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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.