Investor in people

Words:
Eleanor Young

Retaining good staff is key to developing Formation Architects, says director Tim Quick – and that includes helping overcome the challenges of settling in London

Tim Quick, Director, Formation Architects

Age 58

Practice size 65 staff / 38 qualified architects

Practice turnover to end of last financial year £4.2 million

 

How did you come to be in your current role?

I was headhunted from Foster + Partners in 2001 by the owners of Formation Architects – then Halpern – who wanted to up their design game. Fifteen years later and we see that ongoing gradual process. It involves lots of people. We have transformed the work profile by following the market into the residential sector. We have changed the name of the practice and the quality of the work. Now we have changed the ownership too, having become an employee owned trust in December 2015.

How do you judge success?

Between the four directors we have a common project. It is an intangible feel in the practice. It is not competitive or confrontational as some practices can be. We have our ear to the ground and use a series of senior meetings to allow the feelings at grass roots to feed up through the management structure. Our DADA meeting ­– for directors, associate directors and associates – is the backbone of the practice. So we avoid the Chinese whispers of a big firm. If we grow, as we intend, change will kick in.

Why grow?

There are good people in the practice and we want space for them to grow and have their own teams. Otherwise we are in a fix; you can get to a point where people feel cramped.

How does the market feel to you?

We don’t feel negative. Residential is pretty healthy. We are close to our clients and they are not scaling back. They are buying sites and looking for opportunities. We are blessed to be in London. 

Young architects want to be able to work on site and if we didn’t engage our reputation might not be so good and our staff and the practice could just become a paper architects

Can young architects earn enough to buy a house in London?

No, that is massive problem. We have had staff who felt they had to resign and move out, and we have one person that even commutes from Wales. We have gaps at associate level of people in their thirties. In your mid thirties you are very valuable. Businesses are desperate to have you but you are asking ‘Where is my career?’ and thinking about starting a family. Unfortunately we and London are not always able to provide what everyone wants. Some practices set up regional offices where some work can be done. Should we farm work out to Vietnam? That is not a sensible way to run your projects. Some practices are able to charge very high fees, but not many. So we end up with a huge gap in staff between those who bought a house in the 80s and those earning their trade, a gap in experienced people. It is one thing to lose people with experience, it is another finding them. I think most practices are making plans to deal with this.

Formation's Botanic House in Cambridge
Formation's Botanic House in Cambridge

How do you prefer to deal with profit?

Different cost centres are very unhelpful – you have to be careful to avoid making people feel different. It can change fast and you have to consider cash flow in the long term and contribution to overheads. There are lots of reasons to do things beyond the bottom line. We have a healthy mix of projects, although mainstream delivery is hard to make work financially, as design and build. But we actively work on it. Young architects want to be able to work on site and if we didn’t engage our reputation might not be so good and our staff and the practice could just become a paper architects.

Who influenced you most beyond the practice?

Norman Foster. I worked very close to him during the 90s: on personal projects and other big ones. It is a pretty formative experience in your thirties. I absorbed his approach to design, asking what are the important things and how you prioritise in the design process. It is an attitude to design – and not a personal design style – and one that can be carried out by a lot of other people.

Next big challenge?

… is growing Formation Architects with a new generation of architects. I have always been interested in how practices are run and organised and how to make a good place. That is one reason why we moved to an employee owned trust. Previously one person owned the firm. Then the practice bought its own shares from its reserves and the shares are now locked in a box. Employee ownership means we can distribute profits, not as a dividend to shareholders but to all staff. It is based on seniority, pay and value and we can reward those who have contributed a lot. A lot of this goes back to recruitment and retaining good people – so you don’t need to borrow huge sums to buy a share, or lose the dividend to partners.

There people I want here in 10 years time. We want to create a future for our staff so the practice story goes on. It affects people’s lives and careers.

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