WITH a portfolio of projects stretching from Morpeth to Mongolia, Gradon Architecture is a local firm with a global outlook.
However, design director Graham McDarby, who founded the firm with his wife Donna, in 2009, admits that his growing list of overseas projects only serves to strengthen his belief that the company’s “heart is in the North-East”.
Created during the height of recession, Gradon has grown over the past few years into an award-winning practice that has embraced difficult challenges faced by the architecture and construction industries to successfully grow year-on-year into new sectors and international market places.
As well as projects in Kazakhstan, Gradon is making great strides in exporting architectural services to Mongolia.
Having worked on a number of projects to improve building stock in the capital city of Ulan Bator advising the government on planning for new residential developments for people currently living in deprived Ger communities, Gradon is in the process of establishing a dedicated operational base in the country to extend and grow the business further.
“We deliberately targeted Mongolia because we are incredibly passionate about green and sustainable architecture,” said Graham, from Gradon’s base at NE40Studios, a converted locally listed church in Ryton.
“According to the World Health Organsation, Ulan Bator (the Mongolian capital) is the second most polluted city in the world so we used UKTI to open some doors in the country and before long we were able to establish some projects there.”
The practice has submitted design proposals for 50 energy-efficient homes in the Nukht Valley of Ulan Bator which incorporate a number of sustainable features to help protect residents against potentially deadly -30 temperatures.
Gradon has also recently put forward design proposals for an 18 storey hotel, apartment and shopping plaza in the city of Darkhan.
Committed to designing sustainable environments with energy efficient, socially responsible buildings and spaces, Gradon is also a practice that likes to give something back to the community. It raises money each year for local charities, as well as investing in overseas education projects in Uganda and Mongolia to improve lives through design.
It is a far cry from where Graham grew up in Blaydon. The son of a commercial painter and decorator, he visited local building sites with his dad and soon gained an understanding of how they operated.
He studied architecture in London before graduating from Sheffield University in 1993. Following an architectural tour of Europe in 1993-94 he went on to work for a number of practices including Geoffrey Purves Partnership, John Edwards Architects and FaulknerBrowns, before joining Ryder in 1995, where he eventually became Director.
Graham, 44, and his wife and finance director Donna, also 44, created Gradon Architecture after being made redundant from Ryder in 2009.
“The ambition to have our own practice has always been there,” said Graham.
“Having worked with Ryder for 14 years it was an upheaval to leave, but I have always had faith in my own ability and looked at it as the ideal opportunity to realize my own ambitions and develop something special with a close group of people.
“When we started there was a spell of working from the kitchen table at home.
"The same table now sits proudly in our Ne40 Studios and is a symbol of where we came from.
"We had a few clients in those early days but it was difficult with everyone in the construction industry having been hit hard by the recession.
"Despite this we managed to develop a portfolio of new and diverse clients which did include a number of small residential projects. These included house extensions and we still offer this service as we believe it is at this level where the everyday person can experience architect at first hand.
“When we started Gradon we never wanted to be an enormous global firm.
"I had spent 14 years working for a large company and quite often clients would say that they saw me at the start of jobs and then didn’t see me again until the project was finished – I wanted to get back to that interaction with the client that I felt had been lost and offer an experienced hands on service.”
Graham added: “A real landmark project in those early days was for the North East Autism Society and while the building may not be the most attractive in the world, we delivered it on time, on budget and to the exact specifications of the client. Further we won a Constructing Excellence Value Award for the project – because we listened to and exceeded the clients’ aspirations.”
The project involved creating a sensory design for an agricultural training centre for people with autistic conditions.
The firm is now also working with the Percy Hedley Foundation to design a new children’s home and hydrotherapy pool to help disabled youngsters with complex needs in Killingworth, North Tyneside.
“I have been very fortunate in my career that I have never been pigeonholed in one particular area or sector,” said Graham. “We have built a team at Gradon that has a wealth of experience across all sectors, whether that’s residential, commercial, masterplanning, education or emergency services. In fact, we are working with Northumberland County Council on designing new fire stations for the county.
“Before the recession I felt the industry had become a little greedy and this was reflected in fees and salaries. While a harsh thing for us all, in some respects the recession has enabled us to go back to basics and build upon delivering a cost effective service for our clients – something which is at the heart of Gradon’s approach. We focus on competitiveness and keeping overheads low.”
Gradon Architecture have designed world-class badminton facilities at Tyneside Badminton Centre in Newcastle, the new flagship headquarters for leading industrial technology company Tracerco, on Teesside; student residential and social housing projects within Gateshead, Durham and Stockton and are currently working on a mixed use master-plan for a forward-thinking development of 450 new homes and community facilities in Sedgefield, which includes extra-care facilities and a business hub.
In 2014 Gradon was named SME of the Year at the North East Constructing Excellence Awards and runner-up in the New Exporter of the Year.
This followed success in 2013 at the same awards when the business scooped the honours in the ‘Value’ category for its sensory design of North East Autism Society’s New Warlands Farm.
Gradon Architecture’s futuristic design concept for a renewable energy tower, known as the E-Cobra, has also been shortlisted for the International Specialised Exposition to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan in 2017.
With a team of 12 employees, Gradon Architecture provides a mix of dedicated and highly experienced architects and technologists, who believe in delivering innovative and sustainable design through life experiences with care and efficiency.
The practice has doubled its workforce over the last year and have forged ties with local schools and universities, including St Thomas More School in Blaydon, as well as Newcastle University and Northumbria University.
“We have a social conscience and while we have these projects all over the world, we remain a company whose heart remains very much in the North East,” added Graham. “Our experiences in Kazakhstan and Mongolia have been inspirational, professional and cultural experiences, but we are still very much a North East company.
“However, I think it’s important that our employees are open to new experiences and each year we go away as a team for a few days to look at architecture and have a good time.
"We’ve recently been to Venice and Krakow and next month we’re off to Palma. It gets us out of the office and helps us to come together as a team for inspiring new ideas.”
And Graham’s approach seems to be working.
For the past two years, Gradon has achieved healthy profits of around 20 per cent - 25 per cent of its annual turnover.
All profits are reinvested into the business, which has helped to finance the development of its NE40Studios office – a facility that provides for future growth and also generates income by offering desk space opportunities to local businesses.
The practice has delivered more than 50 completed projects in excess of £100million in value since it was established.
Of this, it has designed and delivered over £10million of new sustainable and affordable housing in the North East.
North East Chamber of Commerce Chief executive, James Ramsbotham, said: “It is a fine example of the “can do” attitude we have here in the North-East to see such a socially aware, forward thinking company flourish despite the incredibly challenging economic climate of the last few years.
“Gradon Architecture’s commitment to working with local educational establishments as well as the quality and diversity of work it has carried out from here in the North-East to outer Mongolia is a credit to its employees and a clear indication that the spirit of enterprise and innovation is alive and well in our region. I wish them all the luck in the future.”