Sustainability, technology and new economic realities demand that architects find a different way of working, says John Worthington
The scope of architectural practice has undergone dramatic change in the first decade of this millennium. ‘Green architecture’ is now recognised to be a part of a wider holistic approach to achieving sustainability. Information technology is changing lifestyles and corporate business models, resulting in innovative organisational structures and new building typologies. The banking crisis of 2008 triggered an exciting opportunity to recalibrate our institutions. I would argue that the last five years have been more than a deep recession: they herald a rethinking of the financial services economy and with it a realignment of values with the power of the civic society.
‘The founders have established an innovative model of practice that focuses on both process and product. The practice has been prepared to question perceived wisdom and embrace upside down thinking’
Practice and process
You may be familiar with Zero Zero, whose co-founder David Saxby wrote a column for this page during 2011. It is a practice founded by architects trained in problem seeking, concept defining, solution framing, and communicating meaning, who have established an innovative model of practice that focuses on both process (00:/Research) and product (00:/Architecture). The practice has been prepared to question perceived wisdom and embrace upside down thinking. Unlike more traditional architectural practices it has not waited to be approached by potential clients who have already framed their problem, but has identified new needs, built alliances and helped shape solutions. As a young practice Zero Zero’s distinguishing characteristics, which fuelled its success, have been openness and desire to work collaboratively; generosity in being prepared to engage and share ideas; an inquisitiveness combined with a calculated willingness to enter uncharted territory; and above all an entrepreneurial drive.
The founders studied together at Bath with a resulting trust and respect for each other’s different attributes. Indy Johar, who leads research and strategy, has been prepared to rethink and find new structures for the emerging digital civic economy. Saxby, who heads architecture, has given expression to the new organisational structures through delivering buildings (SOAR Sheffield). They have gathered a diversely talented yet consistently focused team.
Alice Fung’s managerial and organisational skills, have turned the firm’s investment in the Westminster Hub into a business reality. Located in London’s West End, it is a business venture for the practice, its home, and above all a physical and operational expression of the concepts and values its members believe in. The Hub is a global network for co-working, with three locations in London, each with their particular culture, identity and mix of membership. Zero Zero has been involved with the organisational and spatial development of the hub from its inception, partnering with Westminster Council Enterprise Unit for the creation of Westminster Hub, undertaking the design and now curating events and services to support the rapidly growing cluster of social impact enterprises. Within a year Hub Westminster has become a toe-hold for the new economy on the cliff face of the establishment and an icon for the civic economy.
Moving its architectural offering to the Hub (above) was a courageous step for Zero Zero. It is the antithesis of the image of the architectural office. The board room for presentations is a Wikihouse (another of its projects) and the rows of ‘cad jockeys’ in the ‘studio’ are instead individuals with laptops, working at a variety of settings, in a knowledge focussed ideas lab. Process and product work together, overlap and thrive on synergy.
Process and product have supported each other. Research has produced influential publications such as the Compendium for the Civic Economy or Right to Build, which have driven the conceptual thinking and given new meaning to the design approach while the experience of design delivery has in its turn provided practicality from experience to strategy.
If Zero Zero can grow, mature and bring together the two cultures of design and management thinking it will have found a powerful model that no architectural firm has yet managed to achieve. As the firm grows and meets the opportunity of larger projects – 00:/ is a driving force behind the Government’s £50m commitment to Tech City – it will be faced with the dilemma of whether the culture of strategy and organisational consulting is compatible with the demands and business imperatives of architectural delivery. In the world of product design, IDEO managed to find a new a successful business model, but the world of design works at a different scale to that of architecture. Zero Zero is prototyping a new form of practice.
John Worthington is co-founder of DEGW. He is a former chairman of Cabe/RIBA Building Futures and with Dickon Robinson and Caroline Cole authored The Future for Architects? He is a director of the Academy of Urbanism