Word of mouth – and social media – has proved a powerful marketing tool for director Anna Parker's four-year-old firm
The smell of peroxide hangs in the air. We’ve nipped over to the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham from Anna Parker’s office in grittier Digbeth by the Custard Factory. She’s the founder of Intervention Architecture, which was only set up four years ago but very quickly started making a national impression. All around us women are having their hair coloured. Alan, a prim but very fashionable bulldog, is trotting around keeping clients company amid the noise of dryers blowing.
We’re at Hazel + Hayden, the salon Intervention completed a year ago. The business has followed a similar trajectory to Parker’s own. It started around the corner behind a tiny shopfront and now has 10 cutting chairs and eight employees. Intervention itself has, since 2015, gone from one-woman show in a co-working space to a five-strong practice and took the lease on the workspace next to its micro office two weeks ago. The builders will soon be knocking through – the marking tape for the joinery is already on the walls – and Parker is hoping to recruit more people as well.
In the salon there’s a coffee counter, iPad browsing bench and a drinks bar. Parker was invited to take on the project, in a forgettable 1980s office, after the founder Dale found her Instagram feed. From the outside it is a bog-standard engineered red brick low block but inside the practice has stripped out the carpet tiles to reveal the concrete slab, ripped down the suspended foamboard ceilings and put in new ductwork and electrical service trays leaving them exposed to create an industrial look.The boutique pampering aspect is layered over the top with bespoke metal frame and timber top joinery, mirrors, pink paint and hanging plants. The space is bright, playful, deeply trendy and buzzing. It is also a great marketing device: hairdressers like to talk, and Parker has got a number of new clients from it – new homes and extensions.
‘I didn’t appreciate how important a hairdresser would be as a client,’ explains Parker, who says word of mouth is one of the main ways Intervention gets its work. This isn’t really a surprise as in person Parker is personable and low-key. You get the impression that she would nurture your small residential refurb’s budget as much as the design. She also looks and sounds incredibly young; she is wearing a blouse with a cute cat-shaped collar showing her love of felines, and her voice is sugary and sweet, like the salon’s design, but her achievements make you feel she should be older than she is.
Parker started Intervention Architecture aged 27 because she liked ‘the joy of smaller projects – high quality extensions, residential projects and competitions’, but saw no other means of doing them in Birmingham. ‘There isn’t the same small practice culture that you get in London, or Manchester and Liverpool.’
Her interest in this work had been building for some time. She is originally from near Telford in Shropshire and had worked at the Shrewsbury office of Aedas (now AHR) since the age of 18 while studying for parts 1 and 2 at the University of Manchester, but she spent her year out working at 5th Studio, then six or seven people, in King’s Cross.
After part 2 she returned to London to Threefold Architects, based at the time in Great Western Studios, where she enjoyed the mix of people from creative backgrounds and the sense of independent craftsmanship, which explains her interest in using and supporting local skills in Digbeth too.
For family reasons, she decided to move back to the Midlands and took a job at Glenn Howells working on a new headquarters for a glazing/cladding company in Cannock Chase called Wintech as well as a retirement home scheme for Pegasus Life in Wilmslow.
‘Glenn was doing interesting things in the area and still is to some extent the strongest design voice here, but after a year I really missed that small practice type of work.’ Parker decided the only way to get it was to do it herself.
‘I had absolutely no money, dad’s a teacher and mum’s a nurse, I had no business experience, I just knew I wanted to do it and put everything into it,’ she says. ‘I have been quite lucky. I haven’t had to look for work. There’s a thread through every project. They are all linked in particular ways – it shows the importance of keeping good relations throughout a project.’
Personality counts. Intervention’s first client was the neighbour in the divided large Victorian house in Moseley where Parker was living at the time. The woman, a writer, wanted to split off the 3.8m wide piece of land which had a crumbling timber mechanic’s shed on it next to her flat on the ground floor. The idea was to create a tiny live-work home with a little garden at the back for her to move into, and sell the flat. Parker got permission to rebuild the timber front and back in brick and raise the height to make a mezzanine bedroom under the roof pitch. The only condition was the project had to maintain the look of garage doors at the front.
It became known as The Coach House and for a first solo project that is relatively simple, materially and spatially, cheaply built and takes its cues largely from its context, it unexpectedly went viral online. Dezeen published it and the images made it into nearly every ‘small is beautiful’ type newspaper article going. It didn’t win an RIBA Award (the feedback was that it is too small, as if that is not the point) but it is artfully done.
That project more or less led to everything else. Soon after another of Parker’s neighbours commissioned her to design the interior of a new whisky bar that opened last year in the Jewellery Quarter, and now Intervention is doing the house next door. What is the explanation? It was the first of its kind, but looking at the red brick detached houses around the area there are opportunities for more.
Parker believes she couldn’t have achieved the same amount of things in London had she stayed. The rents and overheads simply wouldn’t have allowed it. Here the practice’s office, which admittedly is basic, only costs £350 a month. In London a regular co-working spot would be £1,400. The other thing is that Birmingham may be England’s second city but it has a community feel. ‘It’s so supportive and friendly that you can get to know a network and everyone is rooting for you.’ She points out that it is Europe’s youngest city too, in terms of population, so many people are in the same boat starting out.Birmingham does, however, have its drawbacks as a place for architecture.
‘Sometimes,’ Parker explains as we drive past the site of the former Victorian St Luke’s Church which was demolished last year to make way for copy and paste developer homes, ‘there’s a too quick to lose approach’. That applies to modernist buildings too. The Signal Box, for example, her favourite building in the city centre, is the only remnant of that mid-century architecture left there. ‘It’s a shame to lose so many chunks of heritage.'
What’s more, Parker believes the developer culture is not as community driven as it should be – quality and amenity lag behind. ‘In the Jewellery Quarter the intention of having new housing is good but the execution is so obviously value engineered that it is impacting the details and craft of the historic nature of the area.’ There is no input of affordable homes either.
Who does Parker blame? She won’t really say, but thinks there has been a change of perception at the council recently that appreciates things have been missed or could have been improved. She doesn’t, however, give the impression that she necessarily wants her practice to ultimately go into this kind of large-scale developer work. She would prefer to influence from the inside by providing a counter to it in design, building community engagement, continuing with teaching and lecturing (she was a tutor at Birmingham School of Architecture for four years), and by getting involved in the council’s new design review panel, as she has been since September, where she is the only small practice member. She also sits on the RIBA’s Small Practice group.
It’s still hard work though. At the latest completed project, High Contrast House, also in Moseley, she had to have an argument with the conservation officer about pastiche.
So what next? From the whisky bar there is a wine bar. There’s a rubber rendered home extension, two new houses in Tenbury Wells and countless others. The studio is so busy that it recently introduced a waiting list, which is running at three months for initial discussions and doesn’t seem to be putting people off. Parker still does most of everything though – accounts, training, first meets and social media – on behalf of an even younger team still working mostly on laptops in the office. You can be sure that once the next project is complete it’ll be creating a buzz on social media and along with everyone else you’ll be liking it.