David Miller’s experience of forming a small practice demonstrates how an agile studio can compete with the giants
When Canadian author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell retells the biblical story of David and Goliath, it’s not the traditional account of the underdog. Armed with a sling, David is, in fact, equipped with a devastating weapon, while Goliath is weighed down with heavy armour, armed only for hand-to-hand combat, and taken by surprise from a distance by his youthful opponent. David is a young fit shepherd boy, whereas Goliath is a partially sighted giant, suffering from the most common form of gigantism – acromegaly. Gladwell wraps up his TED Talk on the subject by saying: ‘And there is, I think, in that, a very important lesson for all of us. Giants are not as strong and powerful as they seem. And sometimes the shepherd boy has a sling in his pocket.’
David Miller, like Gladwell, is interested in the potency of the diminutive. As creative director of this year’s RIBA Guerrilla Tactics Conference, he has chosen the theme to be ‘The Power of the Small’. This, he hopes, will help small and medium practices to capitalise on the sling in their pocket. As architects are operating in an increasingly disruptive environment in terms of both technological change and the economic and political climate, they need to embrace their agility and realise the full potential of their size and technical arsenal. If they can be lightfooted, smaller practices can have a unique competitive advantage over bigger organisations weighed down by processes and drawn-out decision-making. But a smaller practice has to overcome the limits on its time and resources, which requires a great deal of discipline and rigour. It entails a relentless focus on efficiency that does not come through transformation but bitesize continuous improvement. The conference day, on 14 November, will reflect this approach by combining inspirational talks from speakers with plenty of practical takeaway ideas, flagging up tools and processes that can have a lasting and beneficial impact on practice.
Swimming with giants
David Miller is one of the first creative directors of Guerrilla Tactics of recent years to be a founding principal of his own practice, and used to swimming with the giants. Having worked for Norman Foster and Santiago Calatrava, and been an associate director at Future Systems, he set up David Miller Architects (DMA) in 2000. For the first six years he was a sole practitioner. He acted as a consultant, lending his 3D problem-solving skills to the likes of Ushida Findlay (he was the executive architect for the Pool House 2), while designing small-scale private houses.
It was only in 2006 that DMA started to grow into a design studio on the back of a competition it won to refurbish and extend former Royal College of Music halls of residence in Camberwell, southeast London, creating 90 self-contained studios at Liberty Fields. By 2008, the office had expanded to four. Keen to stretch itself and have the opportunity to take on more architecturally sophisticated work in social housing and education, DMA targeted public projects while recognising the need to put a quality management system in place first. Through an OJEU tender, it won a place on Westminster City Council’s housing framework, which was focused on delivering new homes. Collaboration with Bouygues UK, Westminster’s education partner, provided further work on the Building Schools for the Future programme. On the Westminster framework, DMA was surprised to find itself the only small practice amid the big players – the likes of AEDAS, PRP and HLM. DMA came top on quality and bottom on price (they did not realise at that time how competitive fees were in that market). It also led to Miller’s realisation that being small didn’t exclude the practice from winning work in this space. He decided to use his studio’s size to its advantage, ensuring a stringency in the application of processes and communication.
The power of delegation
Another big year for Miller was 2008, when a medical condition forced him to take six months’ leave. This made the disquieting revelation that the practice became more profitable while he was absent. With the gap at the top, all the individuals in the office were effectively stepping up a role. It was an important lesson in the power of delegation, and prompted Miller to investigate further. The practice later received funding from a government growth accelerator programme for leadership and management training for the directors and associate directors; two separate coaches provided training in business strategy development and softer leadership skills. It was so beneficial that DMA retained a coach to roll it out to the entire team, which had now grown to 16.
The coaching experience led Miller to consciously nurture a collegiate atmosphere in his practice where staff learn from each other. Everyone in the office sits around a single long table. Individuals are given responsibility to run projects early on in their careers. The comprehensive best practice management system that Miller and his partner, practice director Fiona Clark, have developed acts as a wrapper around staff, keeping them compliant and safe. The system assimilates level 2 BIM with a series of checklists for each stage, incorporating ISO 9001 (Quality Management) and ISO 14001 (Environmental Management). Health and safety is an important aspect – every team member holds a CSCS card. The presence of clear processes and structure frees up individuals to have greater independence and the opportunity to be creative. It also helps to retain talented staff, keeping them engaged and motivated. DMA has received formal recognition for its efforts with the Investors in People Gold Standard – one the first architectural practices to have achieved this.
The drawbacks of being David
From early on Miller ensured that DMA was an independent, full-service architectural practice. He is clear on the reliance that design has on delivery and the perils ahead for the profession with the continuing salami slicing of services to other professionals. As a small practice, DMA has invested heavily in its delivery capability. It was an early adopter of BIM – staff started working in Revit in 2008. BIM also made them think about processes more fundamentally through their collaboration with contractors and other consultants. The main caveat for DMA is that its reputation for efficiency and technical appetite has been at the cost of a design profile. The design community still finds it difficult to reconcile technical capability with an aptitude for design.
Now with an office of 20, DMA stands at the threshold of becoming a medium-size practice. The office is to be restructured for the next phase of growth, with sights on a new office in Liverpool. Miller is keen to seize the opportunities that scaling up might bring for himself and his staff, enabling them to take on bigger and more interesting projects, advancing individuals’ careers. He is also wary of losing the advantages of being small: shared culture, communication and consistency that physical adjacency brings when everyone is seated together in a single space – the proverbial sling in the pocket.
Helen Castle is RIBA head of professional programmes and consultant editor of Architectural Design.