Beyond business survival: preparing for practice after lockdown

Words:
Pamela Buxton

The coronavirus pandemic crisis won’t end when the lockdown does. Wise practices are preparing for the expected recession, honing their business, boosting their skills and polishing their marketing

Xsite’s project By the River Brew Co on Gateshead Quay, just below the Tyne Bridge, one of those that will be going into a sectoral study by the practice.
Xsite’s project By the River Brew Co on Gateshead Quay, just below the Tyne Bridge, one of those that will be going into a sectoral study by the practice. Credit: Xsite

In these uncertain times, sheer business survival understandably takes priority as practices tackle the dual challenges of moving to home working and retaining and servicing their clients. But once the dust has settled, what can practices do to use the time that they may have spent travelling to work and client meetings, as well as any extra downtime, so that they are better placed for when the crisis has passed?

Architectural practice management consultant Asif Malik suggests that now is an ideal time for small practices to address quality management systems (QMS).

‘It’s the perfect opportunity for smaller and emerging practices to find out about the benefits of adopting a QMS,’ he says, adding that normally, it isn’t high on their list of priorities.

‘QMS allow you to run your practice efficiently. You will gain very simple procedures for any situation arising such as how you get new work, how you resource projects, how you deal with clients, and how you record your time systematically – every aspect of running your practice can be set out in quite a simple, customised plan,’ he says.

RIBA advice on QMS varies according to practice size. Those of up to 10 staff should prepare a systematic project quality plan for each project. Medium practices (11-50 staff) in addition need a quality assurance manual and standard forms for their procedures while those larger practices with more than 50 staff are required to have an externally-certified ISO 9001 QMS.  Advice is available for RIBA chartered and associated members through the RIBA Information Centre’s Specialist Practice Consultants service (+44 (0)20 7307 3600).

Another useful activity at this time is refreshing the website, making sure it is up-to-date and sending the right messages for when some sort of normality returns. However Lucy Mori, an architect and business adviser, advises that practices hold back from plunging ahead with this until they’ve done the necessary strategic thinking to inform what they want to say and to whom.

‘I recommend going back a few steps and using the time to think about the business plan,’ she says.

This includes, she adds, considering the kind of projects it has and identifying practice values, as well as understanding client needs and how the practice can use marketing frameworks to develop narratives to address these. ‘This thinking will then inform the website as well as other marketing and business development actions.’

There is also, she says, an opportunity for small businesses to review their finances and accounting, setting up systems using online accounting software and creating the templates with standard terms and conditions. They can sort out any backlog of receipts and business expenses, and clean up databases.

Malik suggests that architects should also take the opportunity to undertake online CPD.

Below, we talk to architects about how they plan to make the best of the hugely challenging impact of Covid-19.

 

Tim Bailey, partner of xsite architecture, a Newcastle upon Tyne practice with 10 staff: Marketing, POE, mentoring

We’re busy prioritising work for the clients that are paying and have projects that we are confident will go ahead, as well as dealing with the challenges of home working and resourcing.

I’m also thinking about a whole host of things we could also usefully be doing during this time. These are predominantly marketing activities – it’s the thing we have the least time to address properly normally. Although it’s not necessarily noticeable to others, the website is a wee bit out of date and could do with some sharpening. We also need to catch up on writing up sectoral case studies from projects that have completed over the last few years to accompany project bids.

For some time we’ve wanted to do something meaningful in the post occupancy evaluation arena but we’ve never found anyone who would be willing to pay for it. So our intention is to use this time to do a demonstration POE under our own steam through comparative data from five projects.

We have a nascent mentoring programme that’s currently more intention than practice. Now is a good moment to step it up, especially with the challenges of working remotely from each other as the practice switches to home-working. There is also an opportunity to sharpen up our quality assurance system and formalise it in writing.

 

Matt Vaudin, director, Stonewood Design: QMS, training, pro-bono work

Even though we’re now desk-based, we’re finding that we can go on as usual with many of our projects right up to planning and tender. We’re also making sure we’re ready to go with all the information the contractors will need for when work starts on site again.

