Local strength and community connections in Liverpool have seen female-founded firm working with big architectural names reports Hugh Pearman
I meet Su Stringfellow at a former vehicle repair workshop building in Liverpool’s ‘Baltic Triangle’, south of the city centre in the hinterland of the docks. It is to Liverpool what Shoreditch was to London some years ago: a post industrial district which got colonised by musicians, artists and designers in search of cheap floorspace, later becoming a visitor destination for its performance venues, galleries and bars, now getting rather pricey.
I also meet Mel, Su’s life rather than design partner. He is a builder and joiner. The two met years ago at the restoration of Oliver Hill’s Midland Hotel in Morecambe, when Su was project architect with practice Union North. He contributes his skills to most Harrison Stringfellow built projects. In this case he’s in charge of converting the lofty old building into a showroom and admin centre for Utility, supplier of high-end modern furniture.
But Su and Mel keep at arm’s length on this job. He works with another senior architect from the practice, Michael Noon, who is acting as clerk of works on the scheme. There’s an emerging problem with detailing on a welded mezzanine balustrade to the new upper level in the building. Noon arrives to discuss a solution. Meanwhile, Su Stringfellow and I walk over to the central docks area where the practice has been involved in a succession of competitions and projects for National Museums Liverpool.
It’s here that the development of the practice took an interesting turn, because NML competitions attract national and international attention. Harrison Stringfellow’s reputation for community consultation and project enabling in the city means it is increasingly approached to be on competition project teams. It has found itself working variously alongside BIG from Denmark, MICA, and Jayden Ali’s JA Projects with Haworth Tompkins. Its multi-discipline team was eventually beaten by David Adjaye’s to win the NML’s Museum of International Slavery expansion competition, but the connections made are invaluable.
Out of this sprang a solo commission from NML, then a collaboration with Citizens Design Bureau, to revive some of the collection of smaller historic buildings in its waterfront campus. It’s an evolving job including a very tiny building, one of engineer Jesse Hartley’s octagonal granite huts for dock workers, in this case watchmen. Originally mooted as a café, it is more likely to become a micro-museum in itself, thinks Stringfellow.
Other jobs include one-off houses including one in Donegal, the total upgrading and extension of a community centre and town council building in Halewood, the expansion of a listed Edwardian church for its evangelical congregation, and a long-term community project we later visited: the Sudley House walled garden, much used by schools, next to which the practice is now converting a former playing field changing block into therapy suites.
Stringfellow recounts the issues surrounding a small practice in growth mode. She and her co-founder Sarah Harrison, who first met aged four in the reception class at primary school and later went on to study architecture together, have long been used to covering for each other while having slightly different roles, Harrison being more on the organisational side of jobs and the office. Between them they negotiated the challenges of being professionals but also mothers, and evolved a mode of flexible working that stood them in good stead when emerging from the Covid pandemic.
But Harrison was knocked back; first by her son being diagnosed with leukaemia in September 2021 – he has subsequently made a full recovery – and then just before last Christmas by her own breast cancer diagnosis, for which she is undergoing treatment. Pending her recovery and return, and with a steady rise in the firm’s work, the firm has accelerated its policy of delegation and is streamlining working practices; responsibility is shared more than ever.
Their colleagues have risen to the challenge. The senior figures are Katie Begley, a Passivhaus specialist previously with Cottrell Vermuelen in London – she divides her working hours between the office and her home base in the Lake District – and Mike Noon. He returned to his native Liverpool after working with Moreno Masey in London on high-end residential projects. Then come Jessie St Clair, recently qualified, and Bonnie Jackson, part II assistant. The architecture team is rounded out by part I assistants Jordan Hau and Grace Limani, while office administrator Esmé Mortimore works remotely, being based with her family in Rugby.
Harrison Stringfellow is looking to expand, and it’s enough of a squeeze in the studio as it is. That studio being a small former shop in a short parade in Penny Lane. Everyone is on display to the street through the shop window, with the only buffer a meeting table. Not surprisingly, a topic of conversation when I called in was where to go next. The practice has made an Airbnb in the rooms above the shop to provide a supplementary source of income, and that sometimes becomes overspill space.
Harrison Stringfellow feels that a studio of 12-15 people would be an acceptable next step. Pandemic notwithstanding, the practice has developed considerably since early 2020 when it won the RIBAJ MacEwen Award for its ultra-resourceful, ultra low budget kids’ riding school – Park Palace Ponies – in a derelict former music hall in Dingle. Firmly on the map, increasingly known nationally as well as in the north west, impeccably sustainable in its design approach, its trajectory is a promising one.