Mark Kemp, director of Cornish practice PLACE Architects, talks about the challenges of running a small but long-established practice and how it has informed his book on securing business resilience
It's easy to mistake Mark Kemp's practice as the architectural equivalent of Doc Martin, the fictional TV doctor. Based in the historic town of Launceston in north Cornwall, PLACE Architects provides an important service to a traditional rural community. However, it is firmly set in the economics of now, and Kemp has to be on his toes to ensure the business weathers the storms that can hit construction.
The practice, founded in 1912 and formerly known as Parkes Lees Architects, has an ‘established set’ of clients. ‘It's not uncommon for new clients to come to us because we did work for their parents,’ says Kemp. Even if they are not recommended by a family member, most local clients know someone else who PLACE has worked for. Clients are almost always at just one remove.
The practice largely focuses on residential work – extensions, barn conversions and new builds – though it also undertakes some small-scale commercial and hospitality projects. For over 18 years, it has been engaged in ongoing work for a local manorial estate converting its barns into rental properties and repairing existing stock.
But don't be bamboozled by the West Country location and the notion of a cosy cream-tea lifestyle. Kemp is clear that 'a certain sense of civic responsibility of being an established business' comes at a price. It often requires providing advice, and work even, for projects that won’t make the practice any money.
Leading a practice, moreover, never falls into the congenial territory of comforting ITV drama. Having joined PLACE as a project architect in 2000, Kemp became a director in 2006 and sole shareholding director in 2009. This was just as the financial crisis began to bite. What had previously been a practice with as many as 10 architects 'dwindled', says Kemp, as 'a ripple in 2011 swept through the South West and we went down to three or four members of staff. It was me, a technologist, and an administrator pretty much.'
Since then recovery has been incremental year on year with the exception of the unevenness of the last three years: in 2020, the pandemic pause in construction shifted quickly to post-pandemic demand from homeowners investing in their properties, combined with inflation of material costs. Since the increase in interest rates in the autumn, PLACE Architects, like other practices, has seen a significant drop off in workload.
It is through hard-won experience over the years that Kemp has developed a focused approach to business resilience in his small practice. He shares this in his accessible guide to the subject, Good Practice Guide: Business Resilience, published by RIBA Publishing in September 2022.
Building resilience with the right level of risk
In 2000, Kemp was attracted to work for Parkes Lees Architects as a project architect because it was efficiently managed, previously having had a bad experience of working for a disorganised practice.
It meant, however, that when he took over as sole director and shareholder in 2009, ‘there was both a benefit and a disbenefit of the practice being so well organised as I could just slot in and run it as it was. It took a long time to work out that I needed to have a plan, and before I could get anywhere with it.’
It was the time invested in external commitments, which also required time away from the business, that made him reconsider how he did things within his practice. From 2015 Kemp was on the board of RIBA Enterprises for three years, overseeing its partial equity sale.
Being involved in a strategy day at RIBA Enterprises inspired him to hold his own for PLACE and, since then, Kemp has made sure that strategic work does not get pushed to the side. He allocates time in his diary to activities with the team that will advance the practice, like reviewing new software packages for management programmes or working on business development and marketing. There is also a regular Friday morning content catch-up for social media with an external PR agency.
However, for plans to be active, they need to be live for the team as well as the practice leader. 'To ensure that everybody is pulling in the same direction, you need to keep talking about it,' says Kemp. 'As we emerged from the pandemic, we needed to put a new vision, mission and business plan together. We have whole staff meetings every six or eight weeks to deliver the adoption of a proper growth strategy.’
To initiate this work, he explains, ‘the programme manager attended a course about business growth. We’re trying to break up the categories within the different segments of the growth wheel to make sure that we've covered each subcategory and staff have got an opinion on each one of those things.’
Under his management, the practice has had a very different direction in its approach to risk. Kemp has been keen to ensure that PLACE Architects ‘punches above its weight’. He has invested ‘effort in trying new things, trying new software, trying new approaches. He puts ‘a lot of store in collaborating with people’. Collaboration is both at local and national level. Kemp often works on listed projects with a conservation architect, who is a sole practitioner, sharing his studio space. He also works nationally with larger practices across the country, 'taking a chance to collaborate with another practice to produce something different.'
Since the pandemic, the practice has organised sustainability symposiums in its studio in Launceston for design and construction professionals in the South West. These have gained momentum as forums for architects, surveyors and engineers talking about the opportunities and limitations of sustainability in their own projects. Three local planning officers attended the most recent CPD event on Flood Resilience in July 2022 for whom it provided a vital training opportunity.
People are the practice
Kemp’s book on business resilience is divided into two halves: ‘organisations’ and ‘people’. As much as he places an onus on systems and structures for the successful monitoring of finances and resources, he also emphasises the human element: good decision-making, management of staff and client relationships.
For Kemp, ‘every member of staff in the practice has got something to do with every project. It doesn't arrive on the left-hand side, get processed by them and depart on the right-hand side for them to no longer be involved with. The client and the project itself go through a journey through every part of the office. This also gives you the opportunity to develop every individual.’
