Building success from heritage

Building success from heritage

Buildings are in his blood, he says, which is why Peter Stienlet takes such pride in preserving some of our finest architecture. He talks to Brian Nicholls.

Right, we’ve all shared the joke about that Yellow Pages cross-reference: “Boring, see civil engineers”. But two civil engineers you don’t typecast like that are Peter Stienlet and Mark Turner. Stienlet earlier studied three years towards a medical degree; Turner’s an ex-paratrooper and driller roughneck on oil rigs. Not quite the Odd Couple perhaps, but certainly civil engineers out of the ordinary – and business partners now in Patrick Parsons Ltd. It’s a firm Stienlet started out with at 17 and now, at 41, runs as managing director.

In two years its workforce has more than doubled, and he predicts a 40% rise in turnover as he discusses opportunities in the Far East with a Chinese architect. Buildings are in his blood, he says.

Patrick Parsons indeed has recently won the conservation accolade in the RICS North East Renaissance Awards, for its part in developer Gentoo’s refurbishing and converting (to apartments, offices, a restaurant and surgery) the Grade II listed Irvin Building, a major landmark that was once a bonded warehouse on North Shields fish quay. Following the family pattern he might have been an architect.

His great great grandfather, who came from Belgium to set up ship’s chandlers along the road from the Irvin Building, had a son Pascal. The firm later became known as Pascal J Stienlet and Son when Peter’s grandfather took over. It fuelled speculation that Peter would follow suit. Pascal J Stienlet, after all, laid notable landmarks in Newcastle, designing Byker’s Apollo cinema in 1933.

That was bombed eight years later. But a new Apollo by the same practice rose on the same site in 1955. That hosted diverse entertainments before making way for a supermarket in 2001. A year after the original Apollo completion, Pascal J Stienlet (as distinct from today’s Stienlet Pascal J Son) designed a house unique to Newcastle – Ashbourne, on the corner of Glastonbury Grove and Jesmond Dene Road.

Newcastle Council’s character statement on Jesmond Dene conservation area, says Ashbourne has recently been refurbished and extended in a manner “not entirely complementary” to the original. Could they mean “complimentary” too? Either way Peter Stienlet, instead of being drawn to architecture, holiday-temped in his youth for Patrick Parsons. Even amid medical studies at London University he worked for the firm on extending Leicester Square Odeon. Why quit medicine? “I’ve a very, very bad memory for names. So I stumbled in pharmacology. But things like that give a bit of life experience. I’d hope now people see me a little differently to your normal engineer. I lost nothing and I’ve never looked back. Things like that give you an edge. I’ve the writing to go with it though - an A Level in doctor’s handwriting. No-one can read it.”

He worked back in the North East for a year, then gained his three-year civil engineering degree at Newcastle University. “I’d been doing surveys for Patrick Parsons and running its accounts and all sorts throughout – anything to make a bit of money as a student.” After another year with the firm he joined the engineering consultancy now known as Cundall for some years. He was offered a partnership at the firm, but on learning that it had declined an option to buy out Patrick Parsons, he himself bought into the firm he knew intimately.

He built his stake and brought in Turner. “We’d been at university together, the two mature students.” Their full management buyout had Stienlet as major stakeholder. “So there we are. We haven’t gone straight from school to university to an engineering post to a promotion up the ranks and ended a bit higher up. We’re not of that mould.

“But Mark, with his military background, runs our engineering, ensuring that everything goes out correct and on time. He’s the force behind our engine room. I couldn’t do what I’ve done without him. We’ve always worked extremely well together and I think we always shall.”

Over the years the firm has relocated; from Jesmond to the Bigg Market, Collingwood Street then just before Christmas to the fine mid-19th Century building, Waterloo House, where they are now. It’s part of the Tyne Theatre restoration by Adderstone Group. With bank backing from the Co-op and Lloyds, Patrick Parsons has bought this property, as well as a second one in the Bigg Market. In fact, aside from its multiple properties, a lot of Patrick Parsons’ assets are clearly on view.

It enjoys a major reputation for its heritage work. Alnwick Castle and Durham Cathedral are just two national treasures whose magnificence has been entrusted to it. At Alnwick Castle, assessment is necessary about risk from falling masonry – inevitable with the passing of time. Bridges and parapets need repair, for weathering stones must be replaced deftly.

