Life Skills Centre, Northop College on site

Construction is well underway on the new Life Skills Centre at Northop College.  Located at the heart of the College campus, the new facility has been designed to provide specialist teaching space and facilities for student’s who are enrolled on the College’s Independent Living Skills courses.

Steel Frame - July 2012 Steel Frame in place – July 2012

An existing teaching block is being given a facelift with the addition of a new wrap-around extension, presenting a strong visual presence to the pedestrian and vehicular routes on the college campus.  Three surrounding buildings which had provided sub-standard teaching space and offices were demolished  to make way for the new extension.

 External Walls and Roof Complete – August 2012

When complete, the building will provide general teaching spaces, specialist art, IT and catering classrooms, a common room, welfare facilities and staff offices.

 Window Installation – September 2012

A simple palette of materials is being used to complement the surrounding buildings, including larch boarding and render, with an orange fin wall used to visually separate the old building from the new extension whilst giving the new Centre a distinct individual identity.  The Main Contractor is Read Construction and the project is due for completion in October 2012.


Architectural Detours

When my daughter found out her friend’s dad was also an architect, she asked, “On family holidays did your dad take detours to visit random buildings?”  The answer was of course, “Yes!”  Naturally, I still do this and I would like to share with you a couple of detours from my latest trip to Scotland.

Culloden battlefield

Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre, Inverness by Gareth Hoskins Architects

The first, a short detour off the A9 near Inverness, is the Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre, by Gareth Hoskins Architects, which opened in December 2007.  I have wanted to visit since Gareth Hoskins gave a talk to the North Wales Society of Architects, shortly before it was built.  I had been struck by the architect’s response to the landscape of Culloden battlefield and wanted to see how this worked in reality.

Raking timber wall at Culloden

The battlefield today has been restored by the National Trust for Scotland to resemble as closely as possible, how it would have looked on 16 April 1746, the day of the battle of Culloden.  The open moorland is crossed by low stone dykes that played their part in the tactics of the battle.  The long raking timber wall extending from the Visitor Centre along the edge of the moor is a response to these stone dykes, as well as a representation of a battle line.  Set on an embankment, this also provides a ramp leading to a rooftop viewing platform overlooking the battlefield.

Culloden Visitor Centre: exhibition building

The building nestles low in the landscape and its silvered timber cladding tones well with the granite of the stones dykes and clan memorials.  Inside, the exhibition follows a timeline leading up to the battle, with voices reading contemporary accounts from both sides of the conflict and displays of weaponry that emphasises the horror of close-quarter fighting.  The most effective part of the exhibition for me was the “battle immersion film”, a 4 minute long 360 degree film that had you standing in the middle of the field with musket and cannon fire whizzing past your ears and decimating the clansmen in front of you.

Projecting stones in wall at Culloden Visitor Centre

A more subtle message is left in the stone spine wall running along one flank of the building.  Projecting stones each represent one of the men who died on that day in 1746.  A small group at the end nearest the entrance, represent the 50 government troops killed.  After a short smooth section of wall, the rest is covered in projecting stones extending to the far end, representing the 1500 Jacobites killed on that day, of which around 1200 fell in just one hour.  It was a very one sided battle indeed.

Pier Arts Centre, Stromness by Reiach & Hall

Pier Arts, Stromness from the ferryThe second building sits on the quayside in Stromness and your first view is from the ferry, as you arrive in Orkney.  Designed by Reiach and Hall Architects, the Pier Arts Centre opened in July 2007 and provides a home for an important collection of British fine art donated to ‘be held in trust for Orkney’ by the author, peace activist and philanthropist Margaret Gardiner (1904–2005).  This collection includes works by Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo and often displayed alongside these works are fascinating, and sometimes amusing, personal accounts by Margaret Gardiner of how these works came into her collection.

The exhibition is housed in two buildings linked across a narrow gap; one old and one new, which provides an interesting interplay of spaces that are subtly different in character.  The entrance from the main street is an unassuming, if evidently modern shop front.  Once inside you are drawn through the ground floor to a fully glazed wall overlooking the busy quayside.