Good leadership and management of a small practice rely on ‘using the full potential of everybody’, he says, advising practices to ‘look at what skills you've already got and build the skill set within your existing staff’.
For instance, Mark had a staff member who started as a part-time administrator. When another administrator left, she stepped up and went to become the office manager. She is now moving into a client liaison role having developed great skills with clients. ‘She has really good relationships with clients,' he says, 'even when things are getting tough when they're having to wait 51 weeks for a planning application because the authority have no case officers, for instance, or when I'm not available because I'm messing around with the RIBA or writing a book.’
Kemp has also provided the operations manager with the opportunity to undertake volunteer work as part of her working day, at the local Chamber of Commerce. The investment in her development has paid off. It put them in the running for undertaking Launceston’s feasibility study – an important piece of work. It will ‘give the town the opportunity to bid for significant amounts of money from the Levelling Up Fund as well as the Shared Prosperity Fund’, he explains.
With the requirement for SAP assessments to be submitted as part of energy statements at planning stage by Cornwall Council, he can see the potential for staff with the right aptitude to gain training in energy performance assessment.
Kemp is candid about recognising the limits and potential of practice staff. ‘We don't have enough work for 10 architects in the room anymore. But we do have enough work to get somebody else in.’ Currently, the design studio is made up of a director, a senior architect, a Part 2 student and a Part 1 student, with a part-time technologist joining in a couple of months’ time. There are also the operations manager, office manager and a part-time finance manager. He is also seeking to engage an apprentice in an administrative support role, which will provide an opportunity to pass skills on to that individual and provide a management opportunity for the office manager.
Kemp also provides his staff with an enrichment programme. This is an additional week’s holiday in which ‘people are free to go and do something else’. This chance to explore other interests and activities outside work, he recognises as an important part of ‘people building a better working relationship. Staff enjoy working in an environment like that.’ And, he says, it ‘creates an environment that I enjoy working in too’.
Interest rate and environmental pressures
There is no doubt that interest rate rises have dampened demand in the residential sector. PLACE, however, is fortunate in having a good percentage of private clients that are asset rich and less affected. Despite the increased cost of borrowing, it’s also been a period of stable employment. Some clients are initiating projects again after a year on pause. People are reassessing their finances, weighing up the cost of an extension against moving. Their need remains for an annex for an elderly parent or an extension for a dedicated home office.
Fees for a significant refurbishment or a new build of a domestic property can be enough to cover an architect’s salary for a year. However, working with homeowner clients is much more time intensive than projects with commercial clients as additional support is required around decision making and advice.
PLACE has an even split between its private and commercial work. For the last decade or so, the practice has been working with RG&P, which has offices in London, Leicester and Birmingham. Recently it has won a joint bid with them on a framework for a large development of new houses on a brownfield site in Exeter. Here Kemp recognises the advantage that small practices like PLACE have being able to offer local expertise and knowledge, where a site has existing uses.
It is not just the economic climate that is dragging on workloads. In Cornwall valuable and effective steps have been introduced to reduce climate change, but these are proving prohibitively expensive for small developers and house owners. Cornwall Council was one of the first UK councils to declare a council emergency in January 2019. As a unitary authority, it has been able to develop its policies into a coherent development plan. In June 2023, it introduced sustainable energy and construction policies, ahead of the national mandate. Planning applications now require an energy statement for any single property with a SAP report, declaring energy usage over a 30-year period. Ahead of planning, it is difficult for private clients to understand the necessity for additional services and increased costs. It can be misconstrued by them as upselling on the architect’s part. The requirement to demonstrate 10% biodiversity net gain for sites with more than nine properties also makes it difficult for developers to make schemes stack up financially. In Cornwall, where new buildings are largely on greenfield sites, it entails building fewer properties on a site or offsetting on an alternative piece of adjacent land.
To ensure cashflow, financial stability and business resilience, Kemp reviews fees on a six-monthly basis – both in terms of rates and fee structure. To provide an attractive offer to clients, which also delivers cash in the bank, he has developed two-stage fee payments for small pieces of work, such as applications for small extensions. Clients are asked to pay half of the fees upfront and half on completion. He has also increased the fees for earlier work stages for the director and consultant, retaining fees for client support once a project is underway. This also helps addresses the greater demand for early stage consultation services.
Continuing to evolve
For Kemp, standing still and doing things the way you’ve always done them is not an option. ‘I move the desks around every year,' he says, 'sometimes several times a year, because I think it’s important to sit in a different place and see everything from a different perspective.’
But what is the ultimate end goal of business resilience? ‘To create a practice that doesn't rely on me,' says Kemp. 'That's why when we changed the name, I didn’t want my name included in the practice’s name. The practice is not about me. It's about the practice delivering a high-quality service.’
True success will be ‘to gain sufficient critical mass in the practice so that it can become an employee ownership trust’. Ultimately, Kemp aspires to cutting himself out of the practice, in time, so his job is done.
Business Resilience by Mark Kemp is published by RIBA Publishing, £32, 128pp, paperback. Available from RIBA Books and all good architectural booksellers and online retailers.
Helen Castle is publishing director at the RIBA