Norman Hayden traces the growth of a practice with a well-defined design vision, and a clear focus on balancing affordability with functionality and beauty.
Architects tend to project their vision slightly cryptically across their branding, so it’s somewhat unusual that south east-based Pellings prefers to focus on providing answers instead.
“We are not about selling clients our vision”, explains partner Neill Werner. “Rather, we are focused on finding the right solution for them.” Indeed, Pellings has gone so far as to encapsulate its whole design philosophy in the phrase: “Your vision. Our solution.”
The multi-award winning practice, which began life as a small surveying firm in Bromley in 1977, has grown to become a major integrated design, property and construction consultancy and established a big reputation for its work in the education sector.
As well as its Bromley headquarters, the 110 staff are based across the wider London area in Barnet and Waterloo and in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey.
Alongside Werner, who is head of architecture, are fellow LLP members Richard Claxton, chairman, Alan Davison, head of building surveying (Bromley) and David Smith, head of building surveying (Barnet).
In considering the Pellings’ approach, Werner identifies the need to gain a deep understanding of the needs of both the clients and the ultimate users of the building.
“This includes all the ‘bigger picture’ issues, of which the budget is often a major element,” he says. “Many of our clients are publicly funded and we apply our skills and creativity to design high-quality, functional buildings within extremely demanding constraints.”
The company undertakes a variety of commissions which include the design and delivery of: nursery, primary and secondary schools, higher and further education buildings, large residential developments for affordable housing providers, mixed-use town centre schemes, older-persons’ accommodation and private sector housing.
Two major projects clearly reflect the Pellings portfolio. Goat Lees Primary School near Ashford, Kent is a new build single-storey building, which was overall project winner in the Kent Design & Development Awards 2014.
The facility was of a contemporary design, with two distinct wings, which responded to the local urban fabric. It also drew on the materials and scale of the surrounding properties, while creating a focal point for the local community.
The Goat Lees design emerged from the findings of a consultation group comprising seven local headteachers. At the same time, consultation with residents reinforced the community connection.
The other key project is the St Clement’s Heights, Sydenham, south London development in collaboration with housebuilders Crest Nicholson.
It is replacing 50 sheltered housing flats on behalf of the St Clement Danes Holborn Estate Charity with 50 new build supported-living flats, 26 private apartments and 20 town houses in Sydenham Hill.
Other major projects by Pellings include Willow Dene School, Greenwich – a new build and part-refurbishment – and Bonney Court for West Kent Housing Association, a new build housing development for older people. Both were RICS-shortlisted for the ‘Design Through Innovation’ award in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
The St Mary Magdalene primary school in Woolwich was runner up at the RICS Awards 2012, and highly commended in the BCSE Awards 2012.
This building, exhibited as part of the Architectural showcase ‘Open House London’ in 2011 and 2012, has given the practice a lot of satisfaction. “Making a difference to clients and communities is also important and school design is a great way to achieve this,” says Werner.
“The new school replaced a Victorian building, no longer fit for purpose. A key aspect of the brief for the school, situated in one of the most deprived boroughs in London, was to strengthen its identity within the local community and provide long-term benefits to the area. To achieve this, we used a robust design that incorporates ‘playdecks in the sky’, providing external play space on four levels of the building.”
But, satisfaction comes at other levels, too, for Werner.
“Being part of a successful business is very satisfying and we have seen turnover and staff numbers grow consistently each year since 2009.”
“This means that we can invest in technology such as BIM and give staff opportunities. Several team members, who joined as graduates or assistant architects, have developed fairly quickly into highly-skilled project and team leaders and that’s very positive for everyone.”
What are the biggest challenges facing Pellings at present? “Clearly, one challenge is to continue delivering the fundamental needs of our communities – places to live and places to learn, and the financial and resource implications of this,” says Werner.
“Whether it is creating new homes on tight urban sites, addressing steeply sloping topography, dealing with local residents and town planning departments, or finding ways to reduce cost without removing functionality and beauty, the challenges keep coming.”
He adds: “Ultimately, like politics, architecture is the art of the possible and delivering a creative, buildable, affordable solution that is sustainable over the long term must be the goal.”
Looking ahead, Pellings believes that spending on infrastructure is a key factor if communities are to flourish in the long-term.
“I am optimistic that architects can make a positive contribution,” Werner insists. “Pellings largely operates in London and the South of England and the pressures of population growth and demographics mean that our clients are generally very open to creative thinking and innovation that unlock projects and add value.”
Thinking creatively across the spectrum of client assets is fundamental to Pellings’ approach.
“For example, for an almshouse charity client who initially wanted us to address leaking roofs, we have created a new multi-generational development, funded through private residential sales. This creates a legacy of high quality homes for 50 older residents and puts the charity on a sound financial footing going forward.
“The project took six years to reach fruition, but demonstrates what can be done with holistic thinking, tenacity and skill.”
Pellings enters 2017 in good shape and focused on finding the right answers for its clients.