Architect Chris Hesketh has transformed some of North Staffordshire’s most historic buildings

An outsider to Stoke-on-Trent, Chris Hesketh got to know the city by immersing himself in a Tunstall estate.

Chris Hesketh, Architect Director at ctd architects, is pondering what leaving the EU might mean to those engaged in the restoration and renovation industries.

When it comes to funding, he ponders, ‘we might have to find new sources.’

Chris’s award-winning architectural practice based in Leek, North Staffordshire, has been breathing new life into old buildings for decades.

Among the notable projects it’s been involved in are Middleport Pottery and Spode, as well as injecting the beauty back into urban housing previously destined for the bulldozer.

Chris Hesketh, ctd architects Leek

“I don’t think we could do the renovation work we do without public assistance,” he states. “There is a lot of value in that. It enables the local authority to tap into funds that come from Europe, Central Government, and the like.”

It’s money, he explains, that’s needed in Stoke-on-Trent more than anywhere.

Whether it’s a grand Grade II Listed building or humble terraced house,” he explains, “there’s more often than not a conservation deficit – a difference between the cost of the refurbishment and the end value.

“The end market in Stoke-on-Trent is nothing like that in a place like London, Birmingham, Manchester or even Sheffield, so in pure economic terms there’s a gap – and that gap funding has to be matched or else the project isn’t viable. More often than not you need that bit of public money to make the difference.”

Chris, originally from Bristol, came to North Staffordshire on the back of nationally esteemed architect Rod Hackney’s revolutionary project to help dozens of residents save 350 terraced houses in Tunstall, written off as slums, from mid-80s council demolition.

This resulted in an unexpected victory for people power, as captured by the musical Good Golly Miss Molly at Hartshill’s then Victoria Theatre.

From what seemed a hopeless situation, with some houses already boarded up, families found a crucial ally in the shape of Hackney, an architect whose high standing extended to acting as an adviser to Prince Charles.

Hackney had already saved old properties in Macclesfield from demolition and knew how to handle councils. He just needed a couple of young architects to help him out.

“I was going to have a year off,” recalls Chris, “but then I had a call from Rod asking ‘do you want to come and work on this project in Stoke-on-Trent?’ My first reaction was ‘Where’s Stoke-on-Trent?’!”

Chris soon found himself stood on Hawes Street.

“The council wanted to demolish the properties,” he explains, “and the residents didn’t understand why. But there were alternatives. Initially we were working against the local authority, but eventually we worked in partnership with them. Owner occupiers could get small government grants to improve their facilities, while empty properties were purchased off the council at peppercorn rates and refurbished. That housing still exists today.”

That includes Chris’s former home in St Aidan’s Street.

“Part of our approach,” he explains, “was to live and work among the community, so I purchased a little terraced house. I lived in Tunstall for five years. We were known in the community – one of the houses was our office – so you were living and breathing what you were doing . People would knock on your door at all hours asking what was happening.”

Hawes Street would inform Chris’s approach to urban architecture from then on.

Indeed, he has repeated the trick with empty home refurbishments in Balfour Street, Hanley, and Port Street and Burgess Street, Middleport, as well as several streets in Knutton.

ctd architects knutton5“They were built with design in mind,” he says of such homes. “In Knutton, owners were encouraged to look at what added value to the environment it would make if they actually put back some of the historical references – sash windows, panelled doors and chimney pots. It wasn’t going to cost people anything and had a 96 per cent sign-up.

“It’s a community approach to architecture, out of hours, having a chat with people. We brought along samples of the actual products, a bit like a travelling salesman, so people could see for themselves what we were talking about.”

Chris’s extensive experience and expertise in the design and conservation repair of significant historic houses, former mill buildings and pottery factories, coupled with community regeneration programmes, has been an integral part of his role as a director of Leek-based ctd architects.

Recognisable projects across the city include the Prince of Wales Studios at Middleport Pottery (a studio space for crafts people, gallery, exhibition and meeting space), as well as a facelift scheme on the Church Street entrance of Spode, and conservation repairs to the external building fabric of the Grade II Listed Moorland Pottery and bottle kiln.

The practice has also worked on the Hudson & Middleport pottery, and the transformation of the Phoenix Works in Longton.

“You can’t preserve everything in aspic for years,” says Chris, of Cheddleton. “Everything has to be sustainable. It’s about giving new uses to these buildings while respecting architectural character. We’re not saying everything should stay as it was in 20th century or Victorian times but looking at how it can be adapted to suit modern times.

“What is good about a lot of our Victorian heritage in Stoke-on-Trent,” he adds, “is its robustness. Pottery factories were built quite simply with good materials – therefore, they could cope with change. Middleport is a good example. They’ve kept manufacturing on the site and the rest they’ve been able to put to uses such as supporting new creative businesses.

“It’s about respecting the good bits of the architecture but looking at ways to move things forward. A nicely designed or refurbished property does say a lot about what’s going on somewhere.

“That’s not to say there aren’t issues in applying the regeneration model to North Staffordshire.

“Regeneration is difficult in place like Stoke-on-Trent because the critical mass isn’t quite the same,” Chris points out, reflecting the lack of footfall in certain areas.

“If you go into the Northern Quarter in Manchester, Digbeth in Birmingham, the critical mass is different. But what Stoke-on-Trent is doing both in the public and private sector is starting to push the value of spaces up. Spode is a really good start-up for new rentals. Artists are encouraged to come in on low rents, they create the demand, and slowly you build up the value and buzz around the place. That’s the key behind the city council’s masterplan for Spode.”

The move towards a sensitive recreation of times past with a benefit for now can be seen on shop fronts too, as in Burslem where owners have been encouraged to reflect their building’s heritage with a more sympathetic and less garish image.

“They’re all modest,” says Chris of such schemes, “but together they start to add up to something.

“And that’s the thing. In isolation, renovation might not mean much. On a wider scale it produces proven benefits.

“Everything goes round in circles,” says Chris. The circle will hopefully end in a more secure and prosperous city.

article courtesy of Stoke Sentinel – the original article can be read here: Stoke Sentinel – Chris Hesketh, ctd architects interview