Now his buildings, served straight up with a 1990s twist – natural ventilation – are very much en vogue. At the end of last month, he clinched a commission to design 100 apartments, "a model for 21st-century living", at Manchester's Britannia Basin.
Not so old-fashioned after all, then. The competition was judged by Lord Rogers and the apartments will be built by 1999 Building Award-winning housing developer Urban Splash at a canalside site near the city centre.
Howells' star has finally risen after almost 15 years as an architect. He graduated from Plymouth School of Architecture in 1985 and worked locally for five years before moving to London to work with Spence and Webster. When work dried up at the end of the decade, Howells formed his own practice and started entering competitions – at least 15 since 1988.
But it was not until the National Lottery came along that he achieved competition success. In 1995, he won a competition to design a £3.5m theatre and arts centre in Hereford. Since then, he has gone from strength to strength, winning a £5m theatre project in Armagh, Northern Ireland, in 1996, and in 1997 another theatre, the £1.6m Playbox, in Warwick. He now employs 10 staff.
The affable Brummie seems slightly bemused by his success, which he attributes to his buildings making difficult problems look simple. "Good buildings get better as you get closer to them," he says. "I've never been preoccupied with form. Often, if you've got a complex design, you're less likely to get quality in every aspect of the detail."
He says he did not think he stood a chance in the Britannia Basin competition: "I was flabbergasted. I almost didn't turn up. I was going to go to a meeting instead. It was only because no one else in the office could go that I went. I was shuffling around at the back when they announced it."
With one eye on his public image, the lanky six-footer continues to play down his achievement. The design for the Britannia Basin housing, he says, is very simple, "like a pack of cards", with cast stone, smooth-finished concrete slabs forming the floors and dividing walls. Glass to front and back ensure the apartments are light, and timber screens inside and out provide privacy, protection from the elements and a "flexible living space".
If an idea was valid in 1960, why isn’t it valid now?
Urban Splash liked Howells' design because, at £120/m2, it is cheap enough to leave room in the budget for more expensive fixtures and fittings. Director Nick Johnson described it as "a contemporary solution, simple and capable of being executed in the language of the next century". Because of its simplicity, the design can be mass-produced – Howells is hoping for more housing commissions so he can re-use and adapt the concept.
Adapting a simple concept is what Howells is good at. His office in Birmingham's Custard Factory is a good example. With whitewashed walls and canvas false ceilings, the old warehouse is a bright, effective space for up-and-coming local businesses and cafés full of art students on Friday nights.
Local industry types regard the conversion as a "lick-of-paint job", but Howells says: "I think as an architect you can add value not through being weird but through being intelligent. What things are made of can be as exciting as, say, designing a spiral."
The critics still say his designs lack originality and the 37-year-old does not deny that many of his design traits hark back to the 1960s. He admits that concrete is one of his favourite materials and thinks the National Gallery is one of the most dramatic buildings in London. "If an idea was valid in 1960, why isn't it valid now?"
He also thinks today's architecture students deserve a more rounded education, taking in good architecture from the 1950s and 1960s, rather than just concentrating on "a very narrow band of famous architects".
Despite his admiration for 1960s design, however, Howells is a thoroughly modern architect. He says, post-Egan: "Architects shouldn't complain about change and losing control of the process. We're equipped to add to it by bringing ideas, not just on design, but on things like procurement, too."
Howells also supports Lord Rogers' urban taskforce's aim of "putting energy back into cities", an idea that is particularly appropriate in Birmingham, where he now lives.