Argent College

Birmingham, West Midlands B1 3PE

2015

Rooted in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter in a previously neglected jewellery factory, Argent College includes a café, a heritage centre, community arts spaces and a biodynamic urban rooftop microfarm

Argent origins

In the 18th century, Birmingham was the world’s leading industrial city. Over fifty percent of the world’s manufactured goods came from Britain, and the majority of these from Birmingham.

The site where Standard Works now sits used to be a substantially built town house with several large rooms, a coach house, stables and gardens.

In 1878, Thomas F. Williams submitted building plans for Standard Works, and it was under construction by 1879, adjoining the adjacent property in Regent Place by 1880. Eight years on, the building was divided at ground floor level into Canada Works, on Regent Place, and Standard Works, on Vittoria Street.

The building is an important example of a flatted factory, one of the first cast iron-framed buildings in the UK, and was built with 15 separate units to allow for multiple occupancy.

The building had to be strengthened throughout the 1900s. Steel posts and beams encased in concrete were added between the basement and ground floor to support heavy machinery. In the 1950s the upper storeys of the rear ranges were removed and replaced with flat roofs, reducing the size of the second floor.

In 1982, both Standard Works and 9 Regent Place were registered as Grade II listed buildings. By the 1990s, the last occupants, Joseph Smith and Sons, had vacated Standard Works and it was not until December 2013, when Ruskin Mill Land Trust acquired the freehold of Standard Works, that the building began a new phase in its evolution.

Workers in an industrial jewellery factory

Workers in an industrial jewellery factory

Renovation

Standard Works had been empty for over 20 years and was no longer watertight. The old wallpaper was still intact in places, the outlines of old partitions were still visible on the walls, and there were numerous entrances and stairways. Renovation started with the corner entrance of the ground floor and the first floor, and a lift was installed to make the building accessible.

In August 2015, Ruskin Mill Land Trust acquired the lease of 9 Regent Place and, with permission from the owner, knocked through on the first floor to connect the two buildings.

The original staircase to the first floor leads to the hub of the college: craft workshops; the kitchen; offices and meeting spaces. Work started on the roof garden in the spring of 2016. Funded by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBS LEP), the ground floor was altered to create the Hive Café and Bakery that opened to the public in June 2017.

Works to the remainder of the ground floor, the second floor and façade were undertaken in April 2018 with funding from various sources including the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The Hive Heritage Centre and Maker’s Studio followed in July 2018. The second floor opened in January 2019 with movement and therapy rooms and a living skills teaching area.

In June 2018, Ruskin Mill Trust purchased 9 Regent Place to permanently connect the two buildings. Renovation work on the basement of Standard Works and in 9 Regent Place is still to be undertaken. The first students arrived at Argent College in September 2015.

The roof garden under construction

The roof garden under construction

Curriculum

Finding its home in an old jewellery factory in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, Argent College’s signature craft was destined to be jewellery.

Personal adornment generates great interest, providing an entry point for the students into the creative curriculum, and builds on their capacity to make other items: three-legged stools, felt slippers and leather belts, for example. Primarily, however, personal adornment is an important adolescent phase to express new aspirations.

Making jewellery requires fine motor skills and hand/eye coordination for detailed work, transforming an idea from a two-dimensional design into three dimensions. It demands an understanding of the proportions of the human body; is the ring the correct size for the finger, will the bangle stay on the wrist?

Aesthetics, implicit in all crafts, is important in jewellery making, especially if the piece is being designed and made for a specific person. In choosing the shape, size, type of material and the design, will they complement each other or look out of proportion? With the right aesthetic, a well-made piece can bring joy to the wearer. Jewellery is often given as a token of appreciation or affection, so the students at Argent College are finding ways to express themselves through their creations.

The curriculum also offers biodynamic horticulture in the roof garden, leatherwork, textiles, catering, candlemaking and photography. Students participate in art therapy, functional skills and transformative movement. They can acquire work skills in the Hive Café or Heritage Centre, and the college is developing an events programme in the new gallery.

Cutting out a shape for a piece of jewellery

Cutting out a shape for a piece of jewellery

The rooftop garden

One of Argent’s challenges as an urban college is the lack of outdoor space. Recognising that young adults benefit from working outside and a healthy diet, it became apparent that a creative solution was needed to bring the outdoor curriculum to the city.

The flat roof of Standard Works looked like the perfect place for a roof garden. First the roof had to be reinforced and made watertight before work could begin to create the garden. Tons of soil were brought up and a large polytunnel was erected to make the vegetable beds. Our students and staff worked with the contractors to develop the garden, building frames and raised beds. Old terracotta pots were filled with soil to make herb planters, and other containers were put to good use for shrubs and fruit trees. Gradually the black roof started to turn green.

A wormery was installed to help manage the food waste from the canteen and return valuable nutrients to the garden. Bees were also introduced in a sheltered back corner of the roof.

The gardens are now productive and the students plan their weeding, planting and harvesting daily. It is an important space where students work in the outdoor environment and connect with nature. The produce from the garden is used in the college kitchen and the acclaimed Hive Café and Bakery. A little oasis has developed in an urban street.

The rooftop garden at Argent College with raised vegetable beds

The rooftop garden

Community

One of the intentions behind renovating the Standard Works building was to create a community resource, in addition to being the home of Argent College.

The Standard Works development team undertook many meetings, discussions and workshops with the community to identify needs, priorities and ideals that would inform the development of Standard Works, particularly the public-facing elements. Key areas included inclusive, accessible and welcoming spaces, providing information about the heritage of the area, opportunities for individuals to volunteer, and places for people to meet.

The Hive Café and Bakery provides valuable work experience and training opportunities for students at Argent College. Funded by the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, it offers delicious meals, coffee, cakes and bread to the growing residential and business community in the Quarter, some of the produce coming from the building’s rooftop urban microfarm.

The Hive Café and Bakery are designed to reflect not only contemporary life in the Quarter, but also to honour its history with quotations on the walls, images and a mini museum of Birmingham. The Hive Heritage Centre’s Makers’ Studio runs workshops and activities for school groups and the community.

Standard Works also has two makers’ workshops, available to rent by local craftspeople. These provide workspaces for small businesses who, in turn, provide work experience opportunities for college students.

The bustling Hive Café

The bustling Hive Café

Lamp of Power

Standard Works, home to Argent College, sits on the corner of Vittoria Street and Regent Place, in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter. Its prominent position on the street, enhanced by the curved façade and impressive masonry and brickwork, inspires a sense of awe.

While Standard Works does not tower above the other buildings on the street, its location is impressive. Horizontal architectural lines curve down Vittoria Street and Regent Place, and large cream masonry blocks divide the building vertically, giving a sense of nobility. Its curvature serves to increase the sense of power and prominence.

Ruskin likened the masonry of a building to the continuous skeleton, as opposed to individual vertebrae, as it is organised in a lawful way; he believed that the masonry of a building should be shown, not hidden. Standard Works’ brick and masonry façade makes the building stand out, the contrasting colour, light and shadow architecturally pleasing.

“The memories of those works of architecture by which we have been most pleasurably impressed, fall into two broad classes; the one characterised by an exceeding preciousness and delicacy, and the other by a severe and in many cases, mysterious, majesty, which we remember with an undiminished awe.”

 

– John Ruskin

Argent College

Argent College