Four small Hampshire practices hope to gain the muscle to take on the big boys by joining forces in an alliance, says Hugh Pearman
It’s the old problem: you’re a lively, experienced and well-regarded smaller practice, you want to bid for a particular project, but you fall at the first or second hurdle because you are deemed to be too small, or not to have enough experience in the sector. So too often (from your point of view), projects on your patch go to big firms from elsewhere. What to do?
Well, you could do what four Hampshire practices are planning right now: join forces. Alton-based Re-Format, Winchester’s Design Engine and ArchitecturePLB, plus Perkins Ogden of Alresford, intend to market themselves jointly as The Southern Architects Alliance, though among themselves they are already calling themselves simply ‘The Alliance’. Unlike other looser practice umbrella groups such as the traditionally-minded Acanthus, this is a tight little regional grouping – all four offices are within a 15-mile radius – that can, they reckon, effectively operate as a single organisation. Not for all their work – the individual practices remain as separate entities – but for larger bids, especially in the South of England region. All together, they can field a workforce of around 100, many decades of experience, and a strong back catalogue across all sectors but especially in education, from primary schools to universities.
Stephen Lampard, a founder director of Re-Format which he first set up under another name some 20 years ago, says: ‘We’re all like-minded in terms of the architecture we do, which has a strong contemporary edge to it. We respect each other’s work, we meet a lot, sometimes we find ourselves in competition with each other – so why not join forces?’
Richard Jobson of Design Engine remarks that ‘a lot of European architects join up collaboratively on projects,’ but agrees it’s rare in the UK. This is confirmed by RIBA practice director Adrian Dobson, who says single-project partnerships between two practices are well enough known, but not greater numbers. For Dobson the sticking-point may well be PI cover. Can an alliance offer the same level of cover as a single large practice? There’s no getting round the need for this.
Lampard continues: ‘There’s no point in offering an alliance if you’re not really an alliance.’ The devil will be in the detail but the intention is that the combined operation will operate like a micro European Union, with the chair switching between the four constituent members on a project-by-project basis. However the work is divided up, all the practices will have a say, operating an inter-practice crit system. A tithe of the fees earned will go to the running costs of the joint operation – for instance the chair at any given moment would be expected to have an increased workload, and there would be a joint marketing budget for the grouping. However, it should be possible to offset such added costs with shared overheads.
The intention goes beyond merely offering a bigger design resource. The members of the fledgling Southern Architects Alliance know that design framework projects are often given to large engineering firms who then need architects. The Alliance would provide architecture within a greater team, effectively being employed by the consultancy.
It’s all very well to talk the talk about this and shake hands on the idea but now, as Lampard and Jobson both acknowledge, it’s time to knuckle down to the detail, to get the mechanism in place. A potential bid – confidential for now – is concentrating their minds. They aim to get themselves a constitution by the start of the summer. This would not be a merger as the practices would remain independent, but together they would offer much greater firepower. It’s an idea well worth exploring.