Graham McDarby, Design Director at Gradon Architecture

Aranda Rahbarkouhi discovers why Graham McDarby travels to farflung places such as Mongolia and Kazakhstan in search of the best places to do business

Graham and Donna McDarby of Gradon Architecture
Graham and Donna McDarby of Gradon Architecture

Gradon Architecture is a company at the cutting edge of lifestyle design – creating a host of world-class places to work as well as live.

On the outside, NE40Studios looks like nothing other than a historic listed church. However, one thing I’ve learned is never judge a book by its cover. And inside, its crisp white and ultra-modern space could comfortably fit in with anything Europe has to boast about.

The firm’s Ryton location was just one of this old building’s draws when McDarby and his wife, Donna, both 43, decided to set up not just Gradon Architecture here, but also make it their home.

McDarby said: “Part of our business plan wasn’t necessarily intended at the time, but we purchased an old church in Ryton which was going to be earmarked for demolition in 2010.

“We were able to purchase the church, and as part of that there was an old church hall, so we converted the church into our offices, NE40Studios and the former church hall into our home. I could walk to work in my slippers if I wanted to!”

But this space has a more unusual aspect in that it is not just a place to work, but staff feel like they belong to a family, rather than just working for Gradon Architecture.

It also houses a gallery to showcase the work of emerging local talent.

Futurists call these kind of places ‘third spaces’ – designed for a purpose, but those that also offer the benefit of being more a home from home.

And this award-winning practice is certainly pioneering in the way its third space is being driven with modern technologies within its shell to sustain modern business activities.

The former nave space has been transformed into a large, light and airy open-plan studio space, supported by glazed meeting rooms and other accommodation within two former vestries.

McDarby has created an experiential space, in designing a building you dont just pass through on your way home, but its welcoming facilities offer some quiet downtime, between the daily commute and a return to bustling domestic life.

And the design director suggests that, with work and leisure time blurring, demand for this kind of family business will stay strong.

He said: “Our team is our most important asset. We bring together a dynamic mix of dedicated and highly experienced architects who believe in delivering innovative and sustainable design through life experiences with care and efficiency.”

McDarby is also buzzing about the international reputation the company is currently building, working in Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

He said: “I’ve just returned from the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Bator. It’s quite an eye-opener, it’s raw in places. At this time of year you have temperatures of plus 30 degrees, in the winter, it’s the complete opposite and around -40!

“It’s a growing economy and it’s raw to the point that you will get nomadic sheep and cattle farmers roaming around in the city and next to them will be a blue-chip company operating out of a glass tower block in the city centre, so it’s in a major state of change at the moment.

“Going to Mongolia was of interest to us as we have an atlas in the office and we put a pin on it one day. There were a number of countries that we identified as wanting to go to.

“It was an old school friend who works for Defra who had been out to Mongolia and told us some fascinating stories. He put us in touch with the British Embassy out there.

“We’ve been going out there for about a year now working on high-class executive bespoke family homes set within a village environment. So we are not just doing circa 50 to 70 dwellings, there are also community facilities, such as social club facilities, shops and retail.

“It’s a former Soviet country, so you have a legacy of a lot of Soviet architecture such as concrete blocks of apartments which are on a grid-like kind of urban street masterplan. What they are trying to do is break away from that and become more Westernised. It’s a case of those who have and those who haven’t at the moment.”

But McDarby admits that the firm never set our to be international players.

He said: “It was really about keeping in touch with a number of contacts we had made and also thinking outside of the box a little.

“We didn’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. While we might be working on bigger glamour projects overseas, we also do house extensions for people because you haven’t got to have all your income in one basket. I believe that’s been the failure of a number of architectural firms in recent years.

“It disappoints me that some architects won’t do a house extension for somebody because they think it’s beneath them.”

McDarby added: “With support from UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), within the last two years, Gradon has increased its international business from zero to 30% of the company’s total turnover.”

By the end of March 2012, the practice had achieved an annual turnover of just under £400,000, having originally targeted £250,000. And for the past two years, the practice has also achieved healthy profits of about 20% to 25% of its annual turnover.

McDarby said: “All profits have been reinvested into the sustainable growth of the business and has helped to completely finance the development of its wholly-owned offices at NE40Studios.

“This provides the practice with a base for future growth and also generates income by offering desk space opportunities to local business start-ups, freelancers and entrepreneurs in a co-working environment.”

