Four architects reflect on their experiences of economic troughs, past and present.
No one is immune to economic turbulence. It can gather like a storm – in a single day – as on ‘Black Monday’ in October 1987 when the stock market crashed or on 15 September 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed. It can also creep up as a slower realisation, as with the present crisis, when it took a week or so in March for it to become apparent that we were heading for a global economic downturn as well as a health emergency. For the design and construction industry, which depends on investment, it is as much about client confidence as available funds. As soon as projects start to be paused or pulled by seemingly robust clients, the seismic impact is felt by architects at every career stage from practice directors to students on their Part 1 placements.
So how can you as an individual withstand the cyclical highs and lows of the economy? Nicky Watson, Steve Tompkins, Anna Parker and Kate Cheyne describe how at different points in their careers they have endured economic bumps, with dips often proving the catalyst for new beginnings.
Nicky Watson, director at JDDK Architects
A shareholding director at JDDK Architects, Watson is withstanding the third major economic slump of her career. The rawness of the situation is apparent in her eyes and strained voice when she describes how since March the practice has furloughed nine staff out of a close team of 20. She graduated from Part II during the recession of the early 1990s and also helped to steer the practice through the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008.
Brought up in Kent with a father who was an architect, specialising in healthcare design, she was ‘aware from a young age of the good times and bad times in architecture’. This was not always tied to the economic cycle. When fee scales were dropped – they ceased to be mandatory from 1982 – charges for architectural services were no longer assured and started to be measured by cost rather than quality, making it ‘a more challenging environment for architects with fee bids and unfavourable changes to the procurement process’.
Watson studied Parts II and II at the University of Newcastle, completing her Part II in 1992. She had a ‘fantastic’ second year on an Erasmus exchange programme in Venice; as a consequence she did her final exams late, not receiving her final assessments until September. On graduating, it became apparent that her year group were having difficulties finding work. Many wanted to stay in the northeast, but ended up moving to London or the southeast to seek employment. Determined to stay in Newcastle with Richard, her future husband, who she had met at university, she was on the point of going back down south to her parents – after six months on the dole – when she secured a job as an architectural assistant at JDDK.
The experience of signing on and applying for jobs and getting ‘rejection after rejection’ was ‘frustrating and disheartening. It was difficult to see any way out of it.’ She concedes however that ‘the cost of living in Newcastle was low at the time and the benefit system better than it is now’. It was still hard to realise that ‘having time on our hands was going to be a one-off opportunity before working full time’. She and her partner did, however, make the most of adult education classes. Watson attended life-drawing classes and Richard undertook a philosophy course and a BTech in Autocad.
As a Part II, Watson was loath to take on a role outside architecture. In hindsight, from an employer’s perspective, she now regards this as a mistake: ‘any employment would have been useful’. She was afraid, though, at the time ‘to drive down the wrong path and not be able to get back on track. Any broader life experience, however, would have been a positive benefit for future work.’
By the time that the financial crisis hit 15 years later in 2008, Watson was a director at JDDK. She describes this period as the hardest experience of her life. The workload dropped off and it became necessary to cut costs. This meant making three colleagues redundant from the team, some of whom she had been working with since university.
Watson and co-directors took a strategic look at the business. They focused on sectors that were still buoyant and profitable, working hard to retain projects and win new work. Affordable housing, for instance, provided a broader client base. They also helped to nudge charities considering projects towards delivery stage by making them aware of lower tender prices.
As marketing lead, Watson reviewed JDDK’s communications strategy. She realised that awards success and expertise in low-energy design and hospices meant that the practice was being pigeonholed and not being considered for a full range of projects. The firm started to take a more balanced approach to marketing, promoting modest work as well as high-quality design. By engaging an external agency, they began ‘to communicate a broader story about the business to ensure that the practice was considered for work where there was work’.
Now JDDK works locally, nationally and internationally, with ‘90% of its housing work in the public and private sector remaining in the northeast and more specialist healthcare work – designing hospices and neurological, cancer and diagnostic facilities – spanning the UK and Europe’.
As Watson and JDDK face another challenging period, she is guardedly optimistic. With the lifting of the lockdown in the last couple of weeks, more work is coming through. JDDK has taken all but three staff off furlough. Opportunities are arising to bid for projects. The practice is ‘working hard to stay with clients, procuring services. Offering flexible fee structures that spread payments over several months.’
