Nigel Stevenson: Designing legacy on the Lincoln landscape

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As the sun sets on the bustling Brayford Pool in Lincoln, architect and businessman Nigel Stevenson can proudly watch as his portfolio of contemporary creations illuminates. From an innovatively restored derelict warehouse turned university library, to landmark floating restaurants and a music venue that started life as a railway engine shed in 1874, the achievements of a once aspiring footballer have truly made their mark.

Although Stem Architects Director Nigel Stevenson, 49, describes himself as having always been artistic, he fell into a world of architectural design through a common family adversity. “There was a reason I didn’t go to university immediately,” he said.

“I grew up in a place called Mexborough in South Yorkshire and went to Doncaster Art College. My dad used to work in the coal industry but he’d been on strike for a year. It was for that reason that I took a few years out to earn some money before then going to study for my qualifications, which I did when I was about 21.” He added, “During my time out I was also playing semi-professional football and did, naively, at one point think I could make it.

“I studied art at school and I liked the idea of architecture, so I rang Hull School of Architecture to see my options. The Head of the School of Architecture at the time, Christopher Jones was the son of a coal miner. I told him why I’d had a few years out and a day later I got an unconditional offer.”

Nigel graduated from Hull School of Architecture in 1991 and went to work for the then University of Humberside on a new campus in Hull. “For political reasons that project got shelved,” he explained. “The Vice Chancellor at the time, Roger King, did a deal with the university project company in Lincolnshire to bring the University of Humberside into the county in the early 90s. I was then seconded to come down to Lincoln and work on the new university.

“We started a company called UL Architects which was owned by the University of Humberside & Lincolnshire, which later became the University of Lincoln when David Chiddick arrived as Vice Chancellor.

“I’ve worked on most of the university buildings in some capacity as project manager or as an architect over the years. But when David Chiddick left in 2008, I set up Stem Architects Ltd and left the university with the architecture team to become a totally independent company. We’ve gone on to pastures new since then and built up a fantastic client base.”

Stem Architects Director Nigel Stevenson. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Stem Architects Director Nigel Stevenson. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

New shoots

As UL Architects project manager, Nigel and his team oversaw the creation of much of the University of Lincoln campus as it is known today. With a dream to put his own artistic stamp on the Lincolnshire map, however, the idea of Stem was tapping at the surface. In fact, the company logo appeared “almost by accident” during a jury duty scribble. “I was playing with my initials and Stem appeared. It sounded right, sustainable and organic.” It has become somewhat of a mark of craftsmanship in the years that followed, sneaking its way into blueprints of the company’s iconic structures.

In making the decision to branch away, Nigel had ahead of him not only some of his most prestigious projects but also the full whack of the great recession.

“As part of the agreement when I left, I was given two conditions, which was to create the Enterprise building on the university campus and the Business and Law Faculty. We were very fortunate that we could rely on those packages because two months later the recession hit us. As a result, it’s been hard work. The fees have been low and we’ve often had to work speculatively. It has been a hard slog for the last five to six years.

“That said, Stem Architects has been a story of growth and success.” The firm’s mission has snowballed over the last seven years, with the family of creatives expanding from four to 15, and the company’s esteemed body of work encompassing a multifaceted remit, from elaborate homes to modern venues and commercial properties. Stem also poised to move from the current Sparkhouse office to a larger space at The Gateway in Lincoln.

“The one philosophy that will remain consistent and that I feel very passionate about, not least because I taught architecture for the first several years of Stem, was that we would work with and cherry pick the students. I’m a firm believer in skills retention and localism. The local economy would benefit greater if Lincolnshire projects were undertaken by local consultants and local contractors, and I wanted to fill a void by giving Lincoln students an exciting reason to stay and work in the city.”

Stem Architects Director Nigel Stevenson. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Stem Architects Director Nigel Stevenson. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

The evolution of Stem

The legacy of Stem Architects has made an unmistakable impact on the Lincolnshire landscape and earned a reputation through multiple awards and acclaim. The job’s not about simple money-making building, says Nigel. “The route of my influence on a personal level is modernism in the 30s and 40s in Europe, but at the heart of it, really, is good design and trying to do things a little bit different.

“We have a reputation for elaborate buildings. They are harder work and we make less money, but they can be more rewarding than simple developments. We don’t have a particular recipe; we approach each project differently and creativity and flare is what architecture is all about.

“What people will start to see is a new evolution of Stem. We’re currently working on a project in London that is probably in our top-valued contracts so far. It’s a college building and it’s worth £40 million, with a further £50-60 million of development to come on that site. The projects I get most excited about however are the local ones. The most exciting designs we’ve got coming forward are the Network Rail bridges over the Lincoln level crossings, and the £28 million Gateway student accommodation project. We are also working on designs for a new floating restaurant on North Brayford, although it’s subject to a lot of debate whether there should be another building on there.”

Amid the excitement of the creative space in the Stem office, Nigel explains designers have to break away from perceptions of “the arrogant architect” and really listen to the more difficult-to-swallow feedback.

“We do sometimes get negative feedback when plans go public. Sometimes it’s not about what the building looks like, but it’s about whether there should be a building there at all. It’s been interesting but also quite challenging because the problem is with new social media. Effectively, some of the criticism could be personal and abusive. We actually got falsely criticised for a building that we’d not designed on Lincoln High Street because it had similarities to one of our previous schemes. What you’ve got to do is remain professional. We do listen to people and we understand that sometimes we have to revisit the brief.

“I want Stem to continue to grow at the rate it has. A lot of people say we are coming out of the recession and I do see Stem growing. I would also love to expand on the work we do with our local partners; we work closely with developers, builders and Investors in Lincoln and the support has been incredible.

“I’d love to see family members become part of the business in future years, I like the idea of a family business. My wife now works for the business as the company secretary. I have three children, two daughters (one studies fashion and the other shares my love of cooking), then there’s my son who’s 15 and wants to be a footballer, but he’s also very artistic. He’d be my bet to play a part in Stem.”

This feature interview was first published in issue 18 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.