We meet Sonia Pabla-Thomas, founder of Space Architecture + Planning (SPACEAP), on her practice’s 10-year anniversary to discover more about its increasing success in creating contemporary, elegant and sustainable architecture for both the residential and commercial market

New Space

Sonia is sat inside her newly refurbished Didsbury studio, cockapoo Snoop by her side (“he’s like my shadow”). Her warm, open and instantly engaging character is at odds with the characteristically austere atmosphere of your typical global architectural firm. SPACEAP is responsible for bringing projects to life in many sectors across the globe and the practice’s first home (over a decade ago) was coincidently an office shared with Didsbury Magazine.

“Back then, one of our first residential projects was a converted and extended derelict 19th-century farm house in a Chorlton conservation area,” reveals Sonia, “which perfectly showcased the SPACEAP vision – combining modernism with the period style of the existing villa, underpinned with renewable technology, including photovoltaics and solar thermal panels, underfloor heating, high-efficiency glazing, a heat-recovery system and a grass roof.”

The finished house was a bold, contemporary project that set a precedent in the local area, which SPACEAP have continued to build upon since. The build received lots of press attention; the Manchester Evening News published an article about it and called it ‘The house that stops the traffic’. By working out of the building, SPACEAP’S clients could see first-hand the endless possibilities the practice was capable of.

“It’s still one of my favourite buildings!” says Sonia.

Space to thrive

The practice has recently relocated; leaving their former Chorlton base and returning to Didsbury – The Old Town Hall on Lapwing Lane to be precise. Expansion is mainly due to the success in the residential market (for which SPACEAP are best known), in particular, extensions, full refurbishments, new-build projects, interiors and landscape in South Manchester. It has many repeat clients, who have enjoyed the process so much that they have commissioned SPACEAP to develop further properties, and most of the practice’s new work is from referrals.

Words of fatherly wisdom

Sonia worked with John McAslan + Partners in London and was an associate at the large commercial practice Sheppard Robson in Manchester before forming SPACEAP just over 10 years ago. During her time at McAslan, she was project architect for the award-winning Creative Arts Building in Altrincham South Trafford College. Sonia’s large-practice background means she’s as comfortable working on the large-scale, multi-million- pound projects as she is a family home.

We wondered where Sonia’s passion for design came from?

“I really loved art but coming from a family of lawyers (maternal side) and engineers and architects (paternal side), my father wanted me to do something vocational. He believed it would always be far more challenging for me as a woman in a male-dominated world and that a career- focussed degree would give me a head start. So, based on his advice and at the last minute, I chose to study architecture at uni rather than fine art.

“My father always told me I could do anything. At the end of the second part of my studies, he had a stroke. The only time he moved in hospital was when I showed him my term paper. He died the day I told him I’d passed. We had a special relationship, I am where I am – doing the best job in the world – through his nurturing and guidance.”

Inspired by nature

On an international scale, SPACEAP has been fortunate to have collaborated on some phenomenal projects alongside a series of inspiring teams. projects closer to home. Issues such as climate change mean it is critical to design responsibly and maintain a sustainable environment.

“We have continued to work collaboratively with Elora Hardy and have collaborated on a further two hotels for the Potato Head Group.”

SPACEAP has also collaborated with the late Ingo Maurer and Atelier One to produce the Broken Egg auditorium in Inhotim, Brazil.

Space invaders

Closer to home, Sonia’s seven-strong team are currently working on houses, bars, restaurants, mill and barn conversions and new-build office buildings.

“Nowadays, homeowners, particularly young professionals, have a design-led eye for development,” explains Sonia. “Programmes such as Grand Designs and platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram have really changed the way the average homeowner thinks, and good design is at their fingertips. This is great news for us as architects – working with clients who demand great design. We have helped so many clients in south Manchester realise their dream homes even if they haven’t built before.”

Indeed, any fears are soon allayed when they touch base with SPACEAP:
“From planning to interiors, we tailor- make a scope of services; everything is geared towards clients’ needs and budget, and there is no obligation. Developing a bond between client and architect is important, because these projects go on for at least a year, sometimes more, it needs to be a headache-free, exciting journey!”

Space – the next frontier

Sonia reveals that the practice has seen a distinct upturn in homeowners deciding to revamp rather than sell:

“With house prices in Didsbury having increased by 39.72 % over the past decade, and with soaring house prices in South Manchester – the average detached house is £592k and stamp duty at 5% – many of our clients are turning to extending and refurbishing their properties to create their dream homes rather than moving.”

Sonia explains how refreshing it is that the Government is providing tax relief to enable more firms to research and develop more complex projects that otherwise would be too costly to explore for a small practice. She too welcomes the increased size limits for extensions (under permitted development) that have now been made permanent by the Government.

“Many of our projects are no longer subject to lengthy periods in planning, which is a welcome relief when time is of the essence.”

Family matters

Of life inside the SPACEAP office, Sonia says:

“I’ve worked in the corporate world. There’s a lot of expectation not to leave the office and to work until midnight. It’s unnecessary and outdated. A strong work-life balance is far more effective and gets the best out of people. We are very much a family here.”

As a mum of three, she also supports flexible working.

“A lot of women drop out of the industry after having children,” she reveals with regret.

Sonia and her husband Neil Thomas MBE (founder and director of Atelier One) have three daughters – Grace (13), Eva (12) and Darcie (9) – and, she beams proudly, each of them wants to have a career in architecture!

“SPACEAP converted the basement at our children’s primary school (Chorlton C of E) into an arts-base space on a not- for-profit basis,” adds Sonia. “The Arts Base increased the teaching area of the school by 25% by ingeniously converting a damp, poorly ventilated, badly lit, underused basement into a workable space. Cutting the ribbon was the proudest moment.”

The practice has just received planning approval to erect a new Early Years Building on the site for the school and also sponsors its netball team.

A space for everyone

“We want everyone from homeowners to developers to drop in, have a drink… our door is always open,” smiles Sonia.

“We want to create a thoroughly enjoyable experience for all our clients. Once projects are finished, lots of clients want to do it all over again! Design needn’t be a headache and we’re hear to wear lots of hats – from designer to therapist – to help you enjoy it!

SPACEAP’s new studio is based in the heart of West Didsbury, so if you have any questions or need to speak with an architect about your next project, give them a call or arrange an appointment with Sonia or one of the team of architects on the numbers below or visit the website www.spaceap.com

Are you looking to start your own Grand Design and need advice from an architect? The practice is holding a Saturday Drop-In for all Didsbury Magazine readers on February 29th between 10am-2pm. Call the office on 0161 7132718 and quote LOVESPACE to book your free consultation.

The Studio, The Old Town Hall, Lapwing Lane, Didsbury, Manchester M20 2NR 0161 713 2718 | 0781 000 8333 | info@spaceap.com

Words by Lisa Symonds

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