Clients: variety is the spice

Words:
Hugh Pearman

A more diverse list of smaller clients would benefit us all

Let’s celebrate the people who keep us all in business. Clients!  Now is a fascinating time to study exactly who is commissioning buildings, and how they are changing along with the shifting economy and demographics of the UK and elsewhere. Consider Nick Johnson: previously a key director of Urban Splash, he had a big rethink during the last recession, struck out solo, and is now doing well with his own company, renovating and reinvigorating the market halls of the North West. He’s making them places you’d want to go socially, not just to pick up a cheap cauliflower or leg of lamb. 

Or take retirement-homes provider Pegasus Life – noted for commissioning good, often younger architectural firms to provide buildings which are a world away from our downbeat received idea of such places. Starting as a boutique developer only in 2012, after growth and a recent acquisition it is now valued at more than £1.7bn, with a portfolio of 71 sites and a further 19 under construction. One of its projects, Chapter House in Lichfield, made it to our MacEwen Award longlist this year – proof that it’s not just charitable and social-enterprise clients which qualify. 

Local councils are back, typically working through their own arm’s length development companies which are designed to benefit their localities

And then consider a kind of client that used to employ half the profession but for many years had scarcely existed as a patron: local councils. They’re back, from Liverpool to Croydon, typically now working through their own arm’s length development companies which are designed to benefit their localities rather than the pockets of remote company shareholders – or company directors receiving obscenely large bonuses. 

And surprise surprise, it turns out that this way it is possible to get a much higher proportion of affordable and social-rented homes per development than it is by farming everything out to private developers. Something to bear in mind as everyone picks over the bones of the vast building-and-services conglomerate Carillion which went into receivership in January. Absorbed in Carillion were some famous names: Tarmac, Mowlem, Wimpey, Cubitts, Alfred McAlpine. Of course any commercial entity can fail and this includes the new council-owned companies. But for the moment, this model of development understandably looks very attractive – especially for sites of a kind that private developers tend to balk at: awkward-access, brownfield, in-between-and-behind spaces.

The Victorian building boom was driven by a multitude of relatively small private builders which later began to coalesce into bigger housing providers in the interwar years and became steadily larger and larger thereafter. If the Carillion episode – a real shock to the construction and national economy – teaches us anything it is the old one about not putting too many eggs into one basket. More small-to-medium builders and developers please, in a variety of ownerships, public and private. That way the gene pool of clients becomes healthier, and that benefits not only architects, but everyone.