But we will be using any extra down time to get the practice in a good place for the moment that, post-virus, things start up again. Often, it’s after a recession that practices can have the hardest time as it’s sure to be a very competitive market. We want to use this lockdown time positively to make sure that we’re well placed for that.

We have a unique opportunity to step back and take the time to look at improving our practice systems. Our practice manager is now planning to work towards Quality Management System ISO 9001 certification, something that she had been aiming to do anyway at some point as the practice has been growing and is now up to 20 staff. Now is a good time to do this.

We’re also looking at training. A couple of our staff are taking up NBS training on specification and our practice manager has enrolled on a mental health awareness distance learning course.

Also, we’re always keen to work on pro-bono projects but often we get too busy to do them. But now we’ve got a couple that we will have time to work on – a recycling depot and a boxing centre, both in South Africa.

Sketch by Simon Henley of Henley Halebrown for the masterplan for phases 3 & 4 of the Kings Crescent Estate regeneration in Stoke Newington, north London. The configuration of buildings framing recognisable types of urban spaces has social connotations for the homes and work spaces planned around them.
Sketch by Simon Henley of Henley Halebrown for the masterplan for phases 3 & 4 of the Kings Crescent Estate regeneration in Stoke Newington, north London. The configuration of buildings framing recognisable types of urban spaces has social connotations for the homes and work spaces planned around them. Credit: Henley Halebrown

Mark Foley, principal, Burrell Foley Fischer: Website, sustainability policy

The website is a key priority – getting projects updated with completed images and also really thinking about who we need to communicate with and how.

We’ll be looking at how we convey our policies, in particular our approach to sustainability. We want to set this down formally in a way that clients can easily engage with, as it can be quite overwhelming for them at first, and we want to take them with us on the journey. I also think this situation will allow us to sit back, reflect, and really think on things, which could be very helpful in the long run.

 

Bianca Valido Leach, director, InsideOut: Free design consultations, training, and post-crisis shared studio planning

Watching the emergency services’ response to Covid-19, we felt a bit helpless and wanted to give something back ourselves. So we’re offering free design consultations throughout April for those who wouldn’t normally access this type of service. We’re offering advice to independent hospitality and commercial businesses who are having to adapt very quickly, and also to homeowners who are confined to their homes and thinking about the improvements they could make to their spaces.

Hopefully this will have positive consequences all round. 

We’re trying to make the most of our time. We’ve set up a virtual ‘InsideOut academy’ to maximise knowledge sharing and training opportunities within the team (such as Revit and other software as well as more general CPD). We’re about to complete a build of 14 Passivhaus houses in Kent, so will be doing some in-house training on thermal bridge-free detailing for all our staff.

We’re also thinking longer term for when we start to transition back to some form of office working. Many businesses are having to make quick decisions about their studio leases. With our network of like-minded consultants, we’re thinking of hosting a multi-disciplinary shared working space out of our studios. It will be a good way of coming together that will lead to long-term benefits for everyone.

 

Simon Henley, director, Henley Halebrown: Practice research

We’re still working as before, albeit from our homes, but we’re keen to spend the time saved travelling to work in a creative way. So we have decided to use this period of ‘social distancing’ to focus our minds on a research initiative that we started to formalise last year with a number of publications and events.

It focuses on three key areas of interest: Adaptive Reuse; The Social Question; and Facades and Liminal Space.  These themes are embedded in all our project-based work – which we also perceive as research.   

In the future, we would like a more concerted way of expressing these strands of thought through a book or an exhibition that looks, for example, at how our experience of adaptive reuse has evolved over the past 20 years or so.   We’re particularly interested in the idea of the embodied memory of old buildings and in the way they are generally robust and adaptable – qualities most of our new buildings share with them.

The social question goes to the heart of how we understand architecture and its power to establish the foundation for community and its social value. Facades and liminal space is the topic of my PhD, that will look at the relationships between materials, construction and the performance of facades, and how people experience liminal space at threshold between inside and outside, building and city, architecture and nature.


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