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Guerrilla Tactics: Collaboration is good for everyone

Collaboration was an appropriate theme for the RIBA Guerrilla Tactics gathering after more than a year of pandemic and lockdowns, and threw up some novel and inspiring opportunities and ideas

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If the practice you are leading were a music band, what kind of music would you be playing, and who would you be playing with? The questions might sound like a take on the common marketing agency ploy that asks you to define your brand as a car. But they were  actually used to demonstrate how to get the best from collaboration, which was the theme of this year’s Guerrilla Tactics, RIBA’s annual creative business conference for small and medium sized practices.

Stop, Collaborate and Listen was the exhortation in the title of the conference, sponsored by NBS. Established, upcoming, diverse, mainstream and left-field voices talked frankly about how they have been collaborating and sharing, whether working with larger or smaller practices, clients, local stakeholders and communities, other creatives or academia. Over the course of three days they shared their own experiences, words of warning and personal advice, while an accompanying CPD programme covered everything from professional indemnity insurance to the NBS Chorus specification writing platform.

It was Paul Karakusevic of Karakusevic Carson Architects who initially adopted the musical analogy, describing young practices’ business trajectory as often being like that faced by musicians, where ‘you have to play in the pubs until you get picked out by an A&R guy’. When he was starting out in practice two decades ago, he said, ‘No one offered us a collaboration, no one gave us a leg up’. Now he is able to make the case for change and practise what he preaches. ‘Many of the schemes in the office will have two, three or four collaborators working with us,’ he said.

Later on, Pedro Gil of Studio Gil picked up the musical theme, highlighting the importance of identifying the right team members to collaborate with. ‘If you’re a folk guitarist, then don’t join a heavy metal band. That’s never going to work’, he said. ‘Listen to your instincts and try to suss out instinctively who you can work with. Gil had some cautionary advice for smaller practices flattered by approaches from larger ones, saying of the latter, ‘They may want you for the bid literally, but may not understand themselves how they want you to fit in.’ As a result, he recommended asking them: Do we get a building out of this?

Different thinking

A number of architects had seen wide-ranging collaborative opportunities on larger projects emerge by growing specific expertise. ZCD Architects and its co-founder Dinah Bornat have become synonymous with child-friendly cities, a specialism adopted because, she said, ‘I was quite passionate about it’. Meanwhile, New Practice’s work includes giving large practices local insights into the city, as in Glasgow where it has been collaborating with Gensler New York on a project for Barclays. ‘We took them to meet the city in a walk,’ said creative director Becca Thomas.

Small practices’ local knowledge and lived experience make them natural collaborators for community projects. Gurmeet Sian of Office Sian Architecture + Design won a competition to create charity Phoenix Garden Trust’s new community building in London’s Covent Garden, despite being a sole practitioner. ‘My approach to the interviews pre-commission was to be the architect, with a lot of architecture speak. Little did I know, the client was very knowledgeable about the whole process. They wanted to know about me,’ he said. Working closely with the charity and stakeholders, he created a building that is now a RIBA London award winner.

For Collective Works, the financial burden of coming second in a design competition led to a rethink. ‘Our solution has been to stay away from competitions and spend that creative energy on passion projects and collaborative processes that we really enjoy,’ said partner Siri Zanelli. When a north London school commissioned the practice to design an outdoor classroom, but had no money to build it, Zanelli tapped into local contacts who raised funds for materials and the practice worked with the school caretaker to build it. ‘It has made a difference to the children and to us,’ she says, citing a string of ensuing projects, including a first public job with Haringey Council.

Public sector clients are an important potential source of work and several speakers highlighted growing opportunities for diverse practices. Peter George, programme director for the Enfield Council-led Meridian Water scheme, explained how it is promoting diversity while delivering 10,000 homes plus amenities. For its most recent procurement, for an 850-home contract, it appointed a large practice but insisted it should work with at least one practice led by people of BAME descent, one by women at partner level and one local company. ‘We’ve actually ended up with five led by BAME minorities and three practices led by females. We have put in a contractual commitment that some of the work has to be allocated to some of these smaller practices,’ said George. Future procurements are being designed to include smaller packages of work that smaller practices can bid for.

Shona Snow, regional procurement strategy manager at public sector consortium LHC Procurement, outlined work to promote diversity and new design talent in public sector client frameworks, including Southwark Council’s architect design services framework. This included such innovations as face-to-face interviews to help new talent gain recognition.

The result was that 124 architects were appointed to the framework, many of them micro-SMEs and including seven BAME-led practices, 19 led by women, and four BAME women-led practices. Already, an early contract through the framework has been awarded to a practice with two employees. ‘We tapped into talent we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Many are really community-focused, grassroots practices with lived experience of council estates, really diverse and innovative,’ said Snow. This kind of collaboration is good not only for architects, but for the people they are designing for.

The Outdoor Classroom, an imaginary landscape for learning and playing at Highgate Primary School.
The Outdoor Classroom, an imaginary landscape for learning and playing at Highgate Primary School. Credit: Thomas Broadhead

More words of wisdom from the speakers

‘Even if you’re a small business, if you have a big idea, go for it and ask others to collaborate.’ – Sarah Broadstock, Studio Bark

‘We collaborated first with many smaller practices before we did with larger practices. It was very much an opportunity to challenge ourselves and what we held to be true and develop a new way of looking at schemes. It also gave us an opportunity to build relationships with people we liked.’  Tara Gbolade, Gbolade Design Studio

‘If people tell you something is great, but… then listen to the but.’ – Dinah Bornat, ZCD Architects

‘To build engagement at any level and to start the collaboration process, trust is needed, and to build trust, sometimes we need to be less architect, and a bit more human.’ – Gurmeet Sian, Office Sian Architecture + Design

‘Foster strong relationships with the councils where you’re living and working.’ – Peter George, Meridian Water

‘Attend pre-tender events wherever possible, even if you’re not intending to bid. It’s a chance to develop a relationship with your local authority – and a chance to ask questions.’ – Shona Snow, LHC Procurement

Phoenix Garden Community Building, Soho.
Phoenix Garden Community Building, Soho. Credit: Richard Chivers

Specification in the spotlight

NBS was pleased to be part of the RIBA Guerrilla Tactics event to help inform and educate attendees about the importance of digital specification and how it helps create a safer and more sustainable built environment. During the session, NBS showcased NBS Chorus, the leading specification platform, and NBS Source, the innovative manufacturer product platform, and demonstrated how they help users collaborate better, manage risk, and work more efficiently. Find out more at




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