Askew Architects -the story so far 2010

Chris Askew

This item first appeared in a flyer for the open studio event in summer 2010.

It has been an amazing rollercoaster ride since departing from my role as Practice Manager at FCB Studios just over two years back, and setting up office in a studio just off Park Street with a couple of ex-colleagues.

Almost as soon as deciding to go it alone the financial world fell off the edge of a cliff with alarming consequences for the construction industry.

 Three Chimneys

Three Chimneys

Three Chimneys

The first commission came from the delightful Steve B and Sarah W for their annex in a beautiful countryside setting near Bath. What should have been a straightforward project was set back by high tender prices and a redesign to get back on budget. Happily the job did get back on track with the aid of the ever enthusiastic Rory Hart of Bath City Renovations and has now been completed, forming a striking cedar clad addition to the landscape.

There was a variety of consultancy work for a number of Architect’s practices, ranging from strategic advice for a German Practice trying to break into the UK to assisting my old practice on legal and contractual issues. Other interesting roles included assisting other practices on succession planning, and project advice on a BREEAM excellent office headquarters office building. I also offered to do sometalks for the local region of the RIBA, and have subsequently delivered these talks from South Wales to Cambridgeshire.

We did bids with some local contractors for an 1960s office refurbishment, technical advisory role for a major housing scheme in Bristol and detail design for a testing facility for Airbus, but sadly our teams were unsuccessful progressing these.

A small commission came from neighbours Richard and Katherine for an extension to their house in Bristol. The construction process was not helped by discovery of a number of structural issues with the existing building, but the completed project makes a big difference to how they enjoy their house and garden.

Meanwhile, following the election of Ruth Reed as President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, I was asked to assist with running the Part III course in Birmingham City University. More of this below.

A conversation during a weekend walk along a coastal path in Cornwall turned into something larger when fellow architect Nick Childs proposed a new venture utilising our expertise to approach projects in a different way. Lots of evening conversations over a bottle of wine on urban design and sustainability led to the formation of Urban Design Studios with Nick Childs, Bill Ambridge and myself. We set out our vision as combining “Advocacy • Consultancy • Development”, and started looking at generating opportunities.

In winter of 2008 one of my consultancy roles became more significant when I was asked by a London Practice to take a leading role on a £24m school project in the Midlands that was approaching tender stage under a design and build contract. Whilst the project had received very good reviews from CABE, the small practice was nervous about working for a Contractor for the first time and faced a difficult task of value engineering large amounts due to the drop in value of land to be sold off and the Local Authority’s previous investment in Icelandic Banks! A substantial involvement in this saw me spending much time travelling by train between Bristol, London and Birmingham through 2009.

At the same time, our new venture, under the name of UDS Properties One Ltd, had found an interesting project at 14 Backfields Lane and our offer to buy was accepted by the owners. Notwithstanding an extended period securing the funding, we got the project on site with the excellent Terry Harris as builder. Other commitments meant that Terry had to depart for another project, and we projected managed the later stages aided by Nick Chichester and a range of seriously good trades people, to whom we owe a big thank you!

Becoming increasingly enthusiastic about our small project, we decided to hang on to it and pooled our pensions to set up a pension fund to buy half of the building, with Bill’s practice, 4D Landscape, and Askew Architects taking the top floor studios.

Since then we have been joined by designers Playnicely and Thoughtden -a great bunch of really talented people. It is a lovely place to work and we really enjoy the happy atmosphere of the studios.

Last year the occasional commitment at Birmingham City University became more regular when I was appointed as acting part time Course Director at the University for the duration of Ruth’s term of office, although seeing the effect of government education cutbacks first hand has been a sobering experience. Still the course is running well, aided by some very good speakers, and I am pleased to say that my first tranche of students achieved a very good success rate with fifteen passes out of sixteen and two commendations.

This year things continue with projects including extensions and alterations to several houses in Bristol and a substantial house extension and renovation near Frome, which is to have strong eco credentials.

Other work has included a technical review of a major higher education scheme in Exeter for a contractor bidding for the project. This BREEAM excellent building is to be built on a steeply sloping site under a gridshell roof -there were significant issues to be resolved in constructing the building, although sadly our contractor client was unsuccessful in their bid.

2009 was undoubtedly the busiest year of my life, combining all this with all the paraphenalia of managing a small business, and I am pleased to have been joined by Ane Mateos and Sophie Jarzebowski.

We are keen to retain a varied workload, and to use collaborations with the many excellent architects with whom I have an ongoing relationship to deliver this. I am similarly determined that sustainability and technical rigour underpins the work of the practice.