Evolution not revolution

Constant renewal rather than sudden change is a formula that has kept Sheppard Robson going strong for 77 years

Name Alan Shingler

Position Partner, Sheppard Robson

Age 46

Practice size 360 staff/186 qualified architects

Turnover £25,076,583


How did you get here?

I have been with Sheppard Robson for 18 years. I started in an office building in the City on the coordination of the basement, so I literally started at the bottom. The practice has given me opportunity and diversity throughout my career. I am now on both the design review board and the management board, which means I have a role in shaping the business and design direction at the practice.

How do you judge your success?

Architecture is about design but you can’t divorce it from delivery. It is a service to the client and to the public. By balancing design and business acumen, architects are better placed to fulfil the interests of the clients who, ultimately, are paying the bill. The success is in the architecture, the buildings we create and the satisfaction of clients.

How are you making that happen?

Part of the success of the business is not to redefine style or process. The Sheppard Robson DNA means our role is to evolve the business, not to challenge what makes it successful. We are in a process of constant renewal. Change is slow, a gradual planned succession – not tectonic shifts as this is where the risk is. We are unusual in that we have been around for 77 years and remain one of the UK’s largest practices.

One of the successes is the culture of personal and professional development. Young, talented staff are like oxygen to the practice. We invest in them and they invest in us. Staff stay an average of 4.7 years. So it is also important that we are a meritocracy; we avoid figureheads as they disempower others in the business.

How important is profit?

It is important, just as the quality of buildings is. We set profit levels for different areas of the business in business plans. For example, areas we need to invest in to get diversification of building types or different clients and sometimes for profile, such as the Siemens headquarters in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, on which the ambitious brief meant we could focus on making it a sustainable exemplar. We have a special fund for competitions and charity and we enable people to take part in external committees. The team also enjoys working on meaningful projects, like our work with WaterAid in Africa, which has lower profit targets.

Investing for profile and to stretch themselves on an ambitious brief: Siemens' Masdar City headquarters.
Investing for profile and to stretch themselves on an ambitious brief: Siemens' Masdar City headquarters.

Is communication tricky?

We have resisted setting up small regional offices around the country as it can dilute design control. It is easier to focus effort on managing fewer locations.

Communication is harder between 360 people than for a practice with 30-40. We don’t have one single thing to deal with that. We do presentations to the senior management group.  We present projects to the office and hold our own Green Week, which organises events across all our offices to promote and discuss sustainability; we also publish a staff newspaper, which gives the staff a voice.

Where have you learnt beyond the practice?

Projects teach me. But I have also learnt when I have engaged with industry beyond the office: I got a broader horizon from my work as chair of the RIBA sustainable futures group and in the British Property Federation’s sustainability committee.

I was invited by the American federal government to undertake a peer review of the American Embassy for London alongside a shadow design team. It was a rare opportunity to evaluate a scheme from the client’s perspective.

What is the next big challenge?

We believe that new technology – alongside the current tools we have as architects – will enable us to re-establish our central role, leading collaboration with other disciplines and allowing us to stay with projects from conception to completion.

As an industry, we need to anticipate the changing relationship architecture has with the construction industry. It’s a danger that the profession gets sorted into either design or delivery architects, which would lead clients to appoint one firm until planning and another practice to deliver.

Architects tend to avoid risk and the most risky time, and the hardest time to make a profit, is in the delivery phase. However, we’ve found that it’s extremely valuable to see schemes through to completion, benefiting from the lessons learnt from the construction phases of projects.