Region: East Midlands
Unitary Authority: Nottingham
Owner Type: Company
Year of Intervention: 2004
Summary: This Grade II* Listed Georgian town house is located in the heart of Nottingham City centre and retains many fine period features. After almost 100 years of use as office accommodation, the future of Willoughby House was thrown into question when the freeholders decided to vacate the building. The local authority and English Heritage worked closely with Paul Smith fashion designer to secure the future of Willoughby House through re-use as a retail space. The resulting shop keeps this historic building in single use and celebrates the unique characteristics of the building as a setting for high-quality fashion.
Willoughby House is a Grade II* 18th century brick-built gentleman’s residence, in the heart of the City centre. It retains its original flagged stone forecourt and garden to the rear, a rare survival for Nottingham’s town houses. The interior of the building features a fine polite staircase and period rooms with plasterwork, paneling and fireplaces.
The house is situated in the Low Pavement area of Nottingham City centre, which was dominated by office premises during the 20th century and is now undergoing a conversion to retail and restaurant use. Retailers tend to include designer fashion shops and trendy interior designers. Paul Smith, fashion designer and Nottingham resident, identified Willoughby House as a possible flagship store, attracted because of its historic qualities and central location.
In this case the established use for the building as office accommodation was coming to an end as the character of the area had changed and adjacent buildings were converting to retail and bar/restaurant use. Government guidance in PPG15 stresses the importance of the historic plan form in contributing to the special interest of a listed building. Therefore the aim was to identify a new single use for the building which would ensure the historic plan form and period interiors were retained. The local authority and English Heritage were keen to explore potential new uses, including retail which would secure a sympathetic single use.
Conversion to retail use initially sounded as if it would involve significant intervention. However Paul Smith was attracted to the building precisely because of its historic character and was very willing to take a flexible approach to displaying clothes and goods, by using free-standing furniture rather than fitted racking. Similarly a shop frontage was not necessary as the attractive elevation of the building was considered an advert in itself.
Paul Smith sensibly undertook detailed pre-application discussion with both English Heritage and the City Council. This took the form of an initial site visit where the project architects presented their proposals and potential areas of conflict were discussed. On this basis proposals were revised and agreement in principle was reached. This pre-application discussion provided Paul Smith with the confidence to purchase Willoughby House and proceed with applications for the necessary statutory consents.
Both English Heritage and the local authority continued to provide advice to the project architects Franklin Ellis throughout the conversion works. The project architects were working to a tight deadline which was only made possible by the flexible and fast approach adopted by English heritage and the City Council in responding to requests for advice when work was underway. Inevitably questions concerning the extent of repairs and whether alterations to the accepted scheme would require consent arose in the course of work and a fast response was needed. This was achieved through good communication between all parties and the principle of goodwill established at the outset of the project.
In the case of repairs to the original roof, specialist advice from English heritage and a contractor experienced in repairing historic buildings meant that the extent of roof repairs was reviewed and reduced, saving money and time.
Conversion of Willoughby House to retail use has secured the long-term single use of this building and its repair to a high standard. Pre-application discussions ensured that all areas of potential conflict were flagged up at an early stage and gave both the project architects and the local authority and English Heritage the confidence to proceed.
The architects adopted a flexible approach throughout the project and were willing to both ask for and listen to conservation advice. In response the City Council and English Heritage responded quickly to requests for guidance and decisions. A good working relationship based upon professionalism and trust was therefore established.
The imaginative approach taken towards reuse of Willoughby House, demonstrates that historic buildings can make high quality retail spaces, without the need to remove interiors or obscure historic features.
Keywords: Re-use; Sustainability