Pier Arts Centre gallery interiorTurning back into the building, we found the stairs to the upper floor of the old part of the building.  Small windows punched through the thick stone walls frame views of the adjacent buildings, the quayside, sea and sky that complement the works of art hanging alongside.

Crossing the narrow gap between the old and new buildings you enter a sky lit passage with gallery spaces to the side and a glazed end overlooking the harbour and the wide expanse of Scapa Flow beyond.  The Pier Arts Centre is as much about the art works it contains, as its unique and beautiful surroundings.

Mark French

Ainsley Gommon Staff visit Leeds City Centre

On the 18th May staff from the Birkenhead and Hawarden offices enjoyed a day in Leeds touring the city centre on the search for architectural highlights old and new, along with a few good places to eat and drink!  The annual event promotes design awareness and is an important date in the office calender.  Below is a selection of our photographs from the day.

Published Photographs

Ainsley Gommon Architects have quite a few members of staff who are budding amateur photographers, filling their spare time undertaking courses, entering competitions and generally getting out and about with their cameras.  One issue of the Chester Chronicle ‘Reader’s Photos’ page in May featured photographs by two Ainsley Gommon members of staff side by side!  See below for a copy of the newspaper with the photographs by Alf Plant (Campion Flowers 2) and Sarah Davies (Pretty in Pink).

Liverpool Habitat for Humanity appears in the local press

Our project with Habitat for Humanity in Liverpool has appeared in the local press after a new Partnership with Cosmopolitan Housing Association has secured the construction of the remaining 23 new homes in Toxteth.  Nine of the low cost homes have already been completed and were built almost entirely by volunteers.  The article follows new resident Hlonipani Ben Mpotu’s story after he invested 500 hours of volunteer labour in lieu of a £10,000 deposit on his new family home.

Click on the image above to read the article or to see more information about the project go to our webpage: Habitat for Humanity

Ainsley Gommon Architects; how it all began

As it has been a while since we started the account of the first 30 years of Ainsley Gommon, we have re-posted the earlier episodes here, so our readers can follow the whole story from the beginning.  Here’s where it all began……..

The Partnership, originally created in 1979 brought together three Liverpool Graduates who wished to practice together, pooling resources, and working with client groups that they found interesting. They were acquaintances more than friends, and in fact David Ainsley and Peter Gommon had rarely crossed each others paths before joining the partnership. We would be characterised as:-

David Innes Wilkin

‘The entrepreneur’David Innes Wilkin

He started it all, and had always had that particular confidence that you need to go it alone, and back your own ideas. From a schoolboy and undergraduate he had always had an eye for a “good wheeze”. He had worked for private practice, Runcorn Development Corporation and in Partnership with a graphics consultancy.

Attitude: If you saw £50 lying on a coffee table, you’d bend down and pick it up.

Experience: Principally housing and interiors.

He knew what accounts looked like.

David Ainsley

‘The Professional’David Ainsley

Second to join, and an early escapee from Local Authority life, where he had worked for the City of Liverpool and Wirral, ending up as a principal architect with a team working for him; an experience neither of the other partners had. He knew how local authority committees worked.

Attitude: Let’s do this properly, and get the details to work.

Experience: Principally Social Services with some education work as well.

He didn’t know what accounts looked like.

Peter Gommon

‘The Housing Specialist‘ – Peter Gommon

Third to join, escaping from a housing association in-house design team, he had previously worked in a private practice that specialised in cost yardstick housing, but always found working for other people – committees etc. frustrating.

Attitude: Smash the cistern, you’ve got nothing to lose but your chain.

Experience: Cumbrian rural housing, sheltered housing and new urban estates

He didn’t know what accounts looked like.

David Wilkin drove an elderly Citroen Dyane and smoked.

David Ainsley drove a more recent Renault Six and smoked.

