When we design spaces, whether stadiums or training grounds, hospitals and other healthcare facilities or homes, it always starts with people. Often at the beginning of our design journey those people are our clients - the people who are commissioning our work, who we present our ideas and designs to, who we pitch to. However, as soon as we begin thinking about the design, we need to start thinking broader, more holistically, not just about the client be it the funder/investor, owner or estates manager but about those people who will be using this space. This was never more apparent than working with Wrexham Football Club, designing the new KOP stand that includes a new hospitality lounge, office and retail space as well as facilities for the Wrexham AFC Community Trust, a project that AFL was appointed to back in 2020. The subject of Disney+’s Welcome to Wrexham documentary, Wrexham AFC’s name has been pushed from the UK football National League into the stratosphere with its two Hollywood owners, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.
Both Reynolds and McElheeney have embraced Wrexham’s culture and national identity and instead of looking to the glamour of Hollywood for their football club, are allowing those involved in the design and build to retain its Welsh roots, with the actual stadium reflecting Wrexham’s mining industry and the national emblem of Wales, the Welsh Dragon symbolic throughout the grounds. As Ryan said in a recent Q&A on www.wrexhamafc.co.uk “There’s a way to walk that tightrope in the right way, I think. To be incredibly honouring of the community and the history of Wrexham and North Wales, and simultaneously offer the supporters the kind of amenities and the feeling – it’s really more about a feeling – that they deserve for a Club of this stature.” Music to my ears as a born and bred Welshman.
However, the design brief for us is never just looking at the aesthetic of a building, but the function and usability of the space and of the surroundings, the community it occupies. Understanding the end user client of the space and balancing the two different clients is something we know and do well at AFL. Often our brief might start with a checklist from investors or developers that incorporates ESG credentials - ensuring the design is sustainable, meeting carbon targets both in build and embodied carbon in usage, thinking about the social value it might bring to a community and how inclusive it might be - these design requirements are a given and areas we have the expertise and experience to help clients navigate. Then there is the end user, in this case those who will use the football stadium and the spaces within the new KOP stand. When designing we need to think about how they are going to use the space, how we want them to feel when they enter the buildings, how practical it is, how at different times there will be different capacities and how the flow of the space will work. All of this too has to be thought through and incorporated into the design.
Then of course, we have to think about the planning - what restrictions might we be working with? What new governance or guidelines are in place? Are these different in different principalities such as Wales than England or Scotland? How we can engage the community in the design so that when it goes to statutory consultation the community embraces it. And of course then there is the cost? What are the financial challenges and boundaries and how do we achieve all these things within the financial constraints.
Having celebrity owners is great for Wrexham AFC in so many ways - growing its awareness, increasing its kudos and attractiveness, injecting much needed investment not just of the football club, but the city itself. However, as they will know, like making a successful movie, it is the all the other parts - the cameramen, the stuntmen, the supporting actors - that make it a box office hit. Likewise, it is all those involved in the design and build of the new space that will support Reynolds and McElhenney in the success of Wrexham AFC.”