Several smaller offices embedded in the regions can sometimes add up to more than a sum of the parts.
‘We’re on the verge of being a national practice,’ says David Hunter, Stride Treglown’s chairman ‘But we are not in the east side of the country – the North East and Midlands.’
The phenomenon of multi-headed countrywide practices has been largely ignored in the excitement of overseas expansion in recent years. Even the idea of bases across the UK might seem alien to many signature practices. But a whole generation of firms have built up their presence in the regions and become part of the local scene in the process.
Regional offices seemed to make sense in the context of city regeneration, when the development agencies established by the Labour government brought a range of initiatives, investment and sense of direction to both city and regional strategy. Then came the downturn and many firms, such as BDP, turned their efforts to the Middle East, India and beyond.
We have seen the demise of projects like Building Schools for the Future and a return to smaller scale contracts that favour practices embedded in their local area. Now, getting close to the ground to develop opportunities and resource projects locally is increasingly important. Stride Treglown recently opened a new office in Southampton and Purcell has established bases in Cardiff and Nottingham.
A spread of offices might be seen as the perfect antidote to over-corporatisation in a large firm. Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios is just one that decided to split itself into studios across Bath, Belfast and London. Having offices dotted around inevitably breaks up the team, of course. But while 15 to 30 is often seen as an ideal studio there doesn’t seem to be consensus about the critical mass of architects an office needs. BDP tends to have around 30-35 but Purcell seems happier with far smaller teams with typically eight or nine architects.
Anecdotally, staff satisfaction and geographical desires seem to play a larger part in the concerns of leaders of these practices than those of other practices. The chance to lead an office or studio within the protection of a larger entity, the opportunity to be a player in your area and the possibilities of developing as a sector leader all play their part in holding onto the architects these practices value. With green shoots on the horizon BDP’s chief executive Peter Drummond can even foresee a time when the practice’s regional bases will be again be critical for recruiting away from the London hot house.
From its historic Bristol base Stride Treglown is facing the questions of practice management that dog many of these national firms: how to communicate effectively, how to leverage sector expertise and how to ensure the whole company is pulling in one direction. Over the next pages three heads of such practices give their views on these issues.
Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, London, Manchester, Sheffield
Plus Dublin, Netherlands, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Qatar, New Delhi, Shanghai
‘We were founded in Preston in 1961 and have been heading south ever since,’ says BDP’s chief executive Peter Drummond. ‘Regionalisation was ad hoc but inevitable.’ In the 1980s the practice focussed on the UK, ensuring ‘critical mass’ in key markets. ‘The regional offices have been a strong part of BDP, giving it connections in places it works, the culture, knowledge and ability in busy times to recruit talented people,’ says Drummond.
And in some locations a local base is critical for a steady stream of work. Drummond identifies Scotland and Manchester in particular. ‘There is a business, design and governance community in Manchester that it is very important to be part of,’ he says. And in any location an understanding of community, local authorities and issues is important.
BDP eschews a head office. But inevitably the largest offices have the most support functions. Human resources – and chairman David Cash – are based in Manchester, for example. Peter Drummond started his career in BDP’s original office in Preston but is now firmly settled in London.
‘Not all studios can be all things,’ says Drummond. So some offices have specialities – as with Sheffield’s experience in hospital design and education. Only Manchester and London operate across all sectors. Each studio is its own profit centre – responsible for winning its own work and finance – though north and south also each operate as a group. Individual ‘marketeers’ direct work in major sectors like retail, focussing on marketing and knowledge management. They can team up with a local office: BDP buildings at Liverpool One were designed by the local office and a specialist team. On Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool the practice is taking advantage of ‘very, very’ specialist knowledge in Manchester, London and Sheffield offices.
‘Design is a lot about resource management. If one aspect hinders it, say geography, that introduces a complication. I am sure at Fosters [one big London office] it’s simpler.’
Maintaining standards across the offices are profession heads who deal with people and quality. ‘With that in place all the other things should work,’ says Drummond. But to ensure it does, the BDP design process also includes gateways of design and technical reviews which involve those outside the team – and often outside the office.
Video conferencing, WebEx and Skype are de rigeur given the practice’s international reach. ‘But we still like to sit around a table and get paper out,’ insists Drummond.
Bristol, Bath, Cardiff, London, Manchester, Plymouth, Truro, Southampton
Plus Abu Dhabi
Reading has closed and Southampton’s on the brink of opening. Stride Treglown’s re-think of the geography of the practice is part of new chairman David Hunter’s look at the shape of the organisation. Stride Treglown started in Bristol 60 years ago and started branching out in the 1970s with a mixture of acquisition and organic growth. And Hunter is happy to encourage offices with different characters.
In Manchester, for example, Stride bought Chapman Robinson and, with the directors looking to retire, recruited Gordon Tero from BDP. ‘Our Manchester office has a high profile with high end design work. It has turned heads in the Manchester market and surprised people who know Stride Treglown,’ says Hunter.
In Bath the connections of Philip Fawkner-Corbett who is, among other things, head of the local Chamber of Commerce, defines the practice in a very different sort of market. Fawkner-Corbett came back to Stride Treglown after setting up his own practice. The east of England is where the practice is hoping to make the next steps to growth, perhaps on a similar model.
Resources are not ringfenced by office. Hunter is proud of the fact that the practice takes expertise to where it is required and offices can build workload on that. So when a series of university technical colleges came up in the South West, a specialist team with education experience supported the Plymouth team heavily on the first. Now onto its third, it is working far more independently.
Getting board directors together every month from across the country to discuss the detail of business issues has proved a strain so management has now been split with a smaller number – again from around the offices – examining the minutiae.
A larger group meets once a quarter to grapple with strategic issues. Improving reporting across offices so that directors don’t feel left out of the loop has been essential to this culture change. Next on Hunter’s list is working towards having two directors in each office, for robustness. And alongside that is the widening ownership of the practice with a gentle move towards an employee owned company. ‘It’s about the fulfilment of those working in business. When I was young ownership seemed an impossible thing, but I wanted a sense of influencing the business where I spent most of my waking hours.’
Bristol, Cambridge, Canterbury, Cardiff, Colchester, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, North Wales, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford, York
Plus Hong Kong.
‘Architects are quite difficult to control,’ says Mark Goldspink, chief executive officer at Purcell. ‘I know, I am one. It’s easy not to be a team and work in an individual way.’ That is especially hard between 15 UK offices. After a review of the practice Goldspink is proud that a leadership programme has now been set up to bring the senior team and partners together, face to face. In parallel, potential future leaders are sharing a monthly coaching session – for which they set the agenda.
‘If we don’t work at it I could see it could dissolve in a decade’s time,’ says Goldspink.
In the meantime he is upbeat about the ‘talented’ young architects spearheading the two new offices in Cardiff and Nottingham. In Cardiff, one family’s need to move to Wales suddenly made a new base there possible, although the practice had been considering it for three years. This is the office which will run the St Fagans project, which won HLF funding last year. And there’s another. ‘In Newcastle they are putting in the phones as I speak,’ says Goldspink. The one thousand student rooms in Newcastle, Durham Cathedral and other city projects just added up and staff living nearby have been co-opted to the office.
‘I represent three offices on the board,’ says Goldspink, ‘Bristol, Cardiff and Hong Kong. And I visit each every month. I love seeing young architects flourish and develop.’
The character of the offices is defined less by place than individuals, who run the office and secure and deliver work as they see fit. ‘They’re autonomous in that sense,’ says Goldspink. ‘We don’t run them from London.’