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THE OAPlaza, 

Ashley Mayes

Sheffield School Of Architecture. U.K. 

Life expectancy is increasing, but the number of years of healthy life in retirement is not keeping up. Research has revealed that loneliness is significant contributing factor towards the downward spiral of health and wellbeing in the older generation. The UK is facing ever escalating demands on health and social care services for our ageing population, and the district of Rotherham is feeling these pressures more than most.

The response, a project that aims to celebrate and improve society’s perceptions of ageing to ensure continued wellbeing into old age. The OAPlaza project takes on the vacant Primark building on Rotherham High Street and offers a number of civic amenities – including internal plaza, library, cafe, performance space, and cinema.

The project also provides more domestic purposes for retirees – such as short-term accommodation, allotments, gardens, hen keeping, and shared workshops. At the heart of the project lies an intergenerational nursery, which recognises the mutual learning and caring benefits offered between older and younger generations.

A place to enjoy. A place to learn. A place to stay. A place that could be Rotherham?

To start Ashley could you give us an introduction about yourself, where you have studied, what stage you are in your architectural career/degree?

I am currently an RIBA Part 2 Architectural Assistant working at Associated Architects in Birmingham, UK. I studied at the Sheffield School of Architecture for both my Undergraduate and Master’s degrees. I am now looking towards gaining my professional qualification in a couple of years’ time. Until then, I look forward to continuing my involvement in some very exciting and interesting projects.

Why did you decide to study architecture?

Good question! It’s difficult to answer, but I think I could sum it up as a combination two things – ‘intrigue’ and a ‘desire to make’.


From a young age I had always enjoyed experimenting, thinking, and making things – whether it was something made from cereal boxes, or dens for my cat made from the living room furniture. I loved the feeling of creating something out of nothing – I think that not many careers offer this to such an extent other than architecture.


It was only when I was older, considering what was it was that I wanted to be, that I began to appreciate the responsibilities and opportunities architects have to make positive impact through their ideas and designs.


Your OAPlaza project consists of a series of civic amenity spaces which looks to address the UK’s aging population whilst also recognising the mutual learning benefits offered between both younger and older generations, why did you decide to explore this topic? 

Research over the recent years has shown that though we are living longer, we are living ‘less well’. It was my own experiences of caring that prompted me to raise the question: How can architecture celebrate age and realise a new intergenerational and inclusive model of care?


Age-related diseases and disabilities are on the rise across the world. Most of us are aware of the many debilitating physical effects of ageing, but often we may not realise the risks to mental health and wellbeing in old age. Loneliness has become a big issue in the UK for the older generation. Where the subject of ‘ageing’ is still much of a taboo in society, I wanted to explore whether there was a way that architecture could improve such issues.



The project is situated in a former Primark Building in Rotherham, why was this particular location chosen, and is there a reason why you opted to retrofit and existing building?

Rotherham is a post-industrial town, to the north-east of Sheffield, and one of the 20% most deprived districts in England. From the on-the-ground research I carried out in Rotherham it was clear the effects and challenges of the ageing population facing the town were increasing. With such opportunity on offer, I concluded that it should be the setting for the project.

The precise site location, being the vacant Primark building on the high street, was chosen in part for position in the heart of the town. It is also an area of the town has been in decline in recent years – and the idea of taking on an existing building is one supports the themes of ‘caring’ and ‘celebrating age’.


Colour is quite clearly a key aspect of your imagery particularly with the use of the pink structure, where did this idea stem from?

There were three main reasons for the pink:


1.  The design looks to retain the existing concrete structure of the Primark building. I was keen to make clear what is old and what is new. Colour I thought would be a good way of doing this.


2. The colour 'pink' is one that, historically and still today, has particular stereotypes and connotations. Just like the programme of the project which intends to challenge certain stereotypes and assumptions (of ageing), the physical architecture also does this but in a visual way.


3. I like the colour, so why not!


What do you feel you have learnt by undertaking this project? 

Talking and working with all levels of the Rotherham community really gave me a valuable insight into an important role of architects that is often underestimated or even forgotten. That is to listen and understand the client, the users, and the brief. It’s unlikely that we will achieve the best outcome if we work as a ‘lone ranger’. Communication and collaboration are important skills. We must also recognise that only half of communication is about explaining and sharing our ideas, the other half is how well we listen and understand.


You present your work in a number of modes from hand sketches, to physical renders, to mixed media collages, has anybody or anything in particular influenced your graphic style?

My tutor Satwinder Samra has always reminded me that drawing is a very powerful communication tool. Every drawing we create communicates a message or an idea. Choosing the type of drawing that will best communicate what you want is actually more important than the actual execution.


A polished render may show what it might feel like to be there, but a simple diagram can clearly tell you a piece of key information that may in fact be invisible or initially challenging to understand.



Could you provide our readers with an insight into your drawing process, do you use a particular software to produce your drawings?

I very much enjoy drawing, sketching and collaging by hand. When it comes to digital drawings, I use three-dimensional modelling software to create the spatial and lighting qualities (usually SketchUp with Vray), and then work into that, collaging with textures and imagery (using Photoshop).


What are your plans for the future of your architectural career?

I see my future as a practicing architect – and being able to work with some great people and on some meaningful projects. Though if my future wasn’t just practicing architecture, then I would like to think I would be involved in teaching in some way – as architectural education has always been a particular interest of mine.



If you could offer one piece of advice to our architecture student followers what would it be? 

The advice I would offer to architecture students is the same advice that I have listened to, which is that of esteemed physicist Richard Feynman:


  1. Stop trying to be a know-it-all.

  2. Don’t worry about what others are thinking.

  3. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do.

  4. Have a sense of humour and talk honestly.


Doing what you are interested in, and enjoying it, will give you the best chance of any success. We should remember that we are creatives with a natural quality of discovering new ways of doing things. Do not worry about assimilating with the approaches, style and methods that “everyone else” seems to be taking – if anything, do the opposite!

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Finally, where can people find out more about you and your projects?

A selection of my work and projects – both architecture and non-architecture – can be found on my website at


People can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram 

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