Craig Fitzakerly, Managing Director of Fitz Architects

As managing director of Fitz Architects he's designed the iconic Echo 24 on the banks of the River Wear, the country's first carbon negative social housing scheme and is involved in projects across the city and on the seafront. Coreena Ford meets Craig Fitzakerly, the man who's transformed the face of Sunderland

Craig Fitzakerly
Craig Fitzakerly

The skyline of Sunderland is changing. Developers are at last moving on to key sites and there is a sense of a city moving forward, cemented by Sunderland and South Tyneside’s City Deal which has kickstarted more than a decade of development.

And one architect in particular is helping to shape the city for the next generation – Craig Fitzakerly, who trained at one of the world’s leading architectural practices but chose to move back to his native North East to shape his career and a successful business of his own.

We meet in his busy office in Sunniside, Sunderland, which is packed with models of buildings and homes built or to be built – and awards. Lots and lots of awards.

Tall, lean and energetic, he is quick to put you at ease and talks of the relaxed atmosphere in the office.

“We are very approachable with our clients. It’s important that we get to know them so we can really understand what they want from our designs. We don’t just want them to be satisfied with our work, we want them to be delighted,” he said.

He describes one particularly happy client literally jumping for joy when the timber frame on her house was erected, and Craig’s vision of her luxurious new home started to become a reality for her. He also gets a real thrill from driving past homes and buildings he’s designed.

Born in 1970, Craig grew up in Seaburn, Sunderland, before his family moved to Cleadon, where he lives now with his wife and three children. He’d always enjoyed drawing, but his love affair with architecture began during a week’s works experience while at King’s School, Tynemouth.

And it really must have been a true passion – that placement led to him missing out on seeing his favourite band of the time, which was no doubt devastating to the teenage Craig.

“I managed to get a placement at Ainsworth Spark Associates, architects in Newcastle,” he said. “I was jealous of my school friends because they were going to the Queen gig at St James’ Park in Newcastle and I couldn’t go. Instead I was off to help survey an old stately home in Northumberland, Callaly Castle, that was being converted into apartments.

“I really enjoyed that, being outdoors and really getting to know the building.

“That was the start of things, really. It seemed to confirm the romantic version of the job that I had in mind. That’s when the switch was flicked and I became more and more interested in buildings and design.”

He entered the world of architecture through an unconventional route, but one which took him to one of the world’s leading architectural practices and also to one of the region’s most prestigious firms.

The 15-year-old Craig decided he didn’t want to sit A-levels, but neither did he decide to join his dad’s air-conditioning business. He completed a BTEC OND in construction and land use at Newcastle’s College of Arts and Technology.

The OND was so new at the time that there were few universities that accepted the OND qualification but he eventually went to the University of Central England, leaving with a 2:2. “I should have done better, but perhaps I spent too much time socialising,” he smiled.

The lengthy seven-year qualification process led him through a year’s placement at a local architects, followed by a second degree at Newcastle University he needed to qualify as an architect (B. Arch) – Restoration Man George Clarke was also studying there at the same time.

And as well as leaving with a first class degree he gained the highest mark ever awarded for a design thesis project at the university – a design of a Tyneside Shipbuilding and Maritime Museum in an old dock in South Shields.

The design was entered for a RIBA Presidents’ silver medal award, and won him the university’s School of Architecture student prize and the William Bell Memorial Scholarship in 1995.

With these accolades under his belt, it was the university which encouraged him to think national instead of local when completing his training.

He couldn’t believe his luck when he landed a place at Foster and Partners, led by the legendary Lord Norman Foster.

Lord Foster has designed many iconic buildings around the world including The Sage, Gateshead, the new Wembley Stadium and Beijing’s enormous new airport . . . yet despite working on so many projects viewed and awed by millions around the world, the work was predominantly office-based, which frustrated Craig.

But such frustration would ultimately lead to his return North.

He said: “This was a fantastic experience and I learned so much. It was a huge practice of international importance and I loved walking down the King’s Road to work and being able to look over the Thames and Battersea Bridge from the office window. Unfortunately, I felt I really needed to be doing more to qualify and the sort of experience I wanted to be doing wasn’t available to me.

“I was working on projects all over the world, but I was based in the office and obviously not going to any of these places or meeting any clients or developers being a trainee architect. I’ve always loved getting fully involved in projects, the real nitty-gritty stuff and unfortunately I wasn’t able to do any of that at Foster’s at that time.

“I rang my tutor from university, Neil Taylor, a partner at FaulknerBrown’s in Newcastle and asked if there was anything going. I was told I could start straight away, but I served my notice and then started at FaulknerBrown’s in their Killingworth office.

The firm has a national reputation and recently won awards for two Olympic 2012 venues it designed.

At FaulknerBrown’s Craig worked on several high-profile buildings, including the swimming pool for the Manchester Commonwealth Games.

“I was getting lots of experience, but again my contact with clients was very limited and I felt like I wanted to be far more involved with the day-to-day running of projects. I wanted to work on these big jobs, but at a smaller practice where I would have more involvement with clients and contractors.”

He returned to the smaller practice where he’d completed his first work placement to finish off his seven-year qualification period

“It was a total change of lifestyle. I was fully involved in running some great projects and I could walk to work,” he said.

