Jade Tilley talks to Gavin Sorby, Buttress, about recognising the needs in architecture and design, educational fulfilment and brand identity.
Gavin Sorby is the Managing Director at Buttress.Gavin has been at Buttress since qualifying in 1988, and during that time he has seen the practice grow from just eight people to the 48-strong team it is today. He has been Managing Director since 2011 and has overseen a busy period for the practice, which saw the business join with another architectural firm, rebrand, and move into new offices in Manchester city centre.
Gavin has delivered a broad range of projects in a number of sectors with particular expertise in commercial work. In addition to his architectural qualifications, he is also an APM-qualified Project Manager.Buttress delivers quality design across multiple sectors, creating buildings and places that have purpose, sensibility and appeal. The practice’s ethos is centered on the belief that architecture is as much about people as buildings and should be shaped by their surroundings, their role and the people who will use them.
Here, Gavin reveals his first design, his initial wavering interest in architecture and the designs that impress him the most.
What is your earliest memory of architecture having an impact on you?
I’ve always liked buildings; strangely enough they have always held a fascination. My father was often altering our house, adding extensions, converting the loft etc, so I guess it has become second nature to expect change and improvement of buildings. The first thing I remember designing was a hamster cage for my sister as a Christmas present. Architecture is all about putting yourself in other people’s shoes, so I thought as a hamster, what would the hamster like? What would I need? It had everything the hamster needed, including runs, accurate distances between food areas and the bed area. I remember my other considerations were about how to maintain it. For me it’s all about recognising a need. I thought the traditional cage idea looked pretty sad, so I reinvented the hamster wheel, in a sense.
Where did you study?
I studied for my degree at Newcastle and didn’t really like it. I don’t recall doing particularly well either. I wasn’t into it and so took a year out where I explored the more hands on side of architecture. I returned to Leeds Brunswick for my Part 2 and really engaged with the course. Leeds as an institute really made me think about what was important. I think on reflection, studio life and practical experience was what I needed, and I found that I didn’t get that at Newcastle at the time.
What kind of architect did you aspire to be?
I never thought I’d be the MD of a practice, not in my wildest dreams. I don’t know what I thought I would be. There were points where I questioned the profession all together. I took a year out during the recession and there were no jobs about. I was offering to work for free and being turned down. I then got in touch with a practice in Leeds who took me on, paid, after seeing my drawing boards. I loved it from that moment. Every moment of my career has been very different. I started out at Buttress as a newly qualified architect, with the very simple aim to understand people’s needs and recognise how to make improvements. Now I look at a lot of spreadsheets. A great deal has changed in my time here. I think to answer you’re question I’d say that I’ve always been an architect who has wanted to make things better, whatever it is. I have no grand designs to leave my mark, no giant ego or need for that kind of recognition. At university, the thought of a presentation terrified me, I was quite shy in my younger years. Now, networking and talking to people is second nature. Being an architect has exceeded my own expectations.
Who are your design/architecture inspirations?
I was thinking about this question but I really have no individual idols but more individual pieces. It’s more about how that design has responded to the brief. Take for example the Dyson vacuum cleaner, a fantastic design, would I buy the hairdryer? probably not. Design and architecture has to respond to moments. James Dyson took something and reinvented it for a new era.
What does Buttress represent as a firm?
We recently rebranded so had a big period of reflection over what our vision was as a practice. We also merged with another practice so this had to be taken into consideration. When thinking about where we sit in the industry, we related it to cars and recognised that we are Jaguar Landrover, we can do the Evoque if called for, designing bespoke and ‘on trend’ pieces, but also revel in the traditionalism and classicism of the original Landrover. We work in so many sectors that it is hard to pinpoint what we represent. Our work ranges from cathedrals to commercial work, so we have to find an appeal for all. Quality of service is our ultimate goal for our clients, that is the benchmark. Quality of design should always be consistent and there is a big push to raise ourselves now. Something that came through in our external research we conducted as part of our rebrand was our contextual design. This is how we came up with the new logo, which displays the simple cut-outs of the capital B in Buttress. In recent times we’ve moved offices and rebranded and this has had a huge affect on us as a company, but ultimately we’re about people, the people who work for us and the people we serve. How do you continue to carve your own path in the industry? When I took over as MD we were a team of six running individual businesses. The drive was to bring it all together and work as one unit. The way we innovate and continue to carve our own path is through our employees and again comes back to quality of service as 80 per cent of our work is repeat clients or referrals. My personal role in all of this is to find new areas that we can break into and work for us.
Where is the majority of your work based?
It depends on the sector. Our heritage work is national. We work on museums and ecclesiastical projects, which takes us all over the UK from Carlyle to Sheffield and beyond. Our museum work is all over and we have a lot to do with English Heritage including the likes of Hadrian’s Wall. Work in masterplanning has taken us to Blackpool and Luton. Commercially, we are largely based in the North West, mainly Manchester area. Hotels also fall into our commercial group and we have completed projects in Birmingham and Ipswich. Residential is again mostly in the North West but I’d like to move out of the area and spread our base a little. I’d like to have a hub in London at some point, which hopefully is in the not too distant future.
What has been your biggest design commission to date?
We’ve had such a variety of work over our years, it’s hard to select just one as a pivotal project. We’ve worked on a PFI regeneration scheme with a value of £110 million. I have designed Elephant house in Chesterfield, which was a big challenge. I’ve also taken on an office build, where we had to put in new space whilst it was still being let. The logistics were a challenge as there was 1.5 kilometres of frontage to service. We’ve also built an aquarium in Beijing under a lake and replaced a rose window in Lincoln Cathedral. As I said, the projects reach the far ends of the spectrum in terms of challenge so they are all noteworthy. We’re also working with Easy Hotels, trying to make these tiny rooms look more spacious. All of these projects are about figuring out what is important to the client and the end user.
What does the face of architecture look like to you in 10 years time?
I guess this answer depends on whether you’re a glass half full or half empty kind of person. We have some of the best architects in the business in the UK, but unfortunately there are some bodies who respect architecture the least. It feels to me like it’s getting harder and harder to produce good work. The needs of our clients are faster and more instantaneous and architects are now treated differently. The design and build market has changed this. I guess it’s a question of whether the market will continue to devalue or will soon come full circle and emerge triumphant again. I’m seeing a move into more traditional procurement as well. Technology, as ever, is exciting. We’ve embraced BIM and it is certainly in the future for companies. I think what we, in the end, know about architecture is that it is crafted and the simplicity of it will always remain. It is quite simply, brick on brick design.
If you hadn’t become an architect what would you be doing?
Well I suppose when my pro football career ended at Leeds UTD I’d have taken up sailing a yacht somewhere warm, taking people out on sailing trips – a complete 180 on the stresses of life and work on land. I also had a brief dalliance as a cameraman but would always be the one behind the camera, never in front.