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BPN Architects: ‘Birmingham has so much regeneration potential’

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In the latest of our Q&As with Birmingham-based architects, Fran Williams speaks to BPN to find out what it’s like working as an architect in the UK’s second-largest city

Richard Newman, Larry Priest and Dean Shaw, directors, BPN Architects 

Who are you?
We are 20 people at present – 18 architectural staff and two admin support. 

How did your practice come about?
We had a chance opportunity to set up an office very quickly back in 1998 to do a design and build community arts centre project in Aston. Loft fitouts soon followed from a previous employer, who had switched from architecture to development. In the early years, we worked with Ralph Erskine on a competition for the Midlands Arts Centre and with David Morley on the Edgbaston Cricket Centre. 

What kind of projects do you do?
We try not to specialise in any sector or size of project but sometimes sway towards certain types, led by the economic climate. Mixed-use urban regeneration projects have been a constant throughout the years, as have community arts projects, reanimation of industrial buildings, one-off houses and higher education projects. 

Lamp works barr street

Lamp works barr street

Lamp works, Barr Street, by BPN

Why are you based in Birmingham?
We lived and trained here and, having worked in local practices initially, there was no question of being anywhere else. We’ve got to know the people and context very well. And there’s so much to sort out in this city. 

What projects in the city are you currently working on?
We are working alongside Studio Egret West and Glenn Howells Architects for Oval Real Estate on its exciting masterplan for Digbeth Estate, which will see one of Birmingham’s oldest and most vibrant areas transformed over the next 10 years. We also have a few developments in the Jewellery Quarter with Blackswan, which specialises in the reuse of historic buildings. We are also doing a lot of conservation work across the city. 

Developers play a big role in what is built here and perhaps design quality gets compromised 

What are the advantages of being based in Birmingham?
There is so much regeneration potential here. Birmingham was a major industrial city throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and, although some industry remains, there are huge areas that need reinvention to address the current needs for different types of workspace, education and housing. The only disadvantage in our eyes is that we’re two hours from the sea. 

What effect has the Big City Plan had on Birmingham?
It doesn’t appear to speak to the ordinary, everyday developers, owners and designers who are engaged in the majority of the smaller-scale buildings and spaces that affect every street in the city.  

Golden square jq

Golden square jq

Golden Square, Jewellery Quarter, by BPN

How would you describe the quality of what has been built in the city over the past decade?
Sadly, there are very few really good recent buildings here. For some reason, the planning process doesn’t seem to deliver good work and the blame is shared by architects, developers and planners alike. Developers play a big role in what is built here and perhaps design quality gets compromised for profit. Another factor could be that the residential market has been so strong that design quality for new apartments has not mattered so much. We want better design quality and if this is brought about by the best architects from elsewhere, then great – it might raise the bar for design across the whole city. 

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