One of the projects Craig took particular pride in was Echo 24, the iconic apartment scheme dramatically poised on riverside cliffs overlooking the Wearmouth Bridge.

The site had been previously occupied by the Sunderland Echo newspaper, but the paper had moved to a new site next to the A19 in the mid 1970s.

“It was a really tricky site being basically on a cliff and surrounded by roads. I was very keen on the riverside still being visible and you can see through the building to the river if you’re standing on John Street.

“Because of the awkwardness of the site, we had to be innovative. So, for instance, the metal mesh structure of the apartment balconies actually served as the building’s scaffolding primarily,” he said.

“It was great to work on such a major project in my home city. I was so proud, and still am of the building.

“I remember taking my kids down to watch the tower crane go up from the roof of the casino car park. That was an amazing moment.”

On completion of Echo 24, Craig decided it was time for him to go it alone and in May 2007 he established Fitz Architects, originally based in offices opposite to the ones the firm currently occupies in Sunniside, Sunderland.

It wasn’t the best of times to set up a business, however.

“We’d literally just started when the downturn hit,” he said.

“In the space of a week the two biggest jobs we were working on were put on hold. It was really tough, but we learned to be lean and mean and we all mucked in. We had no secretaries, no receptionists and we quickly realized that diversity was the key to survival.

“We didn’t specialise in a particular sector, we designed homes, golf clubs, commercial buildings, and medical centres and throughout the recession we were kept busy. And we were building our reputation for high-quality, innovative design with clients and developers. That reputation has served us well and now the industry seems to be over the worst, we’ve never been busier.

“The value of work generated in the first half of 2013/14 is 44% up on the same period two years ago, and in terms of turnover we’re sure this will be our best year yet.” The firm’s ground-breaking work on the multi award-winning Sinclair Meadows housing development in South Shields has helped cement its reputation for combining innovative design with environmental awareness.

Another ‘green homes’ development that Fitz Architects is working on is in Fulwell, Sunderland. A new Homes by Esh development is replacing the Newcastle Road baths and a number of the Fitz-designed homes will be so carbon efficient they won’t have heating bills.

“What’s important to me is the balance between good design and fantastic energy savings,” he said. “These homes will be a great place in which to live, but they will also hugely minimise the carbon footprint and reduce heating bills to nothing.”

Other projects which will come to fruition this year include two along Sunderland’s seafront.

His plans have been approved for a new commercial and residential development at Marine Walk in Roker, and also for a major restaurant development which will extend and revitalise the former Seaburn Shelter, further north along the coast.

“We’ve got so much going on at the moment, from a supermarket in Northumberland to the restoration of large period properties in Durham,” said Craig.

However, it is creating large, contemporary luxury homes and living spaces that Craig and his team are particularly enjoying and becoming known for.

He has recently seen bespoke homes completed for two of the region’s most prominent business people, and is currently working on designs for five new large homes adjacent to Ramside Golf Course. The bespoke designs for the stylish family homes include open-plan kitchen/family rooms, games and cinema rooms, libraries and leisure facilities, and range in size up to 10,000sqft.

He becomes animated and excited when talking of these luxury homes, describing his belief in really understanding a site before thinking about design, and how light and space are always at the front of his thoughts.

“Understanding each client is paramount. We always design the house around the family rather than putting the family into the house. Each home is site-specific, unique and tailored to that client. We refine the design over and over until the client is completely satisfied.

“We’ve had really consistent growth in this area of work over the last three years and we have more than doubled the number of bespoke homes we are doing in this financial year already compared to 2012-2013.”

He puts as much thought and work into bespoke residential extensions, and refurbishments, and has several of these on the go as well as new homes.

“The extensions can be really interesting and obviously can transform a home into something special.”

Although Fitz’s reputation is spreading further afield, he has no intention of leaving his roots.

“I have a real passion for the North East. I was born in Sunderland, live in South Tyneside and love Durham, Newcastle and Northumberland so why would I want to be anywhere else?”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?

Audi A3

What’s your favourite restaurant?

When we go out it’s usually local such as Romano’s in Cleadon, Bellini’s in Fulwell or the Black Horse in Boldon. If we’re going further afield maybe Vujon in Newcastle or Zen in Durham.

Who, or what makes you laugh?

Family, friends and our dog.

What’s your favourite book?

I wish I had time to read something other than architectural magazines.

What was the first album you bought?

Queen’s Greatest Hits.

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?

An ecologist, something outdoors to do with nature.

What’s your greatest fear?

I can’t imagine myself ever going potholing.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in business?

Setting up my business at the start of the downturn, I found it important to set short-term, achievable goals and to keep things as lean as possible. I also find it helpful to make lists and be courteous and polite.

What’s your poison?

A nice cold bottle of lager, in my garden on a Friday night when I get in from work.

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?

 Phone apps such as The Times, The Observer and BBC News.

How much was your first pay packet and how much was it for?

Paper boy for £3 a week.

How do you keep fit?

I walk about seven miles a day before breakfast and then go to the gym most days after work.

What’s your most irritating habit?

Using my phone too much and writing lists!

What’s your biggest extravagance?

My annual ski-ing holiday with my friends.

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?

Rowan Atkinson, Tom Hanks, Norman Foster, Sir David Attenborough.

How would you like to be remembered?

 A passionate and hard-working architect, and caring and generous with family and friends.

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