With Birmingham Heritage Week drawing to a close, it’s prompted us to have a look into our own history as conservationists. The Pountney family have been involved in developing Birmingham properties for decades, with large scale award-winning renovations like our Branston Court offices and the Drop Forge pub as standout projects, it’s safe to say they know a thing or two about Birmingham’s heritage.
As any history buff will know, renovating grade listed buildings that are seen to be of national importance is no walk in the park. There’s a lot to consider, from getting the right permissions to ensuring the materials you use match those of the original structure – all of which can mean a renovation may take years to complete. Nobody understands this better than UrbanWorkSpace owner and head of the Pountney family, Gerry Pountney.
We wanted to know more about what it takes to restore some of Birmingham’s most derelict buildings to their former glory and, more importantly, why. Gerry had this to say: “With listed buildings, the journey truly is far better than the destination. The characters you meet and the stories you hear along the way are incredible.
From sourcing the right fixtures all the way down to getting the mortar mix right, rebuilding a historical building is a true collaboration. You’ve got to deal with specialists from all walks of life to ensure you’re preserving as much of its original features as possible – it’s a real labour of love.”
The family’s passion for listed buildings, stems not just from their historic value but also the craftsmanship that goes into renovating them. Gerry describes the process as an almost forensic-like investigation, “There’s something fascinating about taking a building apart to work out how it was made. You can’t recreate it with its former glory in mind if you don’t know what went into each component all those years ago.”
Having worked on an impressive 11 regeneration projects over the years, Gerry and his team often intentionally pick buildings that are in a particularly bad state. When asked why, he simply stated that they simply love the work that goes into taking something from derelict to an incredibly profitable functional structure that will go on to benefit Birmingham for years to come.
“When you take the Drop Forge for example, it was hailed as one of the most difficult civil engineering jobs in Birmingham by conservation architects due to the difficulties caused by the railway tunnel just 11 feet beneath it.” The Drop Forge, a former industrial manufacturing building opposite the Jewellery Quarter train station, was taken from a derelict factory to contemporary bar. It was for the large-scale transformation that the Drop Forge went through that it was awarded the CAMRA English Heritage Pub Conversion award.
Gerry continues, “It was a really tough project to see through, but with enough perseverance from our fantastic team and faith in our vision for the area – we got there eventually. Despite all of that, it will always be one of my favourite projects.”
Of course, while history and culture are a top priority for the UrbanWorkSpace team, they still have to look at the buildings from a commercial perspective. “We always need to consider what we will use the building for without ruining its heritage, the aim is to leave something behind as a legacy that is of use and value for generations to come. It’s about looking to the past to secure a bright future for Birmingham.”
Feeding into Birmingham’s business ecosystem is something the UrbanWorkSpace team do very well. For instance, almost all building materials are sourced from local Birmingham providers and suppliers are usually Birmingham natives, then there’s the matter of what the buildings are used for. Four out of eleven projects went on to become affordable office space to house some of Birmingham’s brightest small to medium sized businesses.
“I feel absolutely privileged to have the opportunity to own and improve these buildings. As a child living in back to back terraced housing, I could never have imagined owning anything of such stature and historical wealth – and now that I’m here, I feel like I owe it to the city of Birmingham to preserve it for future generations.”
If you’d like to find out more about our heritage projects, take a look at our We Love Birmingham Heritage microsite.