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Home improvements

Chester is a historic city that both draws the tourist and acts as an important regional centre. Its regional role arises not just because there are few major towns around but, unusually, also because many of Chester's historic core buildings were, and remain, in retail use, notably its distinctive two-storey galleried shops.

If the image of Chester is this retailbiased core, the reality is that these historic buildings do not reach uniformly to the city walls. At many points of the compass old street patterns remain but often the quality of more recent buildings is undistinguished, or worse. Chester is not a place where a within-the-walls conservation policy of 'thou shalt not' would make much sense.

It is in this mixed context of a changing, working community that Ian Simpson Architects has converted and extended Hush House from office to residential use. At the scale of building in historic Chester there were, of course, discussions with planners and conservation officers about an appropriate architectural response. Closer to the site there were views to protect. In the immediate context of the building's main presence, which is on Nicholas Street, there could only be improvement. Hush House itself was a poor-quality cuboid block on five levels, concrete-framed with masonry infill.

Adjacent to the south is the Halifax, a mixed modern/pastiche office with an inappropriately large pitched tile roof and a forbidding, bastion-like presence on the pavement; at least its overall size is about right. On the other side, to the north, is a long, two-storey Kwik-Fit workshop. Across the broad, heavily trafficked, four-lane street there is more quality and consistency of buildings.

Howard Dickinson of Chester City Council describes Hush House as something of a one-off - a poor original building and a 'high grade proposal'. 'Schemes of this quality we don't see much of, ' he says. The proposal met with approval both from the conservation area advisory committee and the local civic society. It also had Agenda 21 (sustainability) credentials as a building reuse. Indeed, he suggests a new building on this site might well not have got permission for such bulk. While he admires Hush House's 'rhythm and severity' as echoes of the Georgian housing opposite, it is the latter's massing that would shape future development along the street. It could be modern but there are not strong preconceptions; 'good pastiche' is acceptable, as is building on a variety of scales - from the piecemeal addition to the mega-scheme of Hopkins' Northgate.With Hush House now finished, the city remains supportive; the architect is currently working on the new Chester council offices close to the centre.

The original permission for Hush House was to strip the building to the frame and reclad it on Nicholas Street, extending the frame in in situ concrete towards Weaver Street along the back (east side). Steel-framed penthouse space was to be added on the roof in the south-east, so that penthouses were not very visible either from Nicholas Street or over the two-storey Kwik-Fit building.

On Nicholas Street, which is a level lower than Weaver Street, ground floor office use has been retained (with the tenant remaining during construction). The entrance to the housing is on Weaver Street, the newly extended volume being on piloti, providing a portico, though this sheltered outdoor space is unfortunately dominated by freestanding two-level car storage lifts to provide the required one parking space per unit.

Subsequent negotiations with the city, after works had already started, have allowed the penthouse space to extend further, to the full width of the building, though still set back from Nicholas Street. As part of the negotiation, the new penthouse flank wall (seen above Kwik-Fit) is adorned with a sculpture by Charles Poulson. With the building palette of steel, glass and lead - panelised generally on the flank walls - the sculpture is also in lead, a letter-play on the spelling of Hush House. The whole building treatment involves an unusual level of evident hand-craftsmanship for Ian Simpson Architects, though this approach is at home among Chester's crafted historic buildings.

On Nicholas Street, the stripped frame is articulated, clad in stainless steel, with infill glazing on an unusually large scale for Chester.

External, whole-bay blinds controlled by the individual residents provide random animation to this facade. On Weaver Street, the flush panelised lead of the flank walls meets proprietary cladding, including east-facing projecting balconies. It is yet another aesthetic, the joints heavy, all a bit busy.

In layout, Level 1 is offices; Level 2 has three west-facing apartments behind the portico zone; Levels 3/4/5 have six apartments per floor; and on Level 6 there are three penthouses - 24 units in all, ranging from 55m 2.Interiors are simple. Window frames feel quite chunky within apartments; otherwise internal surfaces are plain and plastered.

The quality of finish is good, especially for a D&B contract. But then Macbryde Homes is both client and developer, with a focus on quality. It is a tribute to a patient commitment to the ideas of this scheme by the partnership of Simpson and Macbryde that it has reached realisation in this form.

And now they move on together, to another housing scheme nearby.

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