGW

Location Cologne, Germany | Start on site February 2021 | Completion November 2021 | Gross internal floor area 122m2 | Client Igus | Funding Undisclosed | Structural engineer Bryden Wood | Services engineer Bryden Wood | Main contractor Spantech | Annual CO2 emissions 104.26 kgCO2/m2 | Embodied/whole-life carbon 399 kgCO2e/m2 | Photography Michael Schopps

See more photos and drawings of this project in the AJ Buildings Library

Greenhill Place


Located on a busy pedestrian route between Harrow town centre and outer residential areas, this site was previously a dead end, used for car parking and bounded by run-down buildings and service yards.

Harrow Council’s brief called for kiosks to create new town-centre opportunities for an emerging food business sector, plus a showcase for art. The scheme combines kiosks and ancillary space into a single building shaping a new public space. A cranked volume creates a new edge to the square with a covered seating area for customers, open by day and secured at night behind patterned shutters.

A gridded roof structure is filled with a frieze of patterned green panels and rests on cruciform steel columns, forming a sheltered colonnade where the canopy oversails. Both frames and foundations have been designed to be demountable.

The pattern and colour scheme were developed with graphic design studio Objectif and were inspired by the site’s history as a rural hamlet. Outside the building, a terrazzo floor acts as a welcome mat, while the canopy, with its oversized signage, forms a gateway. FW

Location London HA1 | Start on site June 2020 | Completion December 2021 | Gross internal floor area 130m2 | Client Harrow Council | Funding Public | Structural engineer TALL | Services engineer N/A | Main contractor The Halo Group | Annual CO2 emissions Not supplied | Embodied/whole-life carbon Not supplied | Photography Francesco Russo

See more photos and drawings of this project in the AJ Buildings Library

Bogor Musholla


This building is used as a prayer room and for community events and training at the Center for Community Development and Social Entrepreneurship at Bogor in West Java, which is part of an Indonesian developmental NGO.

The project consists of one main space adjacent to a small, covered veranda and washrooms. It is designed to maximise natural daylight and ventilation internally while using locally sourced materials chosen for durability and low maintenance. The structure combines rigidity with flexibility to enable it to withstand seismic activity.

The structure, comprising three timber portal frames, is raised off the ground on cast concrete columns and charred using the shou sugi ban technique to protect against termites and rot. A large truss spanning the frames supports the roof, while the cladding consists of a variety of local natural materials.

The six-week build involved 17 international volunteer participants from architecture and engineering schools and practices, working alongside members of the local Indonesian community. RGW

Location West Java, Indonesia | Start on site July 2022 | Completion September 2022 | Gross internal floor area 22.6m2 | Client Cercondeso and Social Trust Fund Jakarta | Funding Charitable donations via Social Trust Fund Jakarta | Structural engineer Brendan Fitzgerald | Services engineer N/A | Main contractor CAUKIN Studio | Annual CO2 emissions Nil | Embodied/whole-life carbon Not supplied | Photography Kung Photographs, Katie Edwards

See more photos and drawings of this project in the AJ Buildings Library

Black Barn Studios


This project converted an equestrian barn into a sustainable rural workplace for Charlie Luxton Design’s studio, plus a music recording space.

The existing barn’s steel frame, structural slab, foundations and concrete yard have been retained. A pre-cut, 300mm timber I-beam structure was erected over five days within the steel frame, which was then re-clad using black corrugated metal and larch, with repurposed industrial walkways as solar shading.

Interiors were fitted out using UK-grown elm flooring, reclaimed timber windows as screens, recycled drylining and second-hand furniture. Heating is provided by a small air source heat pump via an MVHR system which also monitors CO2, ensuring high air quality. This low-energy approach is also supported by a 20kW PV array and the building’s envelope achieves an airtightness of 0.3ACH at 50Pa.

