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How three new startups are defying the Covid odds

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Helen Castle

Launching a new practice is doubly difficult during a pandemic. How have three owners of new practices found their way through the isolation of lockdown, emotional and financial challenges?

When in April 2020, Philip Bristow set up in practice on his own he chose an apt name for it – Dandelion Seeds Architects. As he explains: ‘The dandelion grows in even the harshest environment. To start a business during Covid-19 might be considered almost impossible.’

Despite the economic obstacles thrown up by the pandemic, particularly with the closure of building sites during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020, all three architects interviewed here – Philip Bristow of Dandelion Seeds Architects, Megan Ebanks of MEA Studio and Adam Grant of Norton Studio Architects – cite the emotional burden of starting up as a sole practitioner as greater than the financial challenges. So how have they found the necessary support to get them through? How have they attracted clients and secured their first jobs?

Philip Bristow, Dandelion Seeds Architects

Philip Bristow of Dandelion Seeds Architects, Taunton.
Philip Bristow of Dandelion Seeds Architects, Taunton. Credit: Photo: Jemima Bristow.

It is only now, talking on a Teams call a year after the first lockdown and the start of his practice in April 2020, that Philip Bristow is able to reflect and realise quite how much he has achieved. It makes him quite emotional. With five projects on site and planning permission secured for seven projects, he says the last 12 months have been a white knuckle ride.

It is a sunny spring day and he is sitting on the grass in front of the red-brick three-bedroom house that he shares with his wife, young son and daughter near Taunton. He has no dedicated workspace and his son has a dual diagnosis of Down Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Condition, requiring additional parental attention. This was particularly challenging when schools were closed and both parents and children were cooped up together all day – with work and home-schooling all taking place in the living room.

Eighteen years ago, Bristow was on the brink of leaving architecture. He had reached a similar crisis point during the second year of his degree course when he had suffered a breakdown from mental exhaustion and here he was, once again, wondering whether this really was the right fit for him. In previous years he had been working in London on high-end retail design for the likes of Burberry as well as buildings for London education authorities.

In 2003, he began retraining as a therapeutic wellbeing practitioner at The Institute for Arts in Therapy and Education, University of East London, while continuing to work a four day week as an architect. This year-long course enabled him ‘to apply my unique qualities in a positive way for my career’. He moved to the West Country in 2007, where he worked for Reed Holland and then as a director at Eleven 10 Architecture in Taunton, before starting up on his own last year.

For Bristow, there is a wider purpose in leading his own practice. A portion of his net profits go to the charity that he established in 2019, the Dandelion Seeds Foundation, which aims to provide relief for those affected by emotional and physical distress, beginning with the Somerset and Devon area, through the provision of grants, services and public education. Currently the charity is funding the delivery of a lifestyle medicine programme (supporting disease reversal with lifestyle changes), prioritising provision of courses for frontline NHS workers.

Independent practice also offers Bristow the opportunity to explore other entrepreneurial activities. He is the member of a Mastermind Group that has helped him make business connections with investors. He has, for instance, gone into partnership with a group of experts, including a passive house specialist, technologist, eco-builder and investor, to develop low-energy, carbon neutral, timber frame modular housing. He is also planning to develop a high-end residential retreat for silver surfers that will help to subsidise the activities of his charitable foundation.

  • Renderings of houses from Dandelion Seeds Architects’ website.
    Renderings of houses from Dandelion Seeds Architects’ website.
  • Renderings of houses from Dandelion Seeds Architects’ website.
    Renderings of houses from Dandelion Seeds Architects’ website.
  • Dandelion Seeds Architects’ design for an eco-friendly bungalows set around a shared community space, incorporating permaculture values.
    Dandelion Seeds Architects’ design for an eco-friendly bungalows set around a shared community space, incorporating permaculture values.
  • Dandelion Seeds Architects’ designs for neighbouring extensions are now going on site in Taunton.
    Dandelion Seeds Architects’ designs for neighbouring extensions are now going on site in Taunton.

During the earliest months of his practice, Bristow focused on R&D. This has paid off. The attractive renderings on his website and Instagram account of contemporary homes in lush garden settings create an appealing and confident profile, surpassing what you would expect to see on a sole practitioner’s site. A testimony to this investment in the power of the image is the fact that Bristow has acquired over half of his workload through social media. One of his clients came to him via the Nextdoor community app. The site for this house extension is a few minutes’ walk from his home and led to his next client – their next-door neighbour. He is also developing a wellbeing facility for a local GP’s surgery. The largest project he has on his books is a £1.2 million barn conversion, redeveloping two barns into separate, five bedroom houses. The client for this scheme, a former architect from a large global practice in London, is keen to pursue sustainable design and material solutions, and intentionally sought him out as a local architect. As a result of this savvy use of imagery and local community support, Phillip has established a pipeline of projects located within a 15-mile radius of his home.