Peter Gommon drove an elderly Triumph Herald convertible and smoked sometimes.

The partnership, Inness Wilkin Ainsley Gommon, started in a single room on the second floor of 1 Price Street, and there were the three of us with assistant Andy Mair, a Liverpool graduate and Lowestoft lad, like David Wilkin, and Diane MacDonald a part time secretary.  Initially, before expanding, the practice turnover was approximately £45,000 p.a, and was to expand to £75,000 p.a when we joined together.

The practice motto, culled from a seminal work on management by Robert Townshend and originally coined for AVIS, was “we try harder“, and we had to run hard to stand still.  With small resources and limited space it was not forseen that we would ever grow to a size greater than ten people; usually there were between five and eight of us.

Everyone had to act as a jack-of-all-trades since there was no back-up to help out.  Everyone worked long hours, evenings and weekends too and there were plenty of hairy moments. The stress was eased by what became our Friday afternoon ritual period of relaxation spent in The Letters (the old Letters PH).

The atmosphere we created was positive, a touch of that 60’s optimism. We liked working together in a studio (big room) and felt that this was a positive way of getting other people who joined to feel part of the show.  No one had any specific management training and everything was learned on the job.  Our heavy involvement with the Liverpool Housing Co-operatives was an excellent character forming experience, and taught all of us a lot about our strengths and weaknesses, but also how to react to people’s needs and particularly how to organise collecting information and presenting ideas.  The heavy involvement in co-ops spanned the period 1979 – 1986, and during that time we spent a lot of time working on competitions too.

David Wilkin had taken a Masters degree at the School of Civic Design, and was very aware of current thinking in Participation and Consultation coming out of the American Schools on the West Coast.  When we were chosen by our first Coop, Hesketh Street, and started working with them, David had an absolutely clear idea of how to manage the process and to engage with our clients on a one to one basis.  Everybody else was simply picking it up as they went along.

Housing Co-op meeting

The Coops were the perfect client group for us; they matched the nature and style of the Practice.  David Wilkin had invited David and Peter to join him on a self supporting basis, bringing work and contacts with them.  Their entry was eased by a form of sweat equity in which they grew their stake in the partnership over time.  Working for Co-ops allowed David Wilkin to use his knowledge and experience of participation.  They were left field, as we were, and appealed to our practical approach to design, where we used the term cheap and cheerful not as a perjorative term, but to describe what we sought to achieve.  By definition the houses were supposed to be cheap to build, by ingenuity we could achieve this and design them to be cheerful, and life enhancing.  There was a superabundance of cheap and nasty out there, which the Coop members were trying to avoid by creating their own living environments.

The learning and sharing to gain of working directly with our Coop clients for relatively recent graduates was very much a home-from-home, a form of open university in which we all learned from each other and the contractors as they too came on board and shared in the process. While we were doing this, the office’s finances were underpinned by a steady flow of Rehabs, mostly Two-up-Two-downs in Birkenhead and in South Liverpool.  This steady flow of short contracts provided a sound education in contract law, managing costs, providing clear information using word processed schedules of works and negotiating with builders. To be continued….

The Ainsley Gommon story : Episode 2

This is a re-posting of part 2 of the first decade of the Ainsley Gommon story.

Innes Wilkin Ainsley Gommon

We wanted to be known as an approachable and friendly practice that could work within limited budgets to produce our cheap but cheerful schemes. All of us as individuals were keen to be associated with high design standards, but we were rarely able to allocate enough time at the detailed design stage to fully resolve the details of our designs, though through Andy Mair we had great expertise in hot water and heating systems.

The change in the political structure of Liverpool in 1983 almost brought the practice to a premature end by stopping almost all of the work on co-ops, and restricting the flow of housing association work to a trickle.  In response we decided to diversify our workload and geographical base to improve stability; After Peter Gommon completed the Birmingham Landscape course and professional practice in 1982, we started to develop a Landscape Design workload. David Wilkin set up the Bristol Branch in 1984, moving there in the same year.

