img(height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="")

Think small to deliver big

Nick Tyrer

Nick Tyrer describes how his self-build micro projects are the key to maintaining creativity and perspective while running massive stadia schemes. He recommends trying it

Education City Stadium for FIFA World Cup by Pattern.
Education City Stadium for FIFA World Cup by Pattern.

As an architect and sports fan, working on large sporting projects is one of my great career privileges. Creating a space for congregation, celebration and community, a stadium is not only a home, but a physical representation of a club, becoming a part of its identity and history.

In my role as associate director at Pattern Design, I have led/managed the design process across multiple stadia around the world, delivering projects with a total construction value of billions of pounds. These have included World Cup venues and recently Everton’s new home at Bramley Moore Dock.

These projects are exciting and rewarding, but they are also extremely challenging, taking years from concept to completion. Few construction schemes come under more scrutiny than a stadium. Football clubs have millions of fans who have a vested interest in how the club is portrayed, and how it invests its money. The venue itself will be used by 50,000 fans at one time. The projects are architecturally and operationally complex, having to balance building regulations requirements with those of sporting federations such as FIFA, UEFA and EPL. The crowds of visitors make designing for safety, circulation and comfort particularly difficult.

  • HBZ Stadium by Pattern.
    HBZ Stadium by Pattern. Credit: Dennis Gilbert
  • Bramley Moore Dock Stadium by Meis and Pattern.
    Bramley Moore Dock Stadium by Meis and Pattern. Credit: Meis

Closer to a marathon than a sprint, it is a constant high pressure design environment over many years. Often problems resemble a slow motion car crash, the ripples of an action spreading far wider than ever intended; even if there is a solution it takes time to permeate through the dense web of the project team.

If the various pressures are unchecked designers tend to make risk averse decisions which can lead to formulaic design processes using tried and tested solutions. With little opportunity for experimentation, it is not easy for the architect to break the status quo.

Having worked on these large projects for several years, I have become aware of the long term impact of these demands on the individual designer and studio culture. While there are many things to learn on projects of this size, they are fundamentally too large and too complex to provide a well-rounded education – the same applies to other disciplines across the design team. It is a constant challenge to create an environment of experimentation and innovation. In this field, architects who genuinely want to improve their creativity and stay motivated and inspired need to search elsewhere.

I have found the most effective and productive way to support these large projects is to take on small self-build projects alongside. They are not intended as a replacement to my career, they complement it, are a way to learn new skills and better understand my creative process. Over the past five years I have completed small projects around the country, for a wide variety of clients. The experiences and skills I develop enable me to perform my role at Pattern better. I’m currently delivering two projects for London Festival of Architecture: Rose, a spiralling stained glass inspired installation outside St Paul’s Cathedral and Lacuna, a social distance inspired bench for Network Rail.

  • Rose at St Paul’s Cathedral by Nick Tyrer and Umut Baykan.
    Rose at St Paul’s Cathedral by Nick Tyrer and Umut Baykan.
  • Lacuna, the Social Distance bench for Network Rail by Nick Tyrer and Victoria Philpotts.
    Lacuna, the Social Distance bench for Network Rail by Nick Tyrer and Victoria Philpotts.

Why do small projects matter?

Micro projects are often temporary in nature with relatively small budgets; art installations, event spaces, furniture, sculptures. Their temporality offers opportunity for experimentation, allowing for more playful and adventurous designs. The projects are effectively design sprints, to practise and discover your own voice, to understand your skills and weaknesses. Each project has wildly different clients and briefs, requiring new responses and the exploration of novel ideas and areas of research.

Live projects

They are live projects with real clients, budgets and deadlines. Unlike ideas competitions, the physical delivery of the project keeps you constrained to reality. Providing a clarity, a focus to concentrate on what is important and staving off procrastination.


To younger architects one of the most compelling benefits is that you can embrace the fabrication and construction process. You learn how to build without the support of a contractor, and to understand the tools and technologies that can be used.

When developing Cairo for the final Secret Garden Party Festival, we had to grapple with the challenges and logistics of building in a remote field. We tackled that by developing a bespoke semi-modular plywood frame fabrication system that consisted of 2,200 individual elements, arranged in alternating layers of hexagonal tessellations. The fabrication and assembly of those thousands of parts creates a genuine appreciation of how your detailing impacts construction and the workforce and makes you really consider how to design systems in a way that minimises stress and awkward fabrication processes.

  • Cairo Construction at Secret Garden Party Festival by Nick Tyrer, Jak Drinnan and Abstract Machines.
    Cairo Construction at Secret Garden Party Festival by Nick Tyrer, Jak Drinnan and Abstract Machines.
  • Cairo at Secret Garden Party Festival by Nick Tyrer, Jak Drinnan and Abstract Machines.
    Cairo at Secret Garden Party Festival by Nick Tyrer, Jak Drinnan and Abstract Machines.
  • Greatham Creek Seal Hide by Nick Tyrer and Abstract Machines.
    Greatham Creek Seal Hide by Nick Tyrer and Abstract Machines.


However, it is much more than just the physical output. Being forced to engage with all aspects of a project, you cover the whole process from initial winning, through design, client liaison, construction and documentation. You foster new skills and naturally optimise your design process to ensure you are working efficiently. Many of the workflows that I have developed on my personal projects have now become standard across my office.

Don’t bite off too much

Be careful to start small to ensure it is within your capacity. In 2018 I jumped at the opportunity to deliver a series of bird and seal hides in a Middlesbrough Nature reserve for the RSPB and Environment Agency. The budget of £100,000 should have alerted me to the size of commitment required. In my naivety I embraced it, committing countless long nights and weekends. Only afterwards did the risks seemed worth it as the project won several awards and was nominated for the RIBA North East Award. I have restrained myself from further projects of this size since.

Just do it                                                   

Large buildings projects offer a safe, regulated environment for the career architect. Those who wish to excel on projects of this scale need to find balance, to push themselves where the project does not. Creativity is a skill, it needs to be practised and honed, it is a muscle that needs to be exercised. Small live projects offer a fantastic opportunity to push yourself and embrace the full extent of a project.

Nick Tyrer is a RIBAJ Rising Star 2019 and an associate director at Pattern Design

RIBAJ Rising Stars 2020 is now open for nominations and entries. Deadline 12 October 2020.


RH Partnership’s light, bright residential block for the young Cambridge college connects existing buildings and performs for the future

RHP’s residential block brings cohesion to Cambridge college

With the knowledge to create sophisticated designs, Minesh Patel's next task is to find the scale that makes the most of it, while becoming a role model practice for diversity

Several aims lie behind an ambition to grow and work on larger projects

From technical explanations to evocations of mood and experience, architects have used drawings to understand and explain buildings. Enjoy these highlights though time

Highlights of architects' representations of buildings over 400 years

Grass construction panels have superior moisture resistance and strength compared to their alternatives, says US firm Plantd, which involved former SpaceX engineers in their development

Former SpaceX engineers help develop carbon-reducing grass panels

With engaging colours, natural shapes and liquid lines this French furniture maker is bringing charisma and vivacity to terraces, gardens, poolsides and more

French furniture maker brings charisma and colour to outdoor commercial spaces