Interview: George Clarke

Posted on: 11 March 2011 by Rhian Mainwaring

We talk to George Clarke ahead of the Ideal Home Show on architecture, design, education, apprenticeships and how property developers ruined British homes!

GeorgeAs they say up north,  George calls a spade a spade, which we found refreshing when we had a chat with him about his northern routes, how apprenticeships should be readily available and why the housing boom made interior design and archietecture boring!

To read George's views on degrees,apprenticeships, interior design, home improvement, property developers, open plan living, tradesman, the Newcastle/Gateshead development or his involvement in The Ideal Home Show click the links!

Architecture is a long course to undertake - how do you think the university fees will affect the future of architects, especially from less well off backgrounds?

Fee rises are going to have a negative impact of course - across all academic fields. It will make it more exclusive and more difficult for people to get on their preferred career path and will unfortunately restrict many opportunities, which is a terrible shame.

However, it will make people think much longer and harder about what is actually right for them at University. Fee rises will therefore ultimately make people more sensible and serious in their academic choices.

Why did you decide architecture was for you and how did you get into it?

I knew from a young age what I wanted to do - I never wanted to be anything else looking back. Both of my grandfathers were builders or connected to the industry in some way and while most kids were playing with pretend building toys, I was playing with the real thing. During school holidays, before the crazy days of health and safety, I would spend a lot of my school holidays on building sites lifting bricks and mixing cement. I was always drawing a lot too - mostly buildings - and so when I got to about the age of 11 and started my comprehensive school education, I already knew what I wanted to be - that’s when I made my actual decision to pursue architecture.

What do you think of apprenticeships?

I am a massive fan of apprenticeships and I think they are a must for Britain. We have had a culture over the past 10-15 years, where we have tried to push all students in to high level academic education and I think it was and is wrong and has been detrimental to the British workforce overall. So many of my friends were not interested in going to University, even those who had the opportunity, they wanted to learn skills and trades above anything else.

I did a form of apprenticeship as I left school at 16 and didn't do any A levels. I left school at Friday at 3.30 and started work on that following Monday morning at 9am. I was a trainee architect at 16. I stayed there for a few years and went to college part time to do a building and construction course. Of course you do have to go to Uni to ultimately become an architect, but once I started in full time education, I was way above the game thanks to my apprenticeship experience. Most of the other students had English, Chemistry and whatever great grades at A level, but for 2.5 years I had been in an architecture practice. I was much better prepared than most students as a result.

Wherever and whenever I have space, I would not hesitate to fit in an apprentice. It is one way of giving something back to the industry but also it is so important for the industry to support these schemes. I think we do need to put more value on degrees, as back in my day, a degree was so more highly regarded than now, but we also need to ensure that degrees are not the only option. You should have as much pride as a well-trained apprentice in any field - be it plumbing, electrician, carpentry - as anybody walking out of university with a degree.

My Granddad always said to me 1) Get yourself a good education. 2) Get yourself a good trade - that's why I got a job instead of doing A levels at 16.

Do you see yourself as an interior designer as well, or is interior design something any good architect considers?

That’s an interesting question, I don't think I know the difference between interior design and architecture to be honest.

People will say that interior designers are all about fluffy pillows, curtains and paint colours and architectures just do the space bit - but that is rubbish. I get involved in picking floor surfaces, kitchens, bathrooms, tiles, curtains, light switches, lights - you name it. My office is across every single aspect of the design - but we never label someone an 'interior designer' or ‘architect’ they’re all encompassing really.

For me to design a space and then hand that space over to a labelled interior designer to pick colours and fabrics would be the wrong thing to do. It is about the overall concept or idea.

With the limiting budgets, what would be the fail-safe ways to improve your home?

One of the biggest questions I get asked is "Iwhat shall I do first?' and it is such a difficult question to answer. You first need to understand the family that lives in the home, how they live and what they need. You then need to understand the property, the problems and issues with it as well as its opportunities. You then combine these strands to reconfigure your space to work for you.

I always say that it is good to add space. You will always add value with an extension, loft or basement conversion as well as open up your living space.

Refurnishing kitchens and bathrooms are also things to consider - especially if you know down the line that you are going to sell. These rooms are a great way to invest your cash wisely and will always help add 'wow' factor to your home.

Doing the infrastructure of your home is important. There is no point spending money on fluffy cushions and rugs if the electrics are knackered and the boiler is on its last legs. You need to prioritise and get the infrastructure right first. Get energy efficient appliances for example to maximise efficiency and minimise costs in the long run.

Low cost, easy and effective ways to liven up your home are to simply give it a lick of paint to smarten it up and to de-clutter. It doesn't take much to tidy away your clutter to maximise your space. We really are a nation of hoarders, so clear out the clutter!

Should you improve your home to make a profit, or is it all about standard of living?

You need to make sure you don't throw money away and that any work you do to your home is sensible. It is good to know you invested wisely - but you should never just think about profit. This whole focus on profit turned half of Britain in to wannabe property developers in the nineties and it just meant we developed loads of very boring houses everywhere - with very boring interiors.

