Architect in Profile - Nathan Wilkinson

Nathan Wilkinson studied architecture at the Welsh School of Architecture in Cardiff, which included a year out in Saltaire at Rance Booth & Smith. After graduating, Nathan moved to London, where he joined David Wood Architects (DWA), remaining there until he passed his professional exams. After leaving DWA, Nathan formed arc7 design with a colleague, where he stayed until 2007 when, with a young family, he returned to Yorkshire and joined Brewster Bye Architects (BBA), becoming a Director in 2013. Here, Nathan runs through some career highlights with FC&A.


Nathan Wilkinson

is a Director at Brewster Bye Architects in Leeds

Had you always wanted to pursue a career in design?

I had originally intended to pursue fine art at university but always had an interest in architecture through the art of the constructivists and others. I eventually grew out of the idea of being an impoverished artist, and architecture seemed the natural step.

Who has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

I have had many wonderful mentors over my career, including Keith Brewster, one of Brewster Bye’s Founders, who taught me the value of a client- and person-focused approach to architecture; one that responds to context and does not try to impose the will of the architect on either the site or the users. Our aim as architects should be to take a holistic approach that seeks to improve the lives and experiences of those that interact with our designs.

I have always been inspired by architects who shared this approach while delivering architecture of great beauty, such as Ted Cullinan and Niall McLaughlin.

What has been your most notable project to date?

I have completed several buildings that I am proud of, including extra care schemes in Derby and Telford and tall apartment schemes in London and Leeds. Still, most architects will tell you that they spend more time considering their next building than basking in any reflective glory. In that regard, at the moment, my most notable project is Regent Terrace in Leeds, which has been completed recently. Whilst it is modest in size compared to the previously mentioned projects, its impact on the residents is significant. It replaced an existing wet hostel for a longstanding Leeds charity, St George’s Crypt, with purpose-built accommodation to help those with alcohol and substance addiction.

How do you approach your projects?

Most projects start with an understanding of the brief and the site/context. Sometimes this includes helping a client to formulate that brief, and sometimes our role is to challenge a brief to get a better outcome for the client. I would then always seek a holistic approach that considers aesthetics, function, cost, construction, sustainability and wellbeing. The architecture we create should also bring joy and delight to those who experience it and add value in as many ways as possible.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for designing in sustainability?

Sustainability can be attributable to many different aspects of the built environment, including socioeconomic elements and how we create sustainable communities. If the last few months have shown anything, it is that as well as protecting the environment, fuel poverty is increasingly prevalent, and we can only overcome this by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. The key to achieving this must be improving existing buildings and mandated targets for new-build projects. Our job as architects, working with other partners, is to look at each project and determine the most effective way of achieving the greatest impact. The most recent update to Part L was an important step, and it is crucial the progress is maintained despite current economic challenges.

What is your favourite building and why?

I love keeping up to date with current architectural ideas on websites, magazines and social media. Ultimately, architecture and the built environment are experiential, and I implore all architects, whatever their experience, to visit as many buildings as possible and not just their own. With this in mind, I only considered buildings I have visited, and whilst there are many, my favourite is the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona by Carlo Scarpa. Having worked on it for nearly 20 years, it is a masterclass in how to work with an existing building utilising contemporary interventions that show an incredible eye for detail, craftsmanship and understanding of materials. It is a sheer joy.

What is the greatest challenge for architects today?

That we continue to see architecture as a holistic discipline that can unite all the elements of the built environment and stay at the centre of this process. We must not see architecture as Instagram snapshots; it is experiential. We also need to provide further credence and importance to the design of homes. As residential specialists, BBA are always seeking to push forward housing design, but far too often, the housing I see in great swathes at the edge of our towns and cities is of poor quality. I don’t mean that every new estate needs to be cutting-edge design, but we should, at minimum, focus on quality and placemaking.

What is the greatest challenge for architecture students at the moment?

Remembering that architecture is about the design and not who can create the best CGI or drawing. Communication is very important but only as a tool to describe our designs. If it works, a pencil and a piece of paper are good enough.

What advice would you give to newly-qualified architects?

This is only the beginning. Take every opportunity to keep learning and experiencing architecture. Don’t rush to present a fully-realised scheme; take the time to talk to people, sketch and explore.

What can we expect to see from you over the next year?

It is a challenging time for the construction industry at the moment with the turmoil in the economy and rising costs. Still, we remain buoyant at BBA, and I look forward to working with my business partner, Mark, and the team here to move the business forward and continue delivering architecture that has a positive impact. We have lots of exciting projects at various stages, including the delivery of a 105-unit retirement scheme in Woodford, a 297-bed student accommodation scheme in Nottingham, a large 22-storey PRS scheme in Leeds, a 152-unit affordable housing scheme in Horsforth and a city-centre development of more than 1000 apartments known as Leeds City Village.

On a personal note, I may actually get a chance to do this for myself with the renovation and extension of the house my wife, Sarah, and I are in the process of buying, which is an exciting prospect.

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