A Carlisle architectural practice has doubled its staff in the last year as it has taken on a raft of high end residential projects.  

Ashwood Design Associates, which is based in Solway House Business Centre, in Carlisle, is approaching 20 years since it was founded by architect George Cummings. 

Joe Connelly has been managing director of the practice for the last five years. 

“It started off doing quite a lot of specialist commercial work for large companies in the area, so the likes of Nestle and Cavaghan and Gray,” says Joe.  

Joe joined the business after running his own practice, which had much more focus on residential building design.  

“Over the last five years, instead of being 70 per cent commercial food industry projects, it’s now 70 per cent bespoke high end housing and one-off multi-million-pound residential properties, while maintaining the commercial projects,” he says.  

“We’ve pushed in that direction because we enjoy that work and people appreciate the work we do. We’re at the point where we’re working on a very nice list of jobs in Cumbria which are very prestigious projects and we’re winning work over other award-winning architects from around the country.” 

Current projects include a house in Watermillock, overlooking Ullswater, which has a glazed “butterfly effect” roof design creating panoramic views across the lake.  

Near Carlisle, the company is in the process of designing a large commercial project with a budget of £30 million. 

“We also have a scheme in Culgaith, near Penrith, where we’re looking at building a sustainable retirement village, which is self sufficient and will contain half a dozen properties that are catered for by nurses and cleaners,” says Joe.  

“It has its own electrical generation supply with solar panels and its own water supply from a borehole. They’ve got beautiful views that look west over towards Blencathra and down towards Ullswater.” 

Alongside its architectural work, the company also offers consultancy on strategic land and development management, development master planning, topographical surveying and project management. 

“I worked for Story Homes for a number of years and so I’ve got a very good insight into the development side of things and understanding the commercial aspects and how it all pulls together,” says Joe. 

“We can assess a project from day one when we approach it on site and look at it and say whether it’s going to be viable or not, what problems there might be and then we build in viability with the design.  

“At that very first appraisal meeting at the site, whether it’s a one-off or 200 houses, we can tell the client how much money it may generate and how much it is going to cost them and how we can tweak the design to suit the viability. That’s quite unique.” 

Despite the cost pressures which many people are facing at present, Joe says the company’s client base is affluent enough that the pipeline of work has not stalled.  

“The challenge we’ve got more than anything is that we just cannot keep up because there’s not enough skilled staff,” he says.  

“We have doubled the size of the practice in the last year and that’s allowing us to have exponential growth. We’re not afraid to lose a project if it’s not appropriate. We’d rather prioritise a good project and do it properly. So the quality of work we’re doing is better as a result.” 

The number of employees at the practice now sits at seven, including two apprentice architectural technologists – Ted and Holly Hodgson (no relation) – who are completing their training at University of Central Lancashire alongside their work at Ashwood Design.  

“Lots of people will relocate to big cities or even just set up on their own, so having enough of an engine to complete the big projects we’re taking on now has been a challenge, but the additional resource allows us to manage these projects effectively now,” says Joe. 

“What we’ve had to do is look at our five-year plan of bringing in fresh blood and that’s included setting up an apprenticeship scheme here and work experience schemes to try to get as many people into the practice to see what we do and excite them to do an apprenticeship or to go to uni and come back to work. 

“Now we want to keep growing and pushing to win some national awards that are really prestigious. 

“We’re so busy that we don’t have time to show everybody what we do and we rely so heavily on word of mouth. A big part of the practice evolving over the next five years to win more projects – but also to help with recruitment – is to hopefully help us push our brand so people are very familiar with us as a leading architectural practice.”