The idea of bringing an artist into the construction team might seem a little surreal, but they can add an extra dimension to a design – with or without an architect.
On a rise in the Weald of Sussex, in an area of outstanding natural beauty, is a 5.2 ha plot of land earmarked for an unusual development. Its owner, Margaret Tookey, wants to build a home there, but not just any old home. It is to be a collection of bubble-shaped rooms featuring arched windows and curved walls with grass and shrubs growing on the roof.

The design, which looks like something Bilbo Baggins might consider moving into, is the brainchild of artist Roger Dean, most famous for his album covers for progressive 1970s rock band Yes and for devising the original Virgin logo. He hopes Tookey's home will get planning permission in the next six months and he is even talking about getting funding and permission for 150 more "cottages" for a holiday resort at an undisclosed location in Britain.

Although Dean may be dabbling in the architectural avant-garde, other artists and designers are becoming involved in more conventional construction projects. Sculptor Susanna Heron is part of the Snell Associates-led design team working on plans to refurbish Bristol's Arnolfini centre for contemporary art. She is also working with MacCormac Jamieson Prichard on a water feature, part of Coventry's £24m Phoenix urban regeneration initiative. And design graduate Thomas Heatherwick, who shot to fame with his windows for London's Harvey Nichols in 1997, has joined a Damond Lock Grabowski-led team working on an £80m retail and leisure development in Leeds city centre that has initial planning permission.

Both Heron and Heatherwick are pushing back the boundaries of what artists traditionally contribute to building projects. They are not just providing a piece of art for a public space; they are influencing the building design.

This is something the Royal Society of Art is actively promoting.

It has been running an Art for Architecture scheme for 10 years, but now it is encouraging artists to move away from simply contributing ideas for spaces after the design work has been completed.

Funded by private donations and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, Art for Architecture provides grants for artists who work on building projects. This way, clients can add an artist to the design team without giving themselves another mouth to feed. Last year, 12 artists were awarded fees amounting to £100 000, says the scheme's project manager, Jes Fernie. The idea of funding artist residencies at architectural practices has also been mooted.

Fernie believes that artists are an important addition to the design process – once they have got over the culture shock. "It can also be a real eye-opener for artists because they often think architecture is all about designing great schemes, but much of it is humdrum stuff. Artists come along without that baggage and with new ideas, which is refreshing."

Tessa Jackson, director of the Arnolfini gallery on Bristol's harbourside, agrees. The Arts Council has earmarked £5m of lottery cash for refurbishment work on the arts centre and an open-air café-restaurant on the quayside, which she hopes will be awarded by the end of this year. In the meantime, she appointed Snell Associates to lead the design team with the proviso that the architect would be involved in choosing an artist who would become a full member of the team. Together, they picked gallery favourite Susanna Heron.

"It was important to us to have an artist as an integral member of the design team because they bring a different perspective and an understanding of space, light and, of course, use," says Jackson.

She did not worry that adding another voice to the discussions could extend the length of the project. The team has already carried design work up to RIBA stage D in preparation for its lottery application to the Arts Council and, although Robin Snell had never worked with an artist before, Jackson says: "Each time we meet, my view that it could work is reaffirmed."

The collaboration between Heron and Snell has been such a success that the Arnolfini has staged an exhibition explaining the process and is to host a seminar on the subject in early September. With all parties apparently happy with the arrangement, architects should take note. Where the Arnolfini leads, other clients may follow.

Roger Dean’s Sussex psychedelia

Roger Dean has been working on his vision of creating sustainable, people-friendly homes for years but now it seems his idea might see the light of day. He has surrounded himself with a team of construction experts (architect not included) to help turn concept into reality – and to make sure planning authorities do not “freak out” over his application. Dean graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1968 with a design qualification, and became best known for his psychedelic, surreal album covers for Yes. However, he has long had an interest in architecture. It stems from his postgraduate research into the bedrooms children feel most comfortable sleeping in. The findings helped him develop the curved, protective, shell-like rooms that he has used in his design for Margaret Tookey’s house in Sussex – a design he believes the architectural world could learn from. “If I had trained as an architect, I would have no concept that form follows function,” says Dean, explaining his philosophy is that a building’s aesthetics are less important than its ability to meet users’ needs. But he adds: “Our built environment should be inspiring, not oppressive, utilitarian and mechanistic. When I’m being negative about the architectural profession, I say it’s not a profession, it’s a religion. Non-believers are heretics who get short shrift.” Despite his criticisms, 55-year-old Dean is surprisingly in tune with the industry’s current agenda. He points to his design’s green credentials – each shell is insulated with pumice stone and has underfloor heating and natural ventilation. Energy consumption is low. Dean inadvertently begins to sound like a disciple of another industry critic, Sir John Egan. He proudly explains that he has designed a menu of windows, interior furniture and doors for clients to choose from. These are pre-fitted in each unit (all the windows in a house would be the same) and the ready-made units are assembled on site before being sprayed with concrete and earthed over for extra insulation. He claims that using this method a four-bedroom house could be built in a week. Groundbreaking though he feels the concept is, Dean has no plans to take on Wimpey or Barratt, although he is intrigued by the idea of building a whole village using his design. And architects should not feel threatened, either. As Dean points out: “It’s one house. Even if it’s hugely successful, less than 1% of all new homes will be built like this.”

