MADE IN SHEFFIELD: Architects carrying on proud tradition

David Uhlar, of Robin Ashley Architects
David Uhlar, of Robin Ashley Architects
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Regulars at The Rising Sun may not have heard of Robin Ashley Architects, but they will be familiar with its work.

The Sheffield practice designed the popular extension to the Fulwood pub - a labour of love which took five years from conception to completion - and it remains one of partner David Uhlar's favourite projects.

The extension at The Rising Sun pub in Fulwood (photo: Robin Ashley Architects)

The extension at The Rising Sun pub in Fulwood (photo: Robin Ashley Architects)

Recalling the scheme, he talks not of bricks and mortar but about an imaginary conversation with the William Flockton, the celebrated Victorian architect behind the original building.

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"We had to deliver something in sympathy with the original building, which is quite a muscular, forthright piece of architecture," he says.

"The response to that isn't to be mealy-mouthed but to make a strong statement in a loud voice."

The firm had to please not just its client Abbeydale Brewery but regulars who he says have a 'strong sense of ownership', and the bold design complemented by quirky features like urinals fashioned from old beer kegs - 'one regular told me they're the best toilets in Sheffield', pipes up a colleague - succeeded.

A house in Bolsterstone designed by Robin Ashley Architects (photo: Robin Ashley Architects)

A house in Bolsterstone designed by Robin Ashley Architects (photo: Robin Ashley Architects)

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The commission is typical of the relatively modest but unique undertakings across Sheffield, the UK and abroad through which the business has built its reputation.

David, whose wife Mary is a partner at the four-person practice tucked away on Mary Street on the outskirts of the city centre, describes these as the most rewarding - albeit often not financially - on which to work.

"We've designed some very nice one-off houses, which are enjoyable projects because you form a very close relationship with your clients and end up making something which is more than just a building," he says.

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"It's a home and an expression of where that person or family see themselves in the world and where they want to be."

David Uhlar took over the practice, where his wife Mary is now a partner, in 2002

David Uhlar took over the practice, where his wife Mary is now a partner, in 2002

The practice's distinctive creations - often seamlessly blending historic features with modern elements - now come stamped with the 'Made in Sheffield' brand of authenticity.

It's an immense source of pride to David, especially since the firm's recognition marks a departure from the trademark's roots of 'people bashing lumps of steel or painstakingly crafting something by hand'.

His godfather was John Simpkin of sweet-makers Simpkins, and he remembers fondly receiving postcards as a child from far-flung destinations in Asia and South America, where Mr Simpkin was on trade missions to spread the word of Sheffield produce.

"We're proud of continuing that tradition of creating things in Sheffield and exporting them to the world," says David.

David grew up in Greystones and worked for numerous big firms in London and overseas after graduating from Newcastle University, before ending up back in his home city somewhat fortuitously.

He was stopping off there while he waited to begin a new role overseas, when he met Mary at a jazz club and was offered a different job at a big firm in the city.

In 2002, the opportunity arose to buy the Robin Ashley Architects from its eponymous owner and he never looked back.

"They say the average small businesses lasts for around three years, so we've not done badly," he jokes.

What he loves about the trade, he explains, is how no two days are the same - each bringing a new problem to solve.

Being a small practice, he says, makes is perfectly placed to take on modest but interesting projects which would not be practical for larger firms due to their overheads, while giving it the scope which bigger companies might lack to really delve into details which bigger companies might lack.

Its latest commission is in Whitechapel, in London's East End - an area whose Victorian architecture will be familiar to fans of TV show Ripper Street - where the firm is balancing the district's traditional dressmaking trade with its burgeoning reputation as a tech hotspot by designing a mixture of shops and offices.

David's father Janos worked as an architect in his native Hungary before settling in Sheffield in the 50s and starting a construction company which laid the foundations for the University of Sheffield's 20-storey Arts Tower - a landmark he says always reminds him of the 'old man'.

Sheffield is blessed with many 'great' but 'underappreciated' buildings from the Victorian and post-war eras, according to David.

And while most people would say there is the odd stinker, he thoughtfully argues that all buildings are the product of their circumstances and few examples exist of purely 'ham-fisted' designs not influenced by specific planning or financial constraints.

"If you look at buildings in that way, thinking about how they responded to the needs and challenges of that time, you’re rewarded with a certain insight which helps you better understand the city," he says.