The latest in a series of practice profiles looking at architects who have recently decided to go it alone
Practice name Connolly Wellingham Architects (CWa)
Based Spike Island, Bristol
Founded Spring 2018
Main people Fergus Connolly and Charlie Wellingham
Where have you come from?
We met at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ (FCBS) creative reuse team and were lucky to be part of a golden age of projects there: Middleport Pottery, Chedworth Roman Villa, Shrewsbury Flax Mill and Bath Abbey, and Ally Pally. This was such a formative time for us that we committed to making reuse the focus of our new practice.
Before that we both did the SPAB’s Lethaby Scholarship: nine months touring the UK, meeting the architects, engineers, and makers who set the benchmark through their conservation work. The focus is on sensitive repair and retrofit, but philosophy of approach plays such a key part: it is absolutely about contemporary design in context – on the basis of research, respect, and reuse.
What work do you have and what kind of projects are you looking for?
We’re currently working with the Church of England, the Churches Conservation Trust, and the Diocese of Hereford to think about a model for the secured future use of rural churches. Although regularly diminutive, rural, and relatively off-grid, a church’s historic and communal significance can be huge. Churches will be one of the biggest conservation challenges of our generation.
We recently completed the first part of our masterplan for a Georgian model farm in the North Wessex Downs. The farm has an incredible Neolithic setting, peppered with landforms. We really enjoyed thinking about how the adaptation of a listed shed would engage both with the semi-urban farmyard ensemble, and the fields and landscape beyond.
If the creative reuse agenda isn’t seen as an opportunity, we have a serious problem
Going forward, we want to work with less significant buildings, in more urban contexts. Here, we can begin to mend place as well as fabric. We are passionate about architecture’s connection to community through regeneration, and are actively seeking enlightened developers.
If the creative reuse agenda isn’t seen as an opportunity to be more fully embraced by the market and government, we have a serious problem.
We enjoy competitions, but ones that genuinely prioritise design quality can be few and far between. Demonstrating in-depth knowledge of NEC’s Professional Services Contracts or professional indemnity insurance cover over £5 million can be major barriers to entry for young practices.
Recalling Gasson, Andresen and Meunier’s original winning bid for the Burrell Collection, they were young architecture tutors (who taught Peter Clegg) and won a huge international competition. Procurement has become far more robst since then. But imagine that today!
What are your ambitions?
We prioritise the reuse of existing fabric for many reasons: sustainability, authenticity, economy, and significance. Such is our strength of belief in this approach, we are thinking very seriously about how to commit to never doing a new build project.
We are thinking very seriously about how to commit to never doing a new build project
Our ambition is to grow. Having previously worked for practices large and small, we aim for a sweet spot of between eight and 15 members of staff. There are several studios around this scale who’s work really inspires us, among them 6a, Dow Jones, and Jonathan Tuckey. We keenly follow interesting practices outside of London, too: Kate Darby, Jonathan Hendry, Rural Office for Architecture.
We work out of Bath and Bristol from our studio at Spike Island Arts Centre. This is such a great place to develop our agenda: Bath as a UNESCO World Heritage City, and Bristol as a cradle of creativity, diversity, and provocation. We work across the South West, reach up to Hereford, and over into London, where Fergus is architect-surveyor at Christ Church, Spitalfields. We teach at the Universities of Bath and West of England.
What are the biggest challenges facing start-up practices and the profession generally?
The challenges of setting up and sustaining a small practice are well known and it’s certainly not for everybody. But we are proud to be part of an emerging generation of smaller practices who are supporting one another, pooling resources, and working collaboratively on larger projects. As young studios, one of our greatest resources is definitely one another. Casswell Bank Architects, Barefoot Architects and BIBO are friends of ours.
FCBS remain our ’architectural parents’. They provide us with guidance and friendship, they are a great incubator for talented young architects.
Middleport Pottery project completed while the pair were at Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. The £5.5 million revamp of the dilapidated Grade II* factory buildings (finished April 2014)
We were thrilled to see the AJ’s recent RetroFirst declaration. Our challenge has been to demonstrate to clients the benefits that come with intelligent alteration/accretion of existing stock. As a small practice we keep a watchful eye on BIM, but for our purposes, we need it to become better-integrated with existing buildings, where there may not be records of embedded M+E, structural elements, or asbestos.
Which scheme, completed in the past five years, has inspired you most?
Chipperfield and Harrap’s rolling phases of work at Museum Island, Berlin, have had a strong effect on us as a practice: a cultural regeneration project at the urban scale, meticulous research and repair, carefully judged contemporary layers. Clearly the budget was stratospheric, but it’s a project that sets the bar high and we’re lucky to have it. Closer to home, Haworth Tompkins’ work at Bristol Old Vic is a real gift to the city; it’s a space we spend a lot of time in.
How are you marketing yourselves?
Shaping our USP while just needing to take on work that covers our bills can be difficult. It’s not easy to focus on a specific sector or client when part of the joy of our work is the variety of buildings and projects we seek to add value to. Going forward, we need to better identify our markets, in order to gauge whether the centre of that Venn diagram can even sustain us. As ever, time will tell.
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