The surrounding three-acre site has been planted with more than 700 native trees and shrubs and over 2,000m2 of wildflower meadow to help absorb the carbon emitted during construction. FW

Location Hook Norton, Oxfordshire | Start on site January 2021 | Completion January 2022 | Gross internal floor area 205m2 | Client Charlie Luxton Design | Funding Private | Structural engineer Solid Structures | Services engineer N/A | Main contractor Charlie and Kate Luxton | Annual CO2 emissions –24.6 kgCO2/m2 | Embodied/whole-life carbon <300 kgCO>2e/m2 (estimated) | Photography James Durham, Ed RS Aves

See more photos and drawings of this project in the AJ Buildings Library



This bench on the Isle of Bute was one of four pieces commissioned by Design Exhibition Scotland for its Sitting Pretty exhibition.

Offering shelter and a place to rest, the design draws inspiration from two precedents in the Scottish Isles – the Brutalist concrete bus shelters found on Lewis and the enveloping shape of the traditional Orkney chair – reinterpreting these in contemporary form.

Drawing on expert advice from Peter Wilson of Timber Design Initiatives/Mass Timber Academy and BE-ST (formerly Construction Scotland Innovation Centre), it uses Scottish-sourced Douglas fir-based cross-laminated timber, grown near Perth and fabricated at BE-ST’s facility in Hamilton.

Through making use of the nascent Scottish CLT industry, manufacturing waste was minimised in the sizing of the elements that form the bench and carbon emissions for their transport were significantly reduced. RGW

Location Isle of Bute | Start on site July 2022 | Completion July 2022 | Gross internal floor area 1.6m2 | Client Design Exhibition Scotland | Funding Competition commission/self-funded | Structural engineer N/A | Services engineer N/A | Fabrication Built Environment – Smarter Transformation (BE-ST) | Annual CO2 emissions Nil | Embodied/whole-life carbon 175 kgCO2e (estimated) | Photography Chris Dobson, Keith Hunter

See more photos and drawings of this project in the AJ Buildings Library

Lloyd Eist House


This project in Camberwell, south London, involves the refurbishment of a former light industrial building to provide a compact, three-storey family home with a new second floor and side extension.

Initially it was designed as a live-work unit for the Lloyd Eist Foundation charity but, when the organisation decided not to proceed with the project, it was bought by the practice, which founded its own development company to build out revised designs.

The material palette is both sustainable and tactile and includes reclaimed timber and brick surfaces, bespoke sapele timber window and door frames sourced and fabricated in Bethnal Green, and quartz worktops. Timber from the original floor structure has been reincorporated to create terrace fencing, exterior floor and wall linings and for retaining the external sliding entrance shutters.

The initial open-plan layout of the middle floor has been tweaked with bespoke bi-folding walls to make the space more flexible by splitting it into two smaller areas, as well as with the addition of a ground-floor bathroom. FW

Location London SE5 | Start on site April 2022 | Completion January 2023 | Gross internal floor area 64m2 | Client Common Ground Developments | Funding Private | Structural engineer Simple Works | Services engineer Fire Safety Engineering Consultancy (FSEC) | Main contractor Tuga Contractors | Annual CO2 emissions Not supplied | Embodied/whole-life carbon Not supplied | Photography Nick Dearden

See more photos and drawings of this project in the AJ Buildings Library

Lavender Pumphouse


This new nursery school for Hatching Dragons, a bilingual Mandarin-English nursery provider, is the first phase in the site’s development. It comprises two main spaces for children of different ages, one in an existing room, the second in a room constructed in the main hall. The latter space is conceived as a room-within-a-room, using lightweight construction that can be taken down and re-used and employs full-sheet materials, mechanical fixings and simple, durable materials. These include naturally finished plywood – painted black in places as an integrated blackboard, exposed timber wall studs used for shelving and polycarbonate cladding for windows.

Circular openings cut into the exposed ceiling joists allow in natural light. A sensory garden, created with Jacqueline Dodman, uses reclaimed olive barrels, railway sleepers and masonry and boasts a sandpit, bee hotel, seating areas and soft play surfaces made of recycled tyres. RGW

Location London SE16 | Start on site February 2021 | Completion August 2021 | Gross internal floor area 212m2 | Client Hatching Dragons | Funding Private | Structural engineer
Matthew Robinson | Services engineer N/A | Main contractor DGH | Annual CO2 emissions Not supplied | Embodied/whole-life carbon Not supplied | Photography Graham Baldwin

See more photos and drawings of this project in the AJ Buildings Library

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