How start-up mindset can revitalise architecture

Words:
Chris Hildrey

Borrow other business models and venture off the set path of practice says RIBAJ Rising Star Chris Hildrey – it’s the way ahead for the profession

Seymour Place WLM.
Seymour Place WLM. Credit: Hildrey Studio

A little under a year ago, I started my own studio. Like many, starting a company was something I’d always wanted to do, but as an employee I felt unsure about how to actually make the transition. The stakes were high and any mitigation of the risks ahead seemed contingent on answering questions that would only be brought into focus after making the leap.

The one thing I did know was that I wanted to work across disciplines. The architecture profession’s ability to bring together a dizzying array of needs into a creative and holistic proposal remains its greatest, if most undervalued, skill. But the fact that this ability is honed so relentlessly in education only to be focused through the lens of practice solely into the output of buildings seemed to me to be a shame. Informed by research I’d undertaken some years earlier into the scale and impact of unpaid overtime in architecture, I was convinced that there was both a need for, and opportunity in, exploring a broader model of practice; one where the readily available skill-base of the profession might find alternative outputs for creative expression, social impact, and commercial viability.

Over the last several months, I’ve started to test this through my studio. Although it’s too early to say where it will lead, the learning process has already been valuable. This is particularly the case for projects like ProxyAddress, the system I created to provide stable address details for those facing homelessness to help them access support. The project is approaching a London trial in partnership with councils, government, banks, financial regulators and others, and getting to this point has meant stepping outside of architecture and into the world of the tech start-up. It’s here that I’ve found an alternative approach to early-stage ventures that, if adopted in architecture, might offer a way to ease the transition for those wanting to forgo stability in exchange for exploring much-needed new approaches to shaping the built environment.

Geovation is an initiative to help tech start-ups relating to mapping.
Geovation is an initiative to help tech start-ups relating to mapping. Credit: Ordnance Survey

My introduction to the start-up world was a disorientating one. Some things were easy to adapt to, such as the subtly different jargon: presentations are now ‘decks’; ‘burn rate’ has nothing to do with Part B; and to ‘pivot’ is apparently a more acceptable way of saying you’ve changed your mind. Even the company names were novel: gone were the lists of surname-couplets and four-letter corporate acronyms so prevalent in architecture, replaced with punchy words featuring missing vowels and double consonants – Sgnl, Vitamnn, Buildrr – a veritable drop-kicked Scrabble board of unpronounceable innovation. After some time spent in this new context, the opportunity to speak to another architect was a welcome one – until I was asked what type of architect I was. ‘Systems? Data? Solutions?’ ‘Kind of: buildings.’ I’m yet to find a quicker way to end a conversation.

But it was the subtler differences that really interested me; the tidal shifts that were at first too broad to pinpoint but that, over time, could be seen shaping a different type of working environment. I was used to the rather prescribed route of the architectural employee: the lengthy education, the stepping stones of parts I, II, III – inching towards becoming an architect, then project architect, then associate, and so on. Here I found myself surrounded by people delighting in the lack of a set path ahead. Most had formed their companies on the back of a problem to be solved or a hunch of market opportunity, but all were foraging for a path in largely unexplored plains. And because of this subtle change, certain mechanisms were available to help them start the exploration of new territory that is so desperately needed in architecture.

Chris Hildrey's ProxyAddress App links homeless people to unused addresses for the purposes of retaining benefits and more.
Chris Hildrey's ProxyAddress App links homeless people to unused addresses for the purposes of retaining benefits and more. Credit: Hildrey Studio

To start any business is to accept a degree of risk, especially in the early days. The dreaded ‘pre-revenue’ period of a practice is generally considered to be a downward spiral to be resolved as quickly as possible. But I was surprised to find that in the start-up world, it’s considered a useful necessity, a time in which to find one’s own voice and test the market validity of the business. What makes this possible is the fledgling start-up’s saviour, the ‘accelerator’ – a fixed-term, cohort-based programme that can include seed investment, connections, mentorship and educational components. Support is sometimes offered in exchange for equity in your business, sometimes it is more philanthropic; both are incredibly useful.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked in three cohorts that broadly follow this format: the Designers in Residence programme run by the Design Museum, the Geovation programme run by government-owned Ordnance Survey and HM Land Registry, and the Economic Security Impact Accelerator programme run by the Royal Society of Arts and Mastercard Centre for Inclusive Growth. None has required equity and all have provided me with incredible support. And, while a few similar models do exist in architecture, such as the RIBA Incubator, I can’t help but feel that it’s a format that would benefit from being pushed further and adopted more widely. Given the host of issues being faced in sectors such as housing, it would seem reasonable that the government itself might encourage change within the built environment by providing a framework to explore new solutions, define robust business plans and partner with established mentors, all away from the financial pressures that can otherwise stifle innovation.

The forces that shape our built environment are changing around us and whether it’s the hollowed-out communities left in the wake of vacant investments, the duplicity of privately owned public realm, or the marginalisation of the vulnerable at the hands of the address system, architects are well placed to intervene in the interests of those who occupy it. To do so would carry the potential for the profession to address its own issues of receding remit, tightening fees and unsustainable working culture; but it will require new avenues of support to enable those starting out to explore new directions rather than expect them to follow the same path and arrive somewhere else. There are plenty of models out there if we take the time to look and find the will to adopt them.

Chris Hildrey is founder of Hildrey Studio and a member of the RIBA Journal’s Rising Star cohort 2018.

RIBAJ Rising Stars in association with Origin is a scheme to recognise and reward up and coming construction professionals. Click to find out more information and enter Rising Stars 2019.

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