What a journey

by Ian Thompson

Main building image

It’s a toughie. I’m trying to stay positive. Everybody tells me it’s the way forward. And the truth is, there’s lots to be positive about – it’s my birthday tomorrow, we moved back into The Old Stables in the nick of time, just before our short lease on The Old Brewery in The Calls ran out, I’m surrounded by a great team at Thompson who’ve been behind the move and the rebuild all the way and there’s a real wartime spirit about the place.

But, as I write this, I’m probably at one of those low points in any build. You know, the keystones of the ‘Grand Designs’ programme structure where Kevin McCloud’s surveys a pile of old stones in a foot of mud overlooking a rain-soaked valley in the Brecon Beacons and announces in an audience-conspiratorial voice ‘but the project is over-budget and over-time and they don’t look like they’ll be in before the winter sets in’. It’s nothing like that here really. We’re actually in the place – It’s just that I can’t lock the back door and there are several layers of scaffolding in front of the alarm box. Oh, and the business is operating from a building site.

So, I’ve taken the Editors off Spotify and put on Steve Earle. I’m not really a fan, but for some reason ‘Galway Girl’ puts me in a good mood. Not, I think, because it appears in ‘PS I love you’ but probably because Stewart Lee sings a version in his live shows at the end of a full hour’s diatribe about his disappointment with life in general and Magners Cider ads in particular. And indeed, my spirit has been lifted enough to tell something of the story of our move away from our beloved Old Stables for a brief foray into town while it has been turned into a building site and in fact, still is.

Building 1

It all started at the end of last year, when we finally plucked up courage to do what we’d been wanting to do for years – strip out the building back to it’s original fabric, keeping what was worth keeping and building the perfect creative space for us. We’d been toying with the idea of buying somewhere in the centre of Leeds for over a year, but having decided against it, we chose to work on our existing home instead. We started from scratch – kept nothing at all, furniture included and did whatever took our fancy. We engaged architects Bauman Lyons who did the visitor centre at The Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and building company Dobsons and off we went. After 6 different walk-throughs using the same modelling software that was used for the ‘Doom’ and ‘Quake’ games series we arrived at a plan. Apparently, you can embed the building into one of the game levels, although I haven’t been tempted to do it yet. There are enough Arch-Viles and Revenants and  wandering about the real place as it is. If I had a BFG, they’d all be chunky kibbles.

As a designer, it’s an interesting and very valuable experience being a client for another design team. I immediately set my stall out to be a model client. I wanted to give a good brief that didn’t pre-empt the solution or lead it too much. I wanted to give a good budget that was realistic but not too tight. I wanted to allow reasonable time – lack of time is often the enemy of great things. I was keen to make sure that I didn’t cause delays by dithering – I wanted to be decisive, clear and inclusive. Above all, I wanted to be positive throughout – accepting of the realities of working with an old building and unremittingly up-beat and excited about the whole process. It’s possible, and by the look of things likely, that this didn’t go entirely to plan. I’ve turned into a ‘Grand Designs’ stock character.

Building 2

The best bit was the first two weeks. When we moved in over ten years ago, we could only afford to expose three of the uninterrupted beams that hold up the roof. I’ve tried on numerous occasions to trace the history of the building. Accounts vary between a stable for the horses that pulled the council dust carts to a cowshed for Ladywood Farm. Either way, it’s clearly mid-19th century and I’m aware that it’s also been home to a workshop and a funeral director in its time. 

The destructive part of the work only took a matter of days and it was the point where we could see what we had to play with – plenty of beams in relatively good condition and 18 inch thick stone walls in various states of repair. Some of the beams had an Aero bar quality about them due to the ravages of woodworm, but they still look great. We’ve also left the bits of wall that were practical exposed and they look beautiful – old walls almost always do. It’s not a huge building – about 1700 sq ft, and it took a lot of planning to ensure we had enough space for everything. Like everyone else, the loft space was full of stuff and serious cull took place to get rid of a lot of it, some of which dated back to the beginning of Thompson in 1984.

Building 3

Fast forward a few weeks we could start to see some of the finishes. The overall plan was to build three rectangular blocks we all took to calling ‘Pods’. They house all the services – kitchen, loos, comms room and stores. The key reason for the rebuild was that we all like to work together in the same space: designers account managers, administrators – everyone. Although we could have achieved this more directly by having all the services at one end, we much preferred the ‘Pods’ idea because they integrated much better with the space. It was definitely the right decision. The pods are clad in oak with flush-fitting invisible door in the same material. They look beautiful and they work really well.

Building 4

We moved in on Tuesday 27th Sept. Liz and I had a bet on that we wouldn’t be in by my birthday on the 29th. Although I won the bet, Liz now claims she thought my birthday was on the 20th. The build was scheduled for 10 weeks from 1st July and although we’re over that, it’s not by much. The budget however, is another matter. When I watch ‘Grand Designs’, the outrageous budget extensions are usually as a result of the owners having flights of fancy during the build. It’s different with an office though. You’ve got to clarify the plan and the budget and stick to it, just the way we handle live jobs. What has come as a surprise though is that the design and build industry doesn’t seem to work that way. This’ll all come as no surprise to those who have dealt with this many times before. Apart from a few house extensions, I’m a relative novice.

It’s good to be in but incredibly stressful. We’re working in two zones out of four and the rest is still a building site with all the attendant noise and muck. To make matters worse, one of the zones is a massive scarey pile of boxes with no home at the moment. It’ll be wonderful when it’s done, but it certainly wasn’t my vision for this week that we’d be in the middle of it all. I had this picture of a sunny day – I’d had a couple of days to move everything into its rightful place and everything was finished to perfection. The rest of the team would just turn up, walk in and be amazed.

Well – it’s a sunny day, that’s a good start. And, it may be a blessing in disguise that it’s so unfinished because the whole team are working together to keep things going and get things back to some sense of nomality.

Feels good actually.



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