Pure design, added value

At 29, Thomas Heatherwick has grand ambitions. The Royal College of Art graduate would like to lead a design team: “Usually, it’s find an architect and then an artist,” he says. “I would like to form the team and interview architectural practices.” Heatherwick first came to prominence after coming up with the idea of a ribbon of birch-clad polystyrene that looped in and out of the Harvey Nichols store in London. Since then, he has designed the National Identity Zone in the Millennium Dome, a blue-glass pavement in Newcastle upon Tyne and is working with Damond Lock Grabowski on an £80m retail and leisure scheme in Leeds. Heatherwick prefers working on building projects because more people will see his work than if it were in an art gallery. But he has no regrets about studying 3D design instead of architecture. “I deliberately didn’t do an architecture degree because it seemed overly conceptual,” he says. “Studying 3D design teaches you to think on many different scales.” He is particularly excited about the Leeds project. Heatherwick was chosen over five architects after the project got outline planning permission, and the client, Halifax and St James Securities, wants him to work with the architect on developing detailed proposals. “They seem surprisingly open towards me, unless I’ve got the wrong impression,” says Heatherwick. Project architect Andrew Gardner confirms this. “This was something we had been suggesting to the client because large areas of the development are public spaces. Someone like Tom has more time to think on an aesthetic level about things we might not be able to give a great deal of time to.” Gardner thinks it is perfectly fair that artists should encroach on architects’ territory because there is a certain amount of crossover between all elements of design. “In the same way, we wouldn’t like our input to be limited on internal elements – there’s bound to be an overlap,” says Gardner. As for Heatherwick, he hopes to add enough to the Leeds project to make it “nothing like Bluewater” and prove to the client that his contribution adds value. And he definitely wants to do more building projects. “I feel there’s a gap in the market,” he says. Given Heatherwick’s track record, he is just the man to exploit it – especially if it is a peculiar shape.

Architect and artist united

“The trouble with architects is that they might design a beautiful wall that’s completely useless in an art gallery,” says sculptor Susanna Heron, daughter of painter Patrick Heron. She should know – her work has been exhibited since her teens and was first shown at the Arnolfini in Bristol in 1966. It seemed appropriate, then, that she should work on the refurbishment of the Arnolfini with Snell Associates. Robin Snell had never worked with an artist before and was worried that he might have to spend time explaining terminology. However, Heron says they found a common language, although she adds: “I don’t think I could work with just any architect.” Heron’s contribution has not been limited to pointing out things artists hate about architects’ gallery designs, such as recesses that create shadows. She came up with an idea that became the theme behind the design of the quayside restaurant. Heron noted that the Arnolfini name comes from a Jan van Eyck painting, the Arnolfini Wedding, which uses reflection as a central theme. Reflection and mirrors were duly included in the concept design by Snell and his team. Although she finds teamwork a pleasant change from the lonely life of a sculptor, Heron admits that she finds the concept of having to fit in with somebody else’s schedule hard to cope with. Presenting ideas to the client has also been problematic. “Working as an artist, you choose when people see your work. You don’t let them in at a point when it’s still cooking,” she says. “The difficulty [on the Arnolfini project] is that you need to present ideas before they are finished, yet you still have to keep your options open.” On another project – a 30 m long design in stone for the floor of Wessex Water’s new headquarters – Heron says she is being pressed into making decisions because tenders are already arriving. “I find it terribly hard to be decisive,” she says. For his part, Snell says Heron does not need any more pushing than anyone else. “Although she is an artist, I don’t see a difference between her and any other designer,” he says.