As Calderpeel’s managing director takes up his position as regional chair of RIBA, Place North West met with Ewen Miller to discuss his vision for representing RIBA’s 2,500 North West members, and the direction of Calderpeel’s growing business.
“To maximise opportunities, you need to specialise,” says Miller, and for Calderpeel, that specialism is residential.
Calderpeel is reaching its 25th birthday, and has operated out of Altrincham since it was founded. The practice is particularly known for its design of superhomes for footballers and celebrities across Cheshire, and the wider country, spearheaded by chairman Harry Calder.
However, after a quarter of a decade with Altrincham as its sole regional office, Calderpeel has taken the decision to lease space within This Space, the property-centric co-working office in Manchester city centre. A director will be based in Manchester full time, with Miller operating across both offices. There are 33 staff in Altrincham, and two in Surrey.
The move represents a fresh phase for the Calderpeel business, said Miller: “Over the last couple of decades we’ve diversified, where once housebuilder Countryside represented 70% of our workload, we branched out into the blue light [police and fire service] sectors, and of course our superhomes. The superhomes are an exciting market, but now we want to focus more on projects which we see as reinventing suburbia; becoming more specialist in the residential market, not doing glass towers but looking at high-end schemes for family living.”
Calderpeel has various suburban schemes on site across the North West, including 92 homes for PJ Livesey being built at the Siemens site in Didsbury, and 24 houses for Altin Homes in Sale.
According to Miller, Calderpeel wants to target owner-occupiers, who are keen to remain in or near a city. “We’ve learnt a lot from the superhome market. It doesn’t matter how much you earn, or the value of your house, the priorities can be similar. We work the spaces hard, and get as much use as we can in all the rooms.”
Miller’s criteria for the ideal Calderpeel project is “challenging, entertaining and interesting”, which unfortunately can leave local authority projects by the wayside, due to the “race to the bottom” approach to fees.
“Local authorities are being poorly advised,” Miller asserted. “They don’t have to pick the lowest price in the bidding process, quality needs to be the priority. That’s the reason we’ve put on the brakes, we won’t play the game where we race down for fees.”
As he takes up his position with RIBA, one of Miller’s goals is to tackle the undervaluing of the architecture industry, for which he believes architects themselves are partly to blame.
“Architecture is a community which apologises for earning money for what it does. The goal has become to be praised for design, rather than generating value for a client.
“Especially now, when it’s such a long course and student fees are so high, joining the profession is off-putting for young people as the return on their investment is so difficult.
“If it had been this way when I was younger, it would have dissuaded a lot of astonishing architects I now know, which would have been a huge shame.
“As chair of RIBA in the North West, of course this is a concern. It’s an incredible profession to be in, but we need to generate income, and turn away from this approach where ‘bread and butter’ projects are used to fund the ‘fun’. Why can’t the fun pay enough for itself?”
Like many senior architects, Miller was also disparaging about the concept of design and delivery practices. “You can’t know how to design buildings, unless you actually get to build them. You need that moment when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, when you walk into a building you designed.
“The issue is partly the planning system, which allows developers to use one architect to get planning permission, then swapping to a delivery architect to oversee construction. It needs to force more detail, and ensure the quality that’s been promised is delivered.”
“It’s also a symptom of the procurement process, where everything is pulled apart and analysed on value.”
He continued: “A lot can be lost in translation between design and delivery. As an architect you need to know the developer’s expectation, and the value they want from the site. It’s lazy to design a building without constraints, a budget has to be part of the briefing process.”
Miller is at the helm of RIBA North West for the next two years. In that time, his aim is to ensure the region “engages policymakers and planners”, using the newly-opened RIBA North venue at Mann Island, in Liverpool as a talking shop.
Most importantly, he wants to ensure the institute “is more relevant to its members”, admittedly “something I’m sure has been said by every chair or president since RIBA’s inception,” but which he is sincerely committed to. With 24 months to work with, and an infectious energy, Miller might actually make it happen.