McDarby is at the helm and he is brimming over with enthusiasm amd a determined, comprehensive plan of action.

The four-year old family-owned company currently has one base but expansion is always on the horizon.

“We deliver our architecture through our own life experiences. How can we be good architects if we don’t go out and visit the world. Everyone lives and breathes architecture. It’s about raising awareness of architecture and innovation.”

McDarby earned his stripes by studying architecture in London before graduating from Sheffield University in 1993.

But as the son of a commercial painter and decorator, having regularly visited local building sites, McDarby also gained an understanding of how they operated.

After an architectural tour of Europe in 1993-94, he worked for architectural practices including Geoffrey Purves Partnership, John Edwards Architects and FaulknerBrowns, before joining Ryder in 1995.

At Ryder, McDarby became a director in 2003 before leaving in 2009 to set up Gradon.

Rather than seeing redundancy negatively, Graham and Donna embarked on a process of reassessing their family’s future.

Today, with their passion for architecture and admiration for people who can do amazing things, they have hit the ground running.

McDarby said: “We took a 150-year-old church that was going to be demolished, we refurbished it and that church is probably going to last longer than me or Donna will. To my mind that is a good example of sustainability.”

An understanding of the family behind the company is also important as McDarby met his wife of 17 years, finance director Donna at St Thomas More School in Blaydon.

Donna McDarby said: “We sat next to each other in the same class! We were good friends at school, but Graham went to university and I stayed here in the North East. I pursued a banking career. It was only when Graham returned from studying in London and Sheffield that we then got together.”

Back then what kept the couple together was similar goals in life. Both are ambitious and driven to succeed.

McDarby added: “In our 17 years of marriage we’ve had around six houses and built many others. Donna is very good at interiors, where as I do the hard architectural side of things and Donna then softens it all up with very imaginative interiors.

“We established the architectural business in 2009, but what we did before that was set up a business to deliver social affordable housing projects. We set ourselves a challenge and at our own risk, got funding from a bank, purchased a couple of plots of land and developed four different sites with green ‘eco homes’ in Birtley, Winlaton and Springwell.

“We didn’t set out as hard-nosed developers to make money, we just wanted to be able to prove that we could do social housing at affordable prices. Fortunately it all worked out for us and we sold them on to a housing association.”

McDarby is a breath of fresh air as an interviewee when discussing the biggest changes, his enthusiastic attitude is infectious, and at the heart of it, entirely serious.

He has embraced the difficult challenges faced by the architecture and construction industries to successfully grow into new sectors and international market places.

McDarby said: “It’s been a lot of hard work, but I was made redundant in 2009, so I am no stranger as to what challenges faced me at that time. However, it was always my ambition to have my own architectural practice and I think I had a good grounding with just short of 20 years’ experience. One of the bad things with a larger practice is that they become a little bit impersonal. I was conscious to have a much more personal, hands-on service.

“Donna does all the finances, so is very good at telling us architects to buy cheaper pencils and look for better deals!

“I think that is really important because I think a lot of businesses got really fat, not just architecture, but the whole construction industry got fat before the bust. It was very much boom then bust. It’s essential as a business to buy what you need in the most cost-effective way.”

And even the family are lending a hand at Gradon.

With three children, two daughters and a son, seven, eldest daughter Emily, 15, tidies the office at weekends. “Emily helps out and makes sure we have supplies and does a bit of tidying up in the office,” said McDarby.

Registered with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the practice now delivers architectural design across commercial, residential, retail, leisure, health, education, private housing, interior design, master planning and conservation sectors.

And McDarby is committed to embarking on a path of attracting more growth in Mongolia as well as in Kazakhstan. He said: “We’ve been working with people that ‘have’ at the moment on residential projects.

But what we are breaking into now is what interests most - ‘eco homes’ for poorer people out there. Those living in camps. Design is of course important to every building,

“I would put Mongolia as the next India or China. You have people out there who want the high-end luxury brands and are buying them.”

McDarby is undoubtedly a people person, telling me about his employees. Everybody matters to him. And from the sound of it the Gradon team is going to be kept rather busy over the next few years.

Family and company are goals for the years to come as the practice continues to forge new relationships with public and private sector clients across the North of England and adds to its growing team of 11 people, including recent graduates from Newcastle and Northumbria Universities.

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