One of the reasons for examining the early history of how the practice started was to try and establish how and why decisions were made, so that we could define how the practice could develop and change without losing its spirit or character.

Originally we couldn’t imagine being in a position to employ highly qualified people because of the expense, and the volatile nature of our workload. We relied on competent year-out students and on being able to find an extra pair of hands for short periods in times of stress.    This is understandable when you appreciate that we could rarely see more than eight weeks ahead on the cash flow. Partners played a significant part in producing production drawings on early schemes, and spent a lot of time on exciting two up two down rehabs and on site visits.

Alf Plant

Alf Plant

Gradually however, through a growing network of people who had worked in their year-outs or holidays, there came to be a pool of people who came back into the practice to become part of the family.Someone who would later play a significant part in the development of the practice entered stage left at this time.  Alf Plant joined in 1982 as a year-out student bringing his special skills in precision model making and draughtsmanship, and later returned to become a core member of the family and later a director.

On the admin side we had enjoyed a prolonged period of stability, both Dorothy Lewis (1980) and Lee Robinson (1982) being part of the original team. In 1985-86 there was a shift of philosophy to a view that since people did return to the practice, and increased their skills and experience through working out of 1 Price Street, we could and should become a people based firm rather than a hire-and-fire firm.  Perhaps surviving the great crash of 1983 had given us a new perspective.

Forward planning and strategy was done on an ad-hoc basis, although formally worked up through monthly partners meetings which were usually held in one of our houses. The meetings which were formal and structured were highly productive and usually lasted for three hours, towards the end dissolving into rather relaxed and emotional affairs as a result of the main-brace being spliced. The anti-intellectual tradition held sway during this period in that in spite of many efforts to put office philosophy and aims and objectives on the agenda these concepts were usually discussed post the euphoric stage and as a result didn’t get minuted. However the principle that developed through these meetings was that we would try to retain people who wanted to grow with the firm.

David Wood

David Wood had joined us in his holidays and returned to Birkenhead after graduating from the Edinburgh school. When he said he wanted to move away from the region and make it in the Big Smoke we discussed the funding of a new office, to be worked up in principle in the same way as Bristol.

David could be characterised as “The Go Getter”, he had toured the States in his year out, and drunk deep from the cup of post modernism. He wanted to work with more commercial clients than our established housing clients, and to experience the cut and thrust of real competition.

Attitude; “Let’s go” and “phew”-usually expressed after a hairy moment.

Experience:- Rehabs for Family Housing, private houses for eccentric individuals and setting out drawings for asymmetrical free-form layouts (Shorefields).

The idea of a London base appealed to the original partners, not because of any sense of self importance, but simply because so much work originated in the capital, and there were natural linkages between London and Bristol.  At the time Bristol was working for a client in London-Camden Graphics.

The cost of paying for these expansions had been borne by the Birkenhead Office which fortunately had experienced a period with a stable workload. Through much burning the midnight oil and some very productive workers, the office had remained profitable. The reason for this was two very important projects, the Enveloping of Goodwin Avenue and Mason Avenues for Wirral Borough Council which were our first truly large commissions with a finite input for a finite reward. By comparison with the open ended co-operative schemes these were ‘proper” jobs. They also meant that everyone in the office participated at some stage in putting together elements of the schemes. They had a unifying effect on working practice after many years of each of us flying our own kites (and also at times flying by the seat of our trousers).

In 1985 Simon Venables joined us in Birkenhead.  Simon would later be responsible for growing the practice into the far reaches of Wales and brought with him different skills from a health and specialist needs background.  Like the originating Partners, Simon was ‘people focussed’ and believed in the same ethic that as designers we are accountable to our clients and end users and should always ‘go that extra mile’.

Simon Venables

Simon Venables

Attitude:           “Keep smiling and be positive …a little hard work never hurt anyone”

Experience:   Hospitals and health care facilities for people with dementia, sheltered housing.