Before the stamp duty holiday in July 2020 and the subsequent recovery of the property market, Phillip’s prospects did not seem so positive. The project on which he was expecting to launch his business was postponed as a result of lockdown. Coupled with this, as a newly founded practice without any track record in business, he found that he was not eligible for any government financial support. So he was grateful to be offered a substantial reduction by RIBA on his membership. As a sole practitioner applying for chartered practice status, he benefited from access to Croner’s HR, business support and RIBA’s templates, thus allowing him to personalise work stages for clients. Following this, he was contacted by Jon Watkins, director of RIBA South West. They had an immediate rapport. Bristow was touched that Watkins contacted him at that time. He was speaking from his daughter’s bedroom and Watkins was also contending with home-schooling and working from home.

Bristow has also found support from fellow, Taunton-based RIBA architect Russell Gray, who started his own practice, MIME Architects, 10 years ago; the pair provide each other with an invaluable sounding board for projects.

The weight of independent practice, though, is such that Bristow also has to pay attention to managing himself, ‘finding areas that help me to thrive’ – going for walks outside, meditation and regular breaks from the screen – as well as taking ‘perceived limitations and turning them into opportunities’.

Megan Ebanks, MEA Studio

Megan Ebanks of MEA Studio, South London.
Megan Ebanks of MEA Studio, South London. Credit: Photo: Daniel Ebanks.

As a mother of young children, it was the flexibility of running her own practice that appealed to Ebanks. It was a natural move, having grown up with parents that had their own businesses. Her previous experience in the profession, though, could not be further removed from small practice.

On graduation from her Part 2 at the University of Westminster in 2007, she was catapulted into the world of large practice, talent spotted at the end of year show by Foster + Partners. What followed was four inspiring years working on the detailed design stage of projects, where she benefited from the input of Paul Kalkhoven, head of technical design: ‘Paul is a fountainof  knowledge on detail and held a crit every other week.’ After the 2008 financial crisis, Ebanks also found herself as a Part 2, working towards her Part 3 qualification, stepping into a senior architect’s shoes running a package for the World Trade Center Souk in Abu Dhabi.

At Foster’s, Ebanks was working on huge international projects. This meant that as a junior member of the team, she did not have the chance to undertake site visits. In 2011, she left and joined Bennetts Associates, which gave her design and construction experience on large UK projects, including those in the City and the redevelopment of King’s Cross. At Cambridge University, she was part of the team redesigning the New Museums Site into a Student Services Centre. This included the refurbishment of the listed Old Cavendish building, Rayleigh Wing and the Arts School, as well as the addition of a new link building. The combination of new build and conservation on the site with its juxtaposition of contemporary and historic elements are very much part of the design aesthetic, which she is seeking to develop in her own practice.

The big breakthrough came at the end of 2019. At first, when a friend, who was refurbishing a grade II listed townhouse at Chester Square in Belgravia, approached her for advice on sourcing an architect, she was not interested – she was not ready to leave Bennetts. When the client came back to her a few months later, though, dissatisfied with their experience of working on the early design stages with a well-known conservation architect, she saw it as an opportunity– a large enough contract to start her own practice.

  • MEA Studio, section for Chester Square, Belgravia.
    MEA Studio, section for Chester Square, Belgravia. Credit: MEA Studio
  • MEA Studio, interior of the Blue House, south London.
    MEA Studio, interior of the Blue House, south London. Credit: MEA Studio
  • MEA Studio, interior of the Blue House, south London.
    MEA Studio, interior of the Blue House, south London. Credit: MEA Studio

Ebanks, who is based in south London, is ‘enjoying working with homeowners, being with the end user all the time, being excited about the project, engaged on the smaller scale and the detail’. In addition to the Belgravia house, she now has on her books a rear extension for a house in Greenwich and a couple of smaller domestic jobs in Putney and Lambeth. She is acutely aware that for the practice to thrive she needs another larger contract. She has delivered a couple of fee proposals where it is clear that she has not got the work because she hasn’t had a team behind her. One solution is to work with the contractor for the house in Chester Square on a design and build basis.