“In this, a lot of technology is moving on dramatically,” Stienlet explains.

“Much of the survey work is done digitally, photographing every stone and mapping so they can be highlighted within a specification for replacement and things like that. Older buildings have inherent problems.

We’re here to sort them.” As for the frequent concealment of much of the hard work, he’s philosophical: “A lot of our satisfaction comes from knowing you’ll not see us around there again for another 200 years.

We’ve preserved something for a decent period. Design a new building and it may last only 25 years. In our heritage work a client may say he doesn’t want something rebuilt for another 150 or 200 years, and our team get great satisfaction from that.” Some heritage work does require change, though, such as the old Hexham Gaol now a museum, where a Victorian staircase had to be taken out and a glass lift planned.

“Again,” Stienlet reminds, “that’s an ancient monument with hoops you have to go through. You have to be trustworthy to do that, building a relationship with the heritage community.” Whitley Bay’s central seafront is sometimes likened by locals to Beirut after Israeli shellings, so deep is the decay and destruction.

Here the firm’s at the heart of a belated fight to save some of Spanish City’s iconic architecture. Its white dome at least – the last vestige of a once great entertainment venue – looks now as if someone cares. Stienlet says: “In its heyday, it was a real seafront attraction. Involvement with the team trying to sort that out gives us pride. We’ve restored the dome, made the building weathertight. A lot has been saved. Hopefully, more will be.”

Patrick Parsons wants to help further, but phase two of the project falters, North Tyneside Council having overspent elsewhere in reviving the resort on which 36,000 Scottish holidaymakers used to descend in its peak summer fortnight. Now questions remain about the future purpose for the site if restoration succeeds.

Stienlet, a member of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum, has ideas but withholds counsel for now. He does predict though: “If Whitley Bay is to enjoy economic recovery, work on that building must be completed. There’s a lot still to do if the town is to make a serious comeback.

Counter-attractions today are phenomenal.” It’s a fair bet that, as with earlier commissions, Patrick Parsons would try to rescue as much as possible for future generations. That’s its creed in city preservation as well.

“There too,” he points out, “you have listed buildings, listed facades. A developer may want to come in and do something viable. We can say what can and can’t be done. We can show alternatives to combine all considerations. We’ll never make a fortune out of heritage, but it gives us a uniqueness that’s invaluable.”

Last year, despite recession, the firm took on four more staff and finalised purchase of its latest offices. It completed more jobs than usual, albeit smaller than normal.

“So we haven’t done too badly in an industry that’s been decimated. A lot of our big competitors are really struggling. Being a bit smaller, we can also be very flexible,” he says.

A bigger buzz since December has the firm now looking for more qualified civil engineers and senior technicians, and Stienlet stresses to applicants there’s lots more to Patrick Parsons besides heritage work, for it works also in a wide variety of sectors that include power, transport, residential and healthcare. The company has also become heavily involved in whitewater courses.

It recently started work on a £3.5m upgrade of Teesside’s whitewater course at the Tees Barrage, an initiative by British Waterways, Stockton and Middlesbrough Initiative, One North East, Sport England and the British Canoe Union.

This follows its successful configuration of Holme Pierrrepont, the venue for last year’s European championships and current training course for Team GB’s 2012 Olympic kayaking squad.

And at the property professionals’ MIPIM gathering in Cannes recently, the company secured seven schemes in two days – not bad for its first visit to this major event.

Patrick Parsons got involved in whitewater through Andy Laird, a keen kayaker and chartered civil engineer who had worked for Stienlet before setting up himself to work on projects for the burgeoning sport.

He’d done a lot of feasibility work on how best to deliver. Says Stienlet: “He does the clever stuff - how the water’s going to flow. We design all structures on the back of that. As a partnership it works tremendously.

It has grown out of a meeting with a friend to something beyond all proportion.” The existing Teesside facility is getting an additional shorter course, with a conveyor to lift rafts and kayaks back up to the start of the course after each run, eliminating a long haul up steps.

Also, for the first time, the course will not be tidebound. Through the night electricity generated will be sold to the National Grid to help pay costs. “This is one- off stuff and very exciting,” says Stienlet. You can imagine him saying that about any job in hand, and he’d mean  it.