KITSON Architecture have just celebrated their tenth year with a birthday party at the Con Club in Altrincham. Back in 2012, setting up a business in Altrincham was an interesting proposition. With nearly a third of shops lying empty it was regularly ranking one of the worst high streets in the country. But having lived in Altrincham for many years, Mark and Ellen Kitson needed a convenient location to set up their newly formed architectural practice. “We always liked Altrincham and although times were hard there seemed to be a positive attitude in the town. We set up the business working from our home and after eight months, having taken on our first member of staff, we took the plunge and rented offices on Greenwood Street opposite the old hospital and began to grow our architectural practice.”
10 years later, what a transformation and what an improvement in the town in both appearance and lifestyle. Now Altrincham hits the Sunday Times ‘best places to live’ lists and it has become the destination of choice for foodies and lovers of lively bars and markets from across the region. In some respects, running a business over the same period has had its difficulties, not least the pandemic, but through some hard work and great clients KITSON Architecture have developed to become a respected architectural practice involved in projects from Inverness to Cornwall.
Their previous experience was with a practice in Manchester which gave them a great wealth of knowledge allowing them to work on some incredible projects. Both Mark and Ellen were deeply involved in the immediate works needed to rebuild Manchester after the 1996 IRA bombing. “Working on buildings devastated by a huge explosion is something you don’t have training for.” Reinstatement projects at the Arndale and Corn Exchange, pretty much from day one, meant working in large teams and having to come up with creative and practical solutions to unprecedented design problems in the space of hours. As the Manchester renaissance continued, other large projects followed.
“While we were amazingly lucky to transfer some of our existing clients to KITSON Architecture it was when we started to attract our maiden clients that we realised the practice might actually take off.” This didn’t happen overnight and was the result of copious networking, rekindling relationships with existing contacts and promoting themselves on social media, via a new website and, most of all, the quality of their work. “In the first few days of our opening week we were very lucky the local business community really rallied around us even though we were totally new to the Altrincham crowd.”
They quickly joined the Altrincham and Sale Chamber, opened a bank account and registered for VAT. “Our ‘Holding Page’ was up and running within 48 hours and we soon had professional business cards and other branded items all sourced from local companies. Many of these businesses still support us today and we have made friends for life along the way.” Within weeks the practice had secured sufficient work to employ Daniel on a short-term contract. Within months a London client appointed KITSON Architecture on two multi-million-pound shopping centre refurbishment projects, one of which leading to the practices first national award. Daniel was employed full time and has since gone on to become an established qualified architect vital to the team.
They have always had a diverse approach to the sectors they work in. “Focussing on one type of development wasn’t how we wanted to work. For one thing, we like the varied design challenges associated with different projects which allows us to approach things differently and transfer skills from one sector to another. Secondly you need to protect yourself from a single sector struggling due to some unforeseen circumstances.” A prime example of this was the work the practice had undertaken in the hotel sector. The established relationships with our hotel clients had led them to produce some fantastic projects including the Spa at the Midland, a refurbishment of the basement health club at the Midland Hotel in Manchester. Taking a very dated ‘health club’ they transformed it into a sophisticated city centre spa with pool steam and sauna rooms, a Rasul, treatment rooms and gloriously sumptuous relaxation rooms with hanging sleep pods and cosy niches for resting before a healthy lunch in the dedicated eatery.
But when the pandemic struck, all the hotels closed and most investment in the sector stopped overnight. This is when having expertise in other sectors comes into its own. For many years the practice had been involved in extremely technical projects in the data centre industry. “We had always been involved in data centre fit out works which gives a real insight into the workings of these highly serviced environments.”
Along with fit outs other projects have included an expansion of the national optical fibre network, the construction of a backup power energy centre for one of the country’s largest data centres and developments at cable landing stations and satellite earth stations. More recently two new build data centre projects are in development to cater for the increased demand to serve the growing preference of home working and remote accesses throughout the workplace environment. Their clients now include Vodafone, BT and Telefonica and they are expanding further into this sector with new, smaller data centre providers. “To be honest, you don’t leave architectural college thinking you will work on data centres, at least not in the 1980s. But there is a completely different approach to providing design solutions and the knowledge we have gained in this area has benefited in the way we look at work in other sectors.”
Mark started work in Manchester in 1987. Working first on hotels he progressed to being involved in many different types of development giving him a broad knowledge of the construction industry. “I always enjoyed drawing, either sketches or technical so a profession with a pencil in my hand appealed.” Now, his work book is filled with a mixture of meeting notes, doodles and sketches of current projects.
Ellen moved to Manchester in the summer of 1996 to help rebuild the retail heart of the city in the wake of the IRA bombing in June. The first-hand experience on site gave Ellen the unique opportunity to establish her roots in the retail sector helping to rebuild the Arndale Centre. In recent years Ellen has supported the work of a local MP preparing briefing notes on school design which have made their way to Westminster. She has also provided advice to refugees who have moved locally and need help navigating the structures of the RIBA and routes to qualification.
Daniel’s architectural education was at Liverpool John Moores University, a course with a strong emphasis both the art and technical sides of design. Starting his career in Manchester at the same practice as Mark and Ellen, Daniel has worked on retail, hotels and data centres projects and, more recently, housing, industrial and healthcare sites. Now Michael has joined the practice to deal with our ever-growing workload.
With a longstanding involvement in heritage projects throughout their careers, KITSON Architecture have experience working on the retail elements of the Grade I Royal Albert Dock in Liverpool and the introduction of a luxury city centre Spa at the Grade II* Midland Hotel in Manchester. Both through existing contacts and new relationships, the practice has grown its residential portfolio, particularly in the local area. Typically working with developers who see the potential in maximising value from brownfield sites and existing buildings. “We have designed numerous schemes. At the moment we have 14 houses and 12 apartments on site across three different projects, achieved planning permission for a further 25 and awaiting planning on another 7.”
With a small team of core staff and some trusted freelance associates the practice has focused on quality over quantity. “Our commitment has been to quality. Quality of service, quality of personnel, quality of design.”
The decision to keep the practice small, efficient and adaptable has been a conscious one. Both Mark and Ellen enjoy architecture and want to be architects. “Keeping the role as project architects as well as managing the business means we are doing what we love and what we set out to do – be architects, hands on with clients and projects.” This approach means clients not only get the best levels of service but their experience can be imparted into every scheme to ensure the best outcomes. With the team going into its second decade, they are best placed and experienced to continue providing their brand of high quality architecture to their existing and new clients. “There is a positivity in Altrincham that we feed off and being located right in the centre, surrounded by the buzz and vitality of the town centre, will only encourage us to keep moving forward providing the best architectural service for the next ten years and beyond.”