Hand drawing by Megan Ebanks of MEA Studio for rear extension of a terraced house in Putney.
Hand drawing by Megan Ebanks of MEA Studio for rear extension of a terraced house in Putney. Credit: MEA Studio

In the near future, Ebanks would like to employ an architectural assistant to undertake renderings and images and provide support for social media while she is engaged in meetings and detailed drawings. Her current involvement in projects means she is not making the time for marketing and Instagram that she should do. New business is coming through matches she is receiving through RIBA’s Find an Architect, and she obtained the job in Greenwich through the recommendation of another practice. Employing a team member will require her to move out of her home office and take on the additional overhead of desk space in a studio. It is also apparent that for the high-end residential market, it would be a great asset to be able to pay a freelancer for VR to help clients visualise projects.

Despite the challenges of bringing in sufficient fee income to cover resources, Ebanks states that ‘the greatest struggles have been emotional. Not having a team to bounce ideas off.’ She has optimised on her network: RIBA London’s Emerging Practices Group, London Architects Group and a group of architect friends from Westminster. Before the pandemic, the groups met up for beers and did design crits. Though she appreciates the remote support, she is looking forwards to face-to-face reviews and social interaction.

Despite the need for another high-end residential project, she says she did not set up in practice to design one-off houses. She wants to take the necessary time to establish her voice as an architect and start ‘to get projects that respond to my own values’, complementing those of her husband, who has his own social value tech platform.

Adam Grant, Norton Studio Architects

Adam Grant of Norton Studio Architects, Letchworth Garden City.
Adam Grant of Norton Studio Architects, Letchworth Garden City. Credit: Photo: Adam Grant.

Unlike Ebanks, Adam Grant has always worked for smaller practices. An Architect Accredited in Building Conservation (AABC), he was previously employed at Kay Pilsbury Thomas Architect in Saffron Walden and MEB Design in London. He has worked on historic buildings for most of his career: listed churches, schools, community buildings and houses.

In December 2019, Grant left his last employer with the intention of working on his own as a stop gap while seeking new employment. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, he had just received a job offer. Not yet on payroll, he missed out on starting and being put on furlough by a matter of a few weeks.

For a conservation architect, Grant has the perfect base, working from his home in Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire. Designed and laid out by Raymond Unwin at the beginning of the 20th century, Letchworth is the first garden city, realised according to Ebenezer Howard’s vision. Today, Letchworth has what Grant describes as a ‘unique character’ with a community of ‘homeowners that have a passion for historic buildings’. Grant is a governor for the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, which uses its property portfolio to invest in community projects and the landscaping of Letchworth Garden City.

During the first few weeks of the lockdown in the spring of 2020, Grant focused on preparing the practice – setting up office systems and templates while a friend designed his logo. By the early summer of 2020, enquiries were coming through via his local network. His first job was the repair of a 17th-century farmhouse for a friend. He currently has ‘plenty of residential work’ and has got himself included on the church’s local diocesan list for quinquennial inspections. ‘The steepest learning curve was on fee setting, analysing time – differentiating between fee-earning and non-fee-earning office time,’ he says. He got it ‘completely wrong at first’. He is now better at ‘tweaking fee proposals and breaking them down for clients, linking fee calculations to stages’.

Southwest elevation for the repair of a 17th-century farmhouse by Adam Grant of Norton Studio Architects.
Southwest elevation for the repair of a 17th-century farmhouse by Adam Grant of Norton Studio Architects.

As it was for Bristow and Ebanks, though, the biggest challenges that have presented themselves have been emotional – ‘the lack of a team’. This is where the RIBA East’s New and Emerging Practice Network kicked in for him. It has provided a sounding board for projects, testing you are on the right track. ‘The support from RIBA has been really good,’ he says. ‘It has gone beyond all expectations.’ When he emailed Juliet Talbot, the architectural communities manager at RIBA East, in the summer of 2020, she got back to him immediately introducing him to the group. The group’s monthly meetings, with speakers providing CPD, afford an important break from working from home. With 25 regular attendees, the meetings are co-hosted by Sasha Edmonds of Liv Architects in Norfolk and Luke Butcher, director of Butcher Bayley Architects in Cambridge, leaders of their own recently formed practices.

Going solo

What is clear from conversations with all three architects is that it is the condition of being a sole practitioner rather than starting up in itself that is the most testing, heightened by the social isolation of the pandemic. While Ebanks has plans to employ a member of staff, Bristow would like to have space in a studio surrounded by other designers and Grant would like to go into partnership, ideally with someone with passive house expertise. What has got them all through their first year alone is reaching out for remote support from peers and professional networks  – in Ebanks’ words, ‘getting help wherever you can get it’.

Helen Castle is publishing director at the RIBA


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