Exposure to peaks and troughs throughout her career has left Watson cautious in business: she never believes a job is secured until it is contracted. It has also left her with the knowledge that there will be a recovery. ‘It is a matter of building skills and strategy to see you through.’
Steve Tompkins, founding director of Haworth Tompkins
As Watson was undertaking her Masters at Newcastle in 1991, Steve Tompkins was setting up Haworth Tompkins in London with Graham Haworth in a friend’s flat in Great Portland Street. Having undertaken his Part II at Arup Associates, Tompkins joined Rab Bennetts for his Part III as his first employee. It was at the nascent Bennett Associates that he met his future partner, who arrived as the second member of the team: ‘Rab was systematic and a great organiser’ and provided them with ‘an Arupian post-graduate grounding’. When the recession started to bite in 1990 and work dried up for Bennetts, Tompkins took off for a year to the Outer Hebrides to pursue his passion for painting. On his return, he linked up with Haworth, who had also worked in large practice at Skidmore Owings & Merrill in the US. With some professional experience behind them, they were now ready for their ‘own adventures’.
For Steve, ‘the advantage of starting a practice in a recession was starting slow’. Tompkins supported himself on his savings and a teaching position at the University of Bath where he was running the degree year. With little in the way of overheads, Tompkins and Haworth were able to be light-footed. With ‘no strategy’, they benefited from ‘serendipity [and] a lot of thinking time’. They collected a big library of materials from other industries. By piggybacking on Steve’s father’s practice in Northampton, which was designing large office projects at the time, they leapt over the initial evolutionary stage of most practices, which are forced to take on house extensions and small domestic projects.
Their first major project to complete in 1994 was Cobbs Lane, Dr Martens’ factory and headquarters, which they lavished love and attention on. They ‘chewed over the detailing’, working up the structural elements of the pitched roof in carefully crafted hand drawings. As a project, it proved formative, allowing them to ‘find their voices and develop a methodology’. As the extension to a rural shoe factory in a sensitive context, it was site specific, incorporating vernacular and new industrial elements. It established their longstanding interest in sustainability with the inclusion of a natural ventilation system, while also featuring specially commissioned artwork – sculptures by the Turner Prize winning artist Grenville Davey.
Then two definitive things happened. The first came from a feasibility study for the Chisenhale Gallery in east London. Although the job didn’t go ahead, they came to the attention of theatre designer Iain Mackintosh, who recommended them to be shortlisted as a wildcard for the project to refurbish and extend the Royal Court Theatre. It resulted in 25 years of work in the sector: the 2014 Stirling Prize for the Everyman Theatre and an unrivalled reputation for transforming and democratising theatre design. In 2020, Tompkins was the first architect to get the number one spot in Stage 100 as the most influential person in British theatre.
The second event that sealed the direction of the practice was winning an invited competition for Coin Street Iroko Cooperative, the community housing scheme on the South Bank behind the National Theatre. Social housing is the other mainstay for the firm. Over time, its expertise has further fanned out to include masterplanning, mixed use and workplace design.
By the downturn of 2008, Haworth Tompkins’ ‘stock was reasonably high’ with the completion of Coin Street and the Young Vic and Royal Court Theatres. With no ‘highly geared commercial clients’, they were also seasoned to the ‘uncertainty and sporadic progress of working on projects that are dependent on public funding. Instability was built into the DNA.’ They successfully weathered the crisis.
The current situation is less certain, particularly given their close association with the theatre world: ‘We can’t predict how theatre is going to emerge. There are so many variables in terms of the path of the virus and a vaccine. A lot depends on how prepared audiences are to return.’
For Haworth Tompkins as a practice, there is ‘collective investment in how we ride the storm’. Having become an employer ownership trust last year, they share ‘the ethos of a community of designers’. The onus is on holding the team together – ‘to continue as a unit’, which has necessitated furloughing staff and introducing voluntary salary reductions for the first few months.
While taking precautionary measures to protect jobs and design talent, the practice is also embracing the reality of the situation. Since the lockdown, it has gained three new appointments with clients that they have never met in person on sites they have only visited remotely.