Interiors became anonymous and lacked any kind of personality. Every single room in every single house began to look like a dull hotel room, with flock wallpaper and statement cushions!

Do you think we'll always want the kitchen/diner more open plan way of living, or is that a trend we'll see diminish?

Trends come and go a lot in this game, but I do think the combined kitchen diner is here to stay. It has become increasingly difficult for people to justify a formal separate dining space  just for special occasions. If you have a big house, then great, but if not, it's pointless.

I often find dining rooms quite boring and stuffy. Quite often they don't feel connected to the rest of the house - not as well as they could be. How many of us really sit down around a formal table regularly now? I don't.

The combined room is more vibrant and more exciting. Cookery has become a family and social home event and no one is better than Jamie Oliver at highlighting this - and celebrating this. Friends and family come over for dinner now and it is normal for them to stand in your kitchen/diner space having a glass of wine, while you cook - who wants to be standing in the kitchen alone cooking, as your family and friends are in an entertainment room having a drink? Those days are long gone and hopefully will never come back.

How much work would you suggest people take on themselves? Can we all knock a wall down?

I try to give people the confidence to have a go wherever possible and whenever they feel ready. I am not there to criticise. I will give them a hard time if they mess it up and won’t take advice but ultimately I want to instil confidence in people to push them and motivate them.

Doing it yourself gives you a huge amount of satisfaction. I want to try and help lift the DIY bar in Britain again, as it has fallen flat over recent years. As more and more people were busy playing property developers over the last few decades, they paid others to do their jobs at home, instead of taking time to think if they could achieve it themselves.

Do you have any tips on securing good tradesman and not being taken for a ride?

Finding good tradesmen, in your area, is all about personal contacts, so word of mouth from friends or family and even recommendations from your local builders merchants - they are the right people to know the best and worst in their field. Even DIY stores now like B&Q can help and have something called 'Trade Point' which is a trade arm of their business that can help you out with recommendations. You can learn heaps at events like The Ideal Home Show as there are tonnes of experts to hand and live demonstrations on show where you can pick up tips and ideas.

Where do you find your inspiration and where in the UK would you suggest visiting for great architecture?

I like to get inspiration from designers, and I mean those outside the property game, so Terrance Conran, Tom Dixon and Paul Smith. All of these guys are amazing British designers who have had a massive impact on the industry. It is not just about being inspired by buildings or architect - it is about creative and talented people.

One of my favourite buildings is the London Eye - not everyone will regard it as a building - but it is absolutely fantastic. Such a clever piece of engineering and a bold example of architectural intervention in the city. It was only supposed to be there for five years and a decade  later it is still there. Who would have thought you could build such a structure right next to the most historic buildings in London, on the Thames, right opposite the Houses of Parliament - and that it would stand the test of time. Incredible.

You're from Sunderland what do you make of the Newcastle/Gateshead development and are you pro Angel of the North?

I am very pro Angel of the North. I actually take my hat off to Gateshead because they have led the way in the North East in creating re-generation projects. It started with the Angel, then the beautiful Millennium Bridge, which connects Newcastle to Gateshead. They also did a great restoration project by turning the Baltic Flour Mill into an art gallery. They have been so forward thinking.

Sunderland Council and the city can look at Gateshead and its projects and really learn something. They can use it as a motivator to stimulate regeneration. I love Sunderland, I really do - it is a great city with passionate people - but the architecture is not good enough and the quality of developments happening there are not good enough. They need to start from a cultural and clever urban set of initiatives before it all kicks in to place.

What is your involvement in this year’s Ideal Home Show and what are you most looking forward to?

I am this year’s Ambassador for the Ideal Home Improvement section. I love the show. It’s been around for 103 years now!

We’ve got so many full scale projects going on at this year show, one is the Scandinavian ‘Jontrahus’ house, a UK exclusive, the second is the natural house, in association with the Princes Foundation, a traditional home that offers an exciting concept in natural building and then we’ve got the ultimate ‘Ideal Home Re-fit’ my project, where I have taken one of the most iconic homes in Britain, and redesigned it completely to offer a real life example of how simple it is for homeowners to improve their properties, maximise their space and improve their homes, simply and affordably, so all homes are going to feel incredibly different.

‘The whole concept of the Ideal Home Improvements Section and the Ideal Show Homes area is to show our visitors how you can stay where you are and improve the house that you’ve got. It’s also about ecology and sustainability, How to reduce your energy bills and green your home easily and affordably on any budget. You don’t need to spend lots of money on eco technology to have a big effect on your home.

Ideal Home ShowGeorge Clarke will be at the 103rd Ideal Home Show this year as the Ambassador for the Ideal Improvements section. George will be at the show in person offering a series of demonstrations and seminars and offering practical advice on many home improvement projects. The Ideal Home Show, London will open its doors for 17 days from 11th March – 27th 2011, at London’s Earls Court. Tickets can be either booked online or by calling the Ticket Hotline on 0844 415 4144or visit the website www.idealhomeshow.co.uk. 50p per ticket sold goes to the Ideal Homes for Heroes appeal supporting ABF The Soldiers’ Charity.

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