Chris Hunt, who runs Yorkshire-based Niche Design alongside his wife, Cathy, writes about evolution, innovation and why the county is the perfect playground
Before Niche Design, what was your background in the industry?
I had worked for a number of small-medium sized architectural practices in the south-east and in Yorkshire, working on predominantly residential, healthcare and commercial projects. I also worked as a Design Manager for a residential development company for a number of years. Cathy worked for a number of design orientated small architectural practices in the south-east and Yorkshire focussing on University, community projects as well as high specification residential schemes. Cathy also retrained as a Design Technology teacher and worked at a secondary school for a number of years prior to joining me at Niche Design in 2013.
What inspired the launch of Niche Design?
We had the opportunity to set up the business in 2010 when we were asked to design a residential development on the outskirts of Leeds (involving the conversion of redundant farm buildings to four houses) which became our first project. Like many architects, we’d always been interested in working for ourselves and developing our own design practice, so it proved an opportunity too good to turn down. We’ve never regretted the decision even though it’s not always been plain sailing!
The clue is perhaps in the name, but from day one what did you want to offer?
We wanted to offer a high-quality architectural service specifically to help homeowner clients and developers of small residential schemes. We don’t work in any other sector, so have built up an expertise in working on residential projects which requires a different set of skills to commercial projects.
Is Catherine your wife? How do you tend to work together?
I met Cathy at University in Nottingham in the 1990s where we both studied architecture and we got married in 2005. Cathy joined me at Niche Design after three years in 2013. We’ve always focused on different aspects of the business, with Cathy heading up the technical side of the business and I work on the concept designs and construction stages. People often ask how we cope working with each other (as they could never work with their partners), but we’ve never found it too difficult and managed to separate our work and home life to achieve a reasonable life/work balance – although there is always room for improvement!
How does the process evolve when starting on a new project?
For many clients this will be the first time they have carried out building work and it will be a significant investment (time and money) so we think it is important not to rush the process. We have a five-step approach to new enquiries, which involves listening carefully to understand our clients’ aims and objectives, agreeing an outline brief and preparing a pre-design report which outlines constraints and opportunities prior to us starting any design work. We don’t want to run before we can walk.
Over the years, what do you think you have become renowned for?
Most clients that contact us have seen our work on our website or social media and have liked our design approach. This can be described as contemporary but contextual architecture, often inspired by the site or existing buildings and their surroundings. Usually it’s about making buildings suitable for modern family living and connecting the inside and outside and creating clean, bright and practical spaces. Due to our location, we have worked on a lot of existing and often old (historic) buildings and I think we have become well-known for imaginative conversions of and additions to existing structures, often contrasting new glazed structures with old buildings.
Is Yorkshire a fantastic playground with the many different architectural styles across the county?
Absolutely! We are based on the edge of West and North Yorkshire (Ilkley) and have worked in the major cities and towns as well as in remote locations within the Yorkshire Dales and Moors National Parks. We’re equally happy working in urban and rural locations, both of which bring their different challenges and design opportunities. It is fascinating to see how architectural styles vary across the county, often based on the local materials that were readily available at the time. I spent my teenage years in York. Whilst I was inspired by the historic fabric of the city my favourite building was the 1960s extension of York Theatre Royal (designed by modernist architect Patrick Gwynne and recently refurbished by De Matos Ryan). This is a beautiful concrete and glass extension which contrasts fabulously with the historic Grade II listed theatre.
If possible, can you pick out 3 Yorkshire projects that show different sides to Niche Design and what the brief on each was?
- The Yorkshire Farmhouse
We were asked by our clients and their concept designer (Helen Hughes Design) to deliver the technical design of this project together with the supervision of the construction. We worked with Helen and our clients to ensure that we followed their concept whilst ensuring that the complicated and elegant design could be achieved. The former farm buildings incorporating farmhouse, barns, stables and outbuildings have been connected to form a spectacular family home with guest and leisure accommodation including a fully glazed pool hall.
- Listed Building Renovation
This isolated 300-year-old Grade II listed farmhouse within the Yorkshire Dales National Park had been abandoned in the early 1900s and was almost a ruin when our clients bought the house at auction. The house already had permission for reoccupation, but we subsequently applied for a more ambitious scheme which involved an underground extension set back into the soloing hillside and a more open plan layout. The clients who live overseas trusted us with the whole process from concept to completion. Despite the isolated location we were fortunate to secure the services of a good local builder although it was the first time they had heard of shadow gaps and polished concrete, but now they are experts. We like to think it was the first use of polished concrete in the National Park!
- Residential Development, York
We were asked by the owner of an Edwardian stable block on the outskirts of York to convert and extend the existing buildings to form five large homes, based around the original central courtyard. The challenge was to retain some of the original features and spaces of the buildings whilst creating modern open plan family homes. The paving setts which had previously formed the floor of the stables were repurposed in the landscaped courtyard space.
What are you currently working on that is particularly exciting?
We’re working on a number of one off, new build houses in various locations across Yorkshire as well as conversion, refurbishment and extension projects. Every project has its own challenges and exciting opportunities and ensures that work is never dull!
What does the future hold for Niche Design?
We’ve invested a good deal of time recently in training in low-carbon, low-energy design, in response to the climate emergency. We’ve become members of the AECB (Association for Environment Conscious Building) and we will be designing and certifying projects that meet AECB standards for high performance low-carbon buildings. We’re not stopping there, and we are aiming to become Passivhaus certified in the near future which we are really excited about. Together with developing our use of 3D technology we are looking forward to a bright and more sustainable future.