Tompkins is keen that Haworth Tompkins remains true to the spirit in which it was founded by being ‘nimble in thought and operation’. As one of the founders of the Architects Declare initiative, he welcomes the opportunities that the post-pandemic world might bring to imagine ‘an alternative future’ and usher in ‘radical change’ in response to environmental collapse.
Anna Parker, director of Intervention Architecture
Reflecting on the current Covid climate, Anna realises that health and wellbeing have been as much of an affliction as the economy. Two weeks before her final deadline for Part 1, in June 2008, she broke her foot. With her mobility restricted by an unwieldy cast, she had no choice but to delay job applications and interviews. Without the comfort of a position lined up on graduation during an upcoming recession, she focused her time on developing a portfolio that aligned with the practices that she was targeting, reflecting her interests in model making and materials. After studying in Manchester, she had her sights set on London. The day after the cast was removed she travelled to a series of interviews, including one at 5th Studio in Clerkenwell.
The placement at 5th Studio was pivotal. It honed Anna’s skills in detailed drawings and model making. The practice invested a significant amount of time in design exploration and she was also able to use its workshop in Cambridge. It also shaped her view of what a ‘creative studio’ should be with staff cooking lunches for each other, sharing presentations and inputting on reviews. It set in motion a thread of connections that have permeated her career: taking her first to the role of architectural assistant with Piers Taylor at Mitchell Taylor Workshop in Bath; and then to the position of architect at Threefold Architects, where she worked alongside Sarah Castle, now of IF_DO.
After seven months, again Anna’s career was disrupted by another health event. This time her father was diagnosed with stomach cancer and she had to return home to the Midlands to care for him. With the collapse of the banks in the previous September and October, the economy was also in freefall. It seemed that, given her family worries, Anna would have no hope of completing her year out in practice.
At this point, through a chance meeting, that the local firm of Aedas in Shrewsbury stepped in, which she had previously had a holiday job with. The practice gave her the opportunity to complete her placement with them. Anna has never forgotten this act of kindness: ‘the sense that people are rooting for you. It has instilled in me the importance of kindness in business. It has the ability to create stronger community networks.’
When Anna started her own practice five years ago in Birmingham. She knew what values that she wanted to instill and the environment that she want to achieve ‘with a close team, which has its own creative culture – a family’. Part of the studio family is Hugo the Dachsund, who the team walk during their breaks.
Developed as an interdisciplinary practice, Intervention Architecture make joinery and one-to-one exhibition designs and collaborate with artists. In March, for instance, they completed the refurbishment of a studio flat in the Barbican for a dancer. The installation of moveable furniture creates storage and transforms the space from a bedroom into a kitchen-living area. Media coverage of the project has led to international enquiries and customers purchasing the template for CNC cutting, opening up a new potential work stream.
At a larger scale, Intervention Architecture is partnering with Mott MacDonald and Hawkins\Brown on the development of Solihull Station Integrated Transport Hub. Taking the Community Engagement Lead, the practice is providing the ‘local voice for community engagement’. This involves them in wider conversations with the design team that is setting out a master plan to identify opportunities for developments and public realm improvements.
For Anna, starting the practice at 27 with no money, has meant that ‘everyday has been a challenge’. She now has a team of 5 all under 35. She has learnt that she does ‘not have to take on every lead’ and is much more careful about looking at project fit with clients. The Solihull Station job is also providing the opportunity to work at a different scale in partnership with a large practice with shared values.
Anna has continued to maintain an awareness of the balance of health while running a practice. Sometimes she has to rely on ‘steely determination’, supported by a strong family and the team, to get her through. For example, in December she had an operation and the next day was pitching to a client for the opportunity to work on a large-scale masterplan, but she notes ‘being the only founder, you have to find resilience, to have an optimistic drive’.
The ‘family spirit’ of Intervention Architecture is helping the team to stay positive while working remotely. The studio vibe is retained on Zoom with tea breaks and music sharing. Anna has had to furlough two staff, but she remains confident that: ‘Normality will return. A changed normal that will provide the opportunity to re-evaluate how we live. Architecture being about everything – specifically how we live.’
