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In it together: how collaboration benefits practices large and small

Hugh McEwen and Catrina Stewart

The collaborative approach has already proved its worth for RIBAJ Rising Star Hugh McEwen and his Office S&M partner Catrina Stewart – coronavirus pandemic-hit workloads make it all the more important

Millom Eco Village by Office S&M.
Millom Eco Village by Office S&M. Credit: Office S&M

We are entering a period where collaboration will be the make or break for many businesses. We have built Office S&M through it and know this approach can bring benefits to clients, partners and established practices too. For example, we are seeing more and more diverse teams winning competitive tenders where each party, no matter how big or small, brings a unique specialism to parts of a larger project.

Office S&M emerged from working alongside each other at the Bartlett during our masters in Unit 12. Our practice approach uses our different views to find common ideas that enrich each design. Today, this collaborative approach is particularly important given that we are now a team of four working remotely, geographically split from Stratford in east London to Chester. To us, conversations have always been an important part of the creative process. We still have one email address shared between the two partners and this has meant Zoom meetings and screen sharing have become a natural part of our working method, something we expect to continue. We have been discussing digital and physical collaboration on an urban scale with Ashley Dobbs for several years through his ideas around Televillages – small rural settlements well equipped for remote working, designed around civic buildings to promote social connections. We can see that collaborative practice within architecture will become facilitated by a common understanding of the tools, but more importantly the design thinking, that can enable it.

  • Nana Yaa Supermarket by Office S&M.
    Nana Yaa Supermarket by Office S&M. Credit: Office S&M
  • Nana Yaa Supermarket by Office S&M.
    Nana Yaa Supermarket by Office S&M. Credit: Office S&M
  • Nana Yaa Supermarket by Office S&M.
    Nana Yaa Supermarket by Office S&M. Credit: Office S&M

Our first built project was in 2012 as part of a collaborative scheme with Jan Kattein Architects (JKA), which was delivering shopfront improvements to Leyton High Road in east London. Through open competition JKA selected several young designers to improve the shop interiors. They knew that working in this way would mean each shop would have the benefit of a personal design team. The inclusion of different practices was clearly conveyed to the client as helping to preserve and enhance the identity of each shop, within an overall package of improvements to the fabric of the street. Later we collaborated on another high street project with DK-CM as part of the team on Better Barkingside, and again with JKA on the Finsbury Park Shop Fronts. By ensuring that the narrative of collaboration is clear, it offers more to a potential client, particularly for complex projects. In each design team, Office S&M has brought an understanding of how to make collaborative projects work, and a characterful and attentive design specialism, which has enabled us to scale up our public sector work.

Janus House by Office S&M.
Janus House by Office S&M. Credit: French + Tye

As a young practice, Office S&M often turns to other architects, consultants and fabricators for their specialist experience. Taking a collaborative approach supports our more experimental way of working. For example, we particularly enjoy developing materials and using them in innovative ways. We coated our Janus House project in a spray-on rubber typically used on oil rigs, giving the client a cost effective exterior and the supplier exposure in a new residential market. We know that suppliers and manufacturers will know far more about a material than we ever can, and their expertise and knowledge is invaluable. It gives us the chance to use novel materials and see opportunities where others see obstacles, while maintaining the highest professional standards.

Salmen House by Office S&M.
Salmen House by Office S&M. Credit: French + Tye

Similarly, we have built collaborative working relationships with our consultant team – whether by developing a methodology with the topographic surveyor we work with on every project, or working closely with engineers. At Salmen House, we worked with Structuremode to make the build as quick and efficient as possible, and with STO render and In Opera terrazzo to use materials in an unexpected way. By clearly understanding each other’s specialisms, and the definition between roles and responsibilities, collaboration can make the most of each member’s knowledge.

Shape Newham by Office S&M.
Shape Newham by Office S&M. Credit: Office S&M

We’ve seen this most recently with our successful bid for Shape Newham, a collaborative project between AOC, Carver Haggard and Office S&M for Newham council. Here, we used our varied approaches and convivial understanding to win the bid. And with enough specialisms between us, from public realm and engagement to shopfront design and art commissioning, we were able to deal with evolving requirements. Our collaboration offered the client a specific design contact for each of the geographic areas of the project. We’re currently at the end of a programme of 32 co-design events, leading to the delivery of 18 public art and public realm improvements across the borough.

Dalston Architecture Collective.
Dalston Architecture Collective. Credit: DAC

This approach also has benefits for practice. While everyone has heard of the London Practice Forum, we are also members of the London Architects Group, and the recently formed Dalston Architecture Collective (DAC). These self-organising forums share knowledge and experience, and in the DAC this has taken the form of weekly CPDs, staff sharing, and ongoing inter-business support between 14 micro-practices. DAC’s most recent project is to offer online consultations for clients. These meetings offer the client two practices working together, providing a one-stop-shop, and allows us to clarify ideas, de-risk the approach and give certainty going forward through our broad experience, combined staff, and shared knowledge.

We’ve found collaboration to be at the heart of our practice, and it has helped us to set up, grow, and now offer our approach to clients and larger firms. The recent necessary rise of remote working has established the norm of working with dispersed teams using new ideas and technology. But we’re also expecting that with less work to go around, collaboration within the profession will be important to maintain it. We have had conversations with councils about community wealth building being used to support SMEs in coming months, and seen architects propose a return to fee tables, in order to create financial equilibrium between practices. Collaboration benefits everyone on the project, whether architects, clients or suppliers. We know it creates efficiency, magnifies impact and achieves the highest standards. With less work and fewer resources, sharing will be key in order to maintain the quality that we are seeking, rather than having a race to the bottom. In the post Covid-19 world, collaboration will not just be entirely possible, it will be essential.

Hugh McEwen and Catrina Stewart are partners at Office S&M. Hugh McEwen is a RIBAJ Rising Star 2019.


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