With two fledgling offices to feed Birkenhead needed to be profitable and it needed to know that its offspring would quickly become self supporting.  The Bristol office in spite of generating a perfectly respectable turnover and carrying out the practice’s biggest ever project-the Airbus wing factory in Bristol- failed to generate a profit during the first three years.  It was during this period that significant differences in approach and philosophy emerged, which lead to the split of with David Wilkin 1988 and the formation of Ainsley Gommon Wood.  During the period of 1986 – 1988 the increased size and complexity of the practice had seen the creation of Associates Garry Usherwood and Simon Venables.

With Garry came the introduction of computers for draughting while Simon helped lead the push into new areas involving health care and special needs.  Peter and David developed our urban design and master-planning capabilities while Alf promoted our conservation and restoration skills. They were heady times with our experience and knowledge base growing rapidly.

The opening of the North Wales Office in 1988 was a further initiative intended to allow us to work in Wales, building off existing contacts and work in the North West.  It has often been suggested that Peter and David were looking for somewhere to keep their tiny flock of Lleyn sheep that led to this move, while David had bought a small farmhouse in Llanrhaeadr.

Official opening of our first North Wales office at Newtech Square 1989

However, it was here in Wales that our existing housing association and local authority client base could be further developed.  Simon set up the office, initially on Deeside Industrial Park in a Welsh Development Agency starter unit, assisted by Mark French, Mike Jones and landscape architect Vicky McCombie.

Mark French

Mark French

Mark would later take a major role in developing the Wales offices and brought with him his health care experience, professional skills and prudence.  Some of the early jobs in Wales were quite bizarre.  The feasibility design for an Hydrographic Centre in Iraq, being one of a number of curious projects for which we never got paid.  Having escaped a meeting with the Iraqi Navy as the political tide changed, we thankfully won the Eisteddfod Architecture prize in 1988 for a boat museum in Newport that featured in the Architects Journal.  The £750 prize money helped us pay off our overdraft bank charges and gave us a welcome boost.

Although we were bracing ourselves for the recession that followed in the early nineties, the Wales office was successfully launched and we were coping quite well.  Despite the growing bank overdraft, we tried not to think too much about the financial risks we were taking.  Nevertheless with London thriving and both Birkenhead and Wales working closely together, the late 1980’s and early 1990’s were a time to feel optimistic, as we were growing our collective experience and the services we could offer our clients.

Computers enabled David Ainsley to do cash flows which could respond easily to changed circumstances, and which could predict downturns rather than them coming as a nasty shock. Curiously, by having this extra information, our bank manager became more nosey about what was going on, rather than being reassured by greater transparency. From the very beginning we had consistently won awards for our work which had reinforced our position as a practice that took design seriously. We had become of necessity much better organised in the running of our affairs, but we still lacked a coherent framework and team structure to base long term decisions on.            The split-up and reformation of the partnership had lead to too many hours spent closeted in smoke filled rooms, in marked contrast to our ideal of sharing an open office with the whole team.

By the end of the first decade we stood on the threshold of a new and exciting period of consolidation and growth in which we endeavoured to involve everyone who was working at AGWA in the process, based on two key principles. Firstly that it is impossible in commercial life to stand still; you either expand or contract. We didn’t want to contract, so we therefore had to continue to grow. We had learned that expansion from within using home-grown talent was the surest and most rewarding way to do this and could enable our practice to maintain the identity that had formed part of the original DNA and had been retained and strengthened during our first ten years.

Team members who played a significant role in this first decade included Ben Downey, an architect’s son from Essex who trained at Liverpool School of Architecture. Ben had worked for his father, and had a firm grasp of what an architect was meant to do.  At the same time Alf Plant had returned from University after completing his degree, and was busy refurbishing large Victorian houses into flats, as well as making superlative models. Paul Lester joined the practice straight from school, and although no one knew it at the time, was on the launch pad of a career that would see him become a director of the practice.