This week Glenn Howells celebrates 20 years of his eponymous architecture practice. Alun Thorne spoke to him about the secrets of his success.
In many ways, Glenn Howells is Birmingham. A quick glance at some of the most important developments in the city and one will find his fingerprints all over them.
It was the Custard Factory that first gave Howells his big break but since then he has been involved in projects such as the Rotunda and Brindleyplace, and his influence on the city is set to grow even further having been tasked with master-planning two of the city’s most crucial development opportunities.
It has been quite a journey for the towering architect who was enjoying entering competitions from the corner of a friend’s office when he had his first encounter with Custard Factory entrepreneur Bennie Gray.
“It was an unusual commission as it involved not only designing it but finding and hiring the local subcontractors to build it,” he said.
“When Bennie interviewed me he explained he didn’t want a conventional architect but someone who was ‘hands on and could drive the van’. I didn’t realise then quite how true this job description would prove to be.”
While working on the Custard Factory, Howells took on his first employee – a student from St Lucia, Sean Compton, who was ‘brilliant on computers and travelled by skateboard’.
Apart from the Custard Factory project, his fledgling company had been runner-up a number of times in competitions but in 1995 he won a £2million project for a new arts centre in Hereford – a moment he still remembers to this day.
He said: “Putting the phone down, I took myself for a stiff drink, then set about creating something that resembled a proper office for the interview.
“Thanks to the young, newly appointed director of the arts centre Jonathan Stone, we won the job which gave us a project where we could build some of the ideas we had been developing and provided two years’ solid income on which to start building the practice.”
In the years that followed, the practice went from strength to strength with a team of ten in place by the turn of the century.
It was then that he received a phone call from a man who he had met six years earlier and who has played a key role in the firm’s success to date and is likely to have a huge role to play in the years to come.
“Gary Taylor was a young structural engineer, who’d impressed me in 1994 by designing the Custard Factory steelwork with a ream of freehand sketches over a cup of tea, and was now a director of Argent.
“Six years later, he called me, this time to offer me a job, having somehow persuaded the Argent board to let us have a go at the last building at Brindleyplace as well as other projects along the way.”
That building became Eleven Brindleyplace – a project that just this week was voted the ‘Best of the Best’ at the National British Council of Offices awards.
The relationship between Howells and Taylor’s Argent is one that has blossomed over the years and he is now working alongside the developer on its Paradise Circus project, that will transform the area currently occupied by the Central Library, which is set to be demolished once the new Library for Birmingham opens its doors.
It is a relationship that is indicative of how Howells likes to do business.
He said: “Many of the people we have worked for have gone on to be long-term relationships.
It is not unusual that we will start a project and then have a conversation about a contract. I would say that these relationships will play a huge part in what happens over the next 20 years and I couldn’t anticipate who else we might work with.
"The long-term business plan is just about creating a team of people so skilled that they can create fantastic projects so that we are irresistible and become the natural choice.”
Another major project currently being undertaken by Howells and his team is the master-planning of Eastside, an area of the city long considered crucial to the long-term renaissance of the city but one that has suffered a number of false dawns.
For Howells, a change of mindset is key to unlocking the area’s potential.
He said: “The first thing we need to do is stop thinking about Eastside as a single place. From Eastside Locks to the station is a kilometre, which is the same as from Snow Hill Station to the ICC and between them there are five or six distinct areas like Colmore Row, Chamberlain Square and Victoria Square.
“We’re thinking of Eastside as a number of elements of high value rather than the simple proposition of one open space.
“We are hoping to bring it forward in discreet parts rather than in one go. If you look at Brindleyplace, this was how it has developed – it is this more gradual approach that makes it more achievable.”
As well as the major Birmingham projects, Howells’ company is also active on a number of other key projects including a major development project in West Bromwich with Stoford, Aston Webb at the University of Birmingham, Newman College and a service station on the M5 in Gloucestershire.
The company also working on Grand Design’s Kevin McCloud’s first development project – 50 hemp houses in Swindon, the first sod of which was recently turned by housing minister Grant Schapps.
In short, the company has developed an enviable reputation over two decades.
But, while it is his name above the door, it is not all about Glenn Howells.
He said: “We have a finance meeting once a month and there are four directors who run the business – there is no master doodler.
“We like to ensure there is a young person on the team and then we explore ideas and see which are the best, often it is a combination of many. The big advantage of having a young person on the project is that they can add to it later, which is difficult if the design is not their own.
“What is even more satisfying than seeing buildings go up is seeing people feed on each other’s ideas and eventually learning from them.
“Looking back over the last 20 years, I realise how fortunate we have been.
“I have never thought of architecture as a job, but as something which is both hugely challenging and enjoyable, and that is only possible to achieve when working with others.
“While it is difficult to remember the sequence of events, I can vividly recall each project and the people who I have been privileged to work alongside in making them.”