WANT to build a concert hall in the Arctic Circle?
How about a luxury villa in the Mongolian desert?
Or perhaps a Baptist church out on the American prairie?
David Howarth’s your man.
He’s the Shiregreen lad-done-good whose architecture firm has gone from doing minor internal jobs at The Leadmill to working on some of the most seriously challenging building projects anywhere in the world.
“We’ve also just extended a Victorian house on the Kenwood Park Road in Sharrow,” says the 43-year-old founder of DRDH Architects. “But I’m guessing that doesn’t sound quite so exciting?”
Well...it is a nice extension for sure – so nice it won the Sheffield Civic Trust’s best building award last month – but it’s not a £100million 1,000-capacity concert hall, with attached public library, in one of the world’s harshest climates, is it?
And it wasn’t officially opened – as the Arctic Circle venue will be – by the king and queen of Norway was it?
The firm, provisionally founded by David and friend Daniel Rosbottom at The Workstation, in Paternoster Row, in 1992, was commissioned to build the cultural showpiece in the coastal town of Bodø, northern Norway, after winning a global design competition.
The venue’s opening will mark the 200th anniversary of Norway as a country. That’s in 2014, and the invites for the opening ceremony have already been sent out to the royal family.
“The work is only just starting on the detailed design of the building so it’s a bit of a tight deadline,” winces David. “But we’re confident we’ll make it.”
It is their biggest commission yet and comes after years of building their reputation with schemes across the UK, including work at the British Library and at Sheffield’s very own Showroom Cinema.
The challenge of designing for a climate which in winter gets only a few hours light and in summer virtually no darkness, and which can go from being relatively balmy to facing Siberian blasts, wasn’t easy, he says – but it is challenges like that which makes jobs exciting.
“We’ve used a lot of glass so in the summer you can see these coastal and mountain views, and in the winter it becomes a beacon of light for the whole town,” explains David, who grew up in Gregg House Road.
“You also can’t do outdoor loading there because the temperatures can drop so low, so we even had to accommodate huge lorry bays within the building in what was already a really tight space.”
It was hard work, for sure, but then that’s exactly what DRDH is built on.
David and Daniel met at Leeds Polytechnic in 1990 and started working together after graduating at the University of Sheffield and Glasgow School of Art.
They did odd jobs and bits and bats around Sheffield – including internal renovations at The Leadmill, The Showroom bar and a design studio at Kelham Island – to pay the bills while looking for work with an established firm in London.
When that work came they went their separate ways for a while before realising, actually, they preferred working for themselves and decided to set up DRDH properly in the capital in 2000.
Since then they’ve slowly but surely been building up their reputation with jobs at the British Library, a luxury apartment block in Hamburg and Sheffield’s very own Scott House in Nether Edge.
The firm has gone from just the two of them to employing 16 staff, and in 2005 it was runner up in the Young Architect of the Year award.
And if the Bodø project looks set to cement their reputation as one of the most exciting design companies around, the opportunity to build a luxury villa in the Inner Mongolian desert is equally as impressive – not least because DRDH was one of just 100 firms from around the world asked to take part in the project.
“There’s a lot of oil and huge solar potential there, so the Chinese government is building this new town,” says David.
“They created 100 plots and for each plot a different architecture firm was asked to design a villa. We were all taken out to this Holiday Inn in the middle of nowhere and given the brief. It was very surreal but a great job.”
With so many designers working in such close proximity, many of the villas have been designed as ‘peacock’ buildings – stand-outs designed to overshadow the neighbouring villas.
“So we did something completely different and kept it really classical and functional,” says David, who now lives in London but is currently a member of Sheffield City Council’s Sustainable Development and Design Panel.
The villa will come with swimming pool, gym, staff quarters and gallery space, yet its outward appearance will be a modest square-like block, designed to offer cool from the blazing heat and warmth during the freezing nights,
The first villas are already being put up with the DRDH one set to be started in the second phase of building in 2012.
Meanwhile, David is working on a new Baptist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In comparison to the other two jobs it’s relatively simple and relatively cheap – £1.2 million – but it brings its own problems.
“You want to have something which fits in with that landscape and which feels religious or spiritual.
“The main worship space has views across the prairie in all directions and we’re placing a cross on a hill some distance from the Church so the congregation can reflect on that from inside.
“A lot of the churches out there in the mid-west feel like huge, soulless B&Q sheds and we definitely wanted to get away from that.”
Building work on that one starts this summer.
There’s other ongoing projects, of course, and David hopes one day he can build a Sheffield showpiece.
“I’d love to do a big project here – I think the city and its landscape has so much potential for great design and sometimes that potential can be overlooked,” he says.
For now, though, he’s happy to be stamping a small part of Norway, Mongolia and Oklahoma with that great phrase: Made In Sheffield.
City’s buildings need identity
DAVID Howarth is incredibly proud of his Sheffield heritage - but as one of the country’s leading architects he sometimes worries about the city’s buildings.
“When I was growing up, the life of the city was defined by its modern architecture - Park Hill, where I lived as a child, the ‘Hole In The Road’, Castle Market - but these are slowly disappearing, and that’s a shame because those designs were born out of the nature of Sheffield and its strong social and civic identity.
“It’s great Park Hill is being restored and the Co-op building was saved, but some of the recent buildings – and a lot of modern flats – are just not that good.”
The founder of DRDH Architects is nothing if not a professional and refuses to name designs he hasn’t been impressed by – but he insists more firms should look at the context they are working in.
“Sheffield has such a distinct environment with it’s hills, valleys and industrial heritage, and many designers would benefit from looking a little bit closer at that,” he says. “A lot of stuff is very generic and could have been built anywhere. That’s never what made Sheffield a great city, and it shouldn’t be now.”