Kate Cheyne, head of School of Art, Design and Architecture, De Montfort University
It is the ability to travel that marks the main difference between this and previous recessions for Kate Cheyne. When she graduated as a Part I student from Glasgow School of Art in the early 90s, work was limited in the UK and she decided to go abroad in search of brighter economic spots.
Cheyne wanted to go to Japan, but the collapse of the Japanese stock market in 1990 had burst the economic bubble. Glasgow had a relationship with the School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, so she spent two months surveying buildings there before seeking work. Provided with architecture contacts from an external examiner, and an Israeli friend’s father, she stayed on with another student, Lucy Miller (now co-director of Kalm Architecture in Edinburgh), and peddled her portfolio, knocking on doors. The two years that Cheyne lived in Israel were ‘highly politicised in a positive way’. The Oslo Peace Accord was forged and the Palestinians realised a new degree of governance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She worked in a small firm co-directed by an Israeli and a South African émigré. The main commissions were new and refurbished private houses in West Jerusalem, requiring extensive use of Jerusalem stone.
Israel was a rich life experience for Kate. However, an inability to speak Hebrew denied her the opportunities she craved to work up details in design projects. After graduating from her Part II at the Bartlett in 1996, she was keen to learn about practice. It was again a tough time to obtain work. She travelled to Sri Lanka for two months, where she stayed with a fellow Bartlettt student’s family (Amila de Mel, current director of ADM architects) in Colombo, and worked with the Millennium Consortium, a design team formed to enter a city-led competition to redevelop a large area of the capital. On her return, she spent the whole of the autumn in London undertaking piecemeal jobs, such as model making, before securing a position in the following January with Peter Currie Architects. A small, well-run practice, it gave Cheyne a ‘fantastic Part III experience, learning how to undertake surveys, cost estimates, specifications, drainage and run contracts with two experienced architects’. While at the studio, she also met her future business partner Jo Townshend.
After three years at Peter Currie Architects, Cheyne took off on her travels again. Townshend also left the practice to design and build a family house in France with Rob Holford, where they were married by the local mason (and mayor), and had their first child. When Cheyne returned to London an engineer invited her to work with him and convinced her that what she should be doing was work for herself. This proved the catalyst for setting up Architects in Residence (AIR) with Townshend.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Cheyne and Townshend had been in practice for five years. Having worked hard to grow the studio, they had a team of five and moved from small premises in Brick Lane to Bermondsey Street. They had completed their first new build project, using a prefabricated solid timber construction system, and had just won a regeneration competition in Rotherham with another new build project at planning stage. The client pulled out of AIR detailing and co-ordinating the build, so they lost design control. The regeneration project was paused. The site AIR was working on remains undeveloped. Cheyne and Townshend were forced to let go of young staff and in 2010 wound down the practice. Townshend put her family first and set up as a sole practitioner in Blackheath, slowly building back up her own practice, JTA, with expertise in Span houses. Cheyne pursued opportunities in academia by taking on a fulltime teaching position at the University of Brighton.
This crisis is set to be as tumultuous economically for higher education as for the design and construction industry. With uncertainty over the shape that education might take in September as well as student numbers – the cohort of international students will certainly be greatly diminished – the impact on the intake of new students remains unclear.
Having taken up her appointment as head of school at De Montfort University in February, Cheyne has spent her first few months getting to know staff and students through the screen. Her priority is in ‘growing an inclusive community through the studio culture’ – a challenge when teaching remotely. If social distancing measures are maintained, teaching will have to be delivered in small groups through a mixture of online and in-person delivery on campus. The situation, though, also requires innovative solutions that bring new opportunities to the fore. She has, for instance, been talking to the local head of planning about how students might start to develop projects for live sites ‘with safety and trust built in’ for Leicester’s city centre and the outskirts. By ‘testing new models and being fluid’, new means of operating can be forged out of taxing circumstances.
Innovation and new career paths are most often triggered by necessity rather than from a position of comfort. The closing down of options forces individuals to be more enterprising in their job searches and the pursuit of creative solutions. Practices are frequently formed during downtowns, like Haworth and Tompkins easing themselves into business with low overheads. The pain of losing a job, team members or a practice, though, cannot be underestimated. The experiences of Watson, Tompkins, Parker and Cheyne show that endurance requires grit, determination and a certain amount of ‘serendipity’ – as well as the hard won knowledge that downtowns do pass.