IF_DO’s Sarah Castle reveals how a clear identity, curated output and maximising opportunity can speed your practice’s success
What if you decide to set up a practice with your two best friends from uni? Thomas Bryans, Sarah Castle and Al Scott of IF_DO are living that seemingly reckless dream. They met as 18-year-old students at Edinburgh, and after going their separate ways for Part 2 regrouped a decade or so later in London. Leaving secure jobs in practice in 2014, the trio set up IF_DO with no clients or projects. How did they manage to break through? Within three years, this three-person band won acclaim with its 2017 London Festival of Architecture competition-winning design for the first summer pavilion for the Dulwich Picture Gallery. This saw the firm shortlisted for the Architectural Review Emerging Architecture Awards and listed as one of Wallpaper* magazine’s top 20 emerging practices. But most markedly, in just six months, it has expanded to a fully-fledged practice of 10, which is still growing.
Serious architecture – a serious business
It might seem like luck, but the speed at which IF_DO has shot into the limelight is the result of serious architecture. In his review of the temporary pavilion for Dulwich in these pages, Hugh Pearman commended its artful reflectivity, which responds intuitively to Sir John Soane’s original gallery and Rick Mather’s extension, and creates a ‘certain magic’ through the use of low-budget materials, such as timber, aluminium mesh, aluminium- composite panels and bog-standard grooved timber decking. Most ingenious, though, was the pavilion’s sense of illusion with its apparently unsupported ‘floating roof’.
IF_DO is as serious about the business of architecture as it is about design. The founders realised from the outset that ‘to be taken seriously, we had to take ourselves seriously’. When they established their studio, they had experienced different routes through practice with positions both at home and abroad. They all left salaried jobs in London, which they were happy in, risking the security of a monthly pay cheque. They clearly understood that the business had to stack up. Before setting up, they undertook an eight-month period of intense planning in which they took advice not only from architects, but also lawyers, accountants and bankers; people of different generations who acted as advisers and mentors. Rather than ‘tip toe into it’, they quit their jobs within a week or so of each other. They hired a studio, bought computers and software, and composed a business plan and manifesto. The partnership of three has also made them a resilient unit. Each of them has gone through a life-changing event since forming the practice, and when one is down, two can keep things going. I asked Sarah Castle where the seams are, where the individuals’ strengths and weaknesses lie and whether the partners take on distinct roles, but she remained firm that the partners’ approach to business as well as design is collaborative and entirely shared. Together, they constantly review the original business plan, strategising different aspects whether resourcing, finance or opportunities for new work. They have just taken on a practice manager, who is helping them to formalise this process further.
At RIBA Guerrilla Tactics ‘The Power of Small’ last November, Castle was the most captivating speaker of the day in a strong line up. Her talk was inspiring, directional and highly pragmatic, responding to one of the most commonly recurring questions raised by small practices: how can we successfully move up the chain in terms of project scale and typology? She outlined three strategies that have enabled IF_DO ‘to be nimble and to evolve quickly’, shifting its portfolio swiftly from small-scale house extensions to cultural and educational projects, define identity; curate output and leverage opportunity.
At the outset, IF_DO set about defining its identity through its manifesto. A short, highly ambitious mission statement, it is posted on their website for all to read. It raises high-level ‘What if?’ questions of architecture’s ability to positively shape human’s lives. Castle admits that with no work at the outset, their lofty ambitions to create projects that improved society and the natural environment through better design seemed at downright ‘scary’ and embarrassing among her peers. The spirit of IF_DO, though, was effectively encapsulated: ‘Combining testing, questioning and imagination with action and practical go-getting’. Understanding the significance of consistent and professional dissemination of their message, the three engaged graphic designer, Studio Thomas, and the consultancy Claire Curtice Publicists to work with them.
One of IF_DO’s smartest moves is the implementation of its understanding of the power of curation – exercising control over public perception through the selection and placement of projects. It undertakes the ‘strategic publishing of projects: to present to the world not only what we are doing but also what we want to be doing’. This is most clearly expressed on its website. Although about 60 per cent of its work is smallish domestic projects, only 30 per cent of this output is represented. It can only be found by scrolling right down the projects page. Four key schemes are most prominently displayed: Dulwich Pavilion, a cultural project; the Joseph Walsh Studio Workshops, an industrial scheme in County Cork; St Teresa’s Effingham Sixth Form Centre, an educational building in Surrey, which includes a masterplan; and Granby Space in London’s Lower Marsh, a mixed-use, community project for Meanwhile Space CIC.
IF_DO also knows that the quality of visuals is more important than the completion of a project for building your online and media identity: only two of the four featured projects on its website are complete. At a very early stage of designing Joseph Walsh Studio Workshops, it invested significantly in three renderings by the visualisation artist Forbes Massie. This excited the client and secured the job, which took the practice beyond residential and had significant PR value. The visuals were featured in The Architects’ Journal and the Royal Academy of Arts’ 2016 Summer Exhibition.
Whereas curation is relatively straightforward online, the use of projects to leverage opportunities in the real world is a more complex activity. When you have only completed a few small-scale house extensions, it requires a level of assured ingenuity to step up the building ladder. Castle describes, for instance, how to get in the running for Granby Space, a community project that it very much wanted to win, the partners had to draw on two projects they completed before setting up IF_DO, which only cost a few thousand pounds to build but with clear social benefits. They teamed these projects up with Well Street, one of their favourite residential projects for a house in Suffolk.
A chance encounter in July last year with the head teacher at St Teresa’s Effingham presented the chance to design the school’s sixth form centre. IF_DO’s pitch highlighted the provision of a new educational facility as an opportunity to reconsider the site as a whole. Up against architects with significant education experience, it brought on board engineer Fluid Structures, which has a clear track record in the sector. The partners used their backgrounds in teaching at architecture schools to suggest how the students might benefit more widely during design and construction by talking to them about architecture.
For Castle, the activities the individuals undertake outside the practice are integral to their portfolio, developing their network and identity. Al Scott is an RIBA mentor and active in RIBA Southeast; Thomas Bryans has been on the steering committee for Off Site, the LGBT construction and infrastructure network; and Castle is a chapter leader for Urbanistas. As a practice, they provide placements for sixth form students through the Social Mobility Foundation.
Consolidating the strategy
Castle concluded her talk at Guerrilla Tactics by stating that ‘there is some luck involved, and a lot of hard work, but also a clear strategy’. The rigour with which the partners implement their strategic thinking and hold themselves to account marks them out. They are unapologetically aspirational – ‘shared ambition’ was a recurring phrase in our conversation. But the savvy approach and passion is tempered by human warmth. A shadow of disbelief crossed her face at Guerrilla Tactics when she was asked a question by a member of the audience. It was as if she was pinching herself, not quite believing what a year IF_DO has had. When I asked later about the future, it was clear that the partners are taking a breath and consolidating. Despite their love of teaching – at the London and Brighton Schools of Architecture – they are taking a year off to focus on their growing number of exciting projects. Building on its established ethos, IF_DO is keen to retain control over the quality of built work that it has been lucky – or rather smart – enough to land.
Drawn from an interview with Sarah Castle (no relation) and her talk at RIBA Guerrilla Tactics 2017
Helen Castle is head of RIBA Professional Programmes and commissioning editor of Architectural Design