The transition to becoming a more mature business is a complex and important steps for a young practice - with many potential setbacks. Here Haptic Architects, AHMM, RCKa and more offer their experiences on how to make it even at this time
How do you evolve a practice in a time like this? Is it a strategic journey or one big opportunistic adventure? In this series we discover how taking full advantage of each threshold or turning point can help to set a practice’s trajectory towards the next. In the next few years, when opportunities are likely to be limited, this will become increasingly important.
Following our first article on emergence, we’re moving on to what – for many – is a tricky middle ground as their practice matures. While there’s much to gain from growth and experience, there’s also much to lose. To many onlookers, a mature practice lacks the novelty of an emergent one, so how do you stay relevant when your practice has once been perceived as cutting edge?
For most practices, maturity will mean taking on a growing number of people and this can dilute as well as diversify the drive and purpose of a start-up. For the founders, it can be a difficult moment, moving from pure practice to running a medium-sized business. In their book The Haptic Way Haptic Architects discuss the transformation from lively teenagers to healthy adults. ‘Ten years in, we realised that we needed to build a business culture, and we could no longer go out three times a week with the rest of the office,’ says Haptic co-founder Timo Haedrich.
Essential to this transition is finding, developing and retaining talented staff who can represent the practice as well as the founders. While RCKa found there were very few boundaries to the setting-up of their business, reinforcing the structure of the practice as it grew was more of a challenge.
Director Tim Riley says: ‘At first we just had the founders and then a much younger group of staff. We’ve had to create a hierarchy to narrow that gap, so that we can now show strength as well as depth. Part of that has been encouraging autonomous thought.’ A sustainable practice culture relies on finding staff with aligned values that are not necessarily subservient to those of the founders.
Moving from individual to collective energy is important not only for staying relevant as a practice reaches maturity but in laying the foundations for the next stage of its development, beyond the founders. Morris + Company’s rebrand in 2018 tackled this problem head-on; it was not simply a visual refresh. With changes to the leadership of the practice, the focus was on the collective, on architecture as ‘an adventure better done in company’. Co-founder Joe Morris was clear throughout that this reassembly should be an evolution of what had gone before rather than a wholesale revolution.
An increased distance between founders and the outside world via a cushion of staff and consultants can also mean a dilution in the quality and spirit of the work. How do you keep the ideas fresh as a practice reaches maturity? For some, this is about being selective, adopting a strong vision and sticking to that. Karakusevic Carson Architects decided to specialise early on, and since then have focused on social housing, carefully picking their clients and developing deep expertise. The result is that the practice has enjoyed longevity while maintaining its integrity and authenticity.
For others, retaining freshness in the work is about consciously keeping the practice at a certain size rather than specialising. As practices grow so does the responsibility to keep the staff in work, and this can mean taking jobs for the wrong reasons. The founders of east London practice Atomik consciously downsized from larger commercial practices to be able to work the way they wanted to. ‘We’re able to focus on smaller projects where we’re closer to both the ideas and the problem-solving,’ says director Sophie McCarthy.
Rethinking conventional ideas about growth, organisation and structure has enabled other practices to successfully negotiate the tricky middle ground. Jo Cowen Architects, for example, have remained emergent in spirit since day one.
‘We never stop changing,’ says CEO Jo Cowen, ‘so the culture of our business isn’t mature.’ She stresses the importance of simplifying: fundamentally housing architects, they have calibrated the area they operate in and seek qualitative growth within that. As a result, the practice links up the processes of development, investment and design, balancing architecture against commercial sensibility.
Ayre Chamberlain Gaunt’s moment of arrival came with winning the RIBA Journal MacEwen Award in 2017, but for them, maintaining the quality of their work is all about looking forward, reimagining their role as architects and communicating that evolution to clients. Director David Ayre explains: ‘We know we’re not the finished article. We’re trying to visualise what the practice will be in ten years’ time: there might not even be such thing as an architecture practice by then.’
The broader offer that some practices are moving towards will increasingly rely on collaborators from a range of disciplines. Taking on these non fee-earning staff, as well as external consultants, often marks a practice’s move towards maturity and, despite being an investment, can greatly support the profitability and operation of the business, freeing up the architects to ‘be architects’.
So, just as emerging architects often work with emerging developers, do more mature clients tend to be drawn to those practices that have a clear track record? Pip Simpson, director of design, estate and FuturePlan at the Victoria and Albert Museum, explains that the selection of design teams is entirely driven by their fit for the specific ambitions and dynamics of a project. ‘Supporting emerging talent is a critical part of our mission,’ she says, ‘but we also work with more established practices.’
Other partnerships grow in parallel, such as Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’ long-standing relationship with Derwent London. This has taken both organisations from small start-ups to significant players, evolving to match the external conditions even in times of economic hardship. ‘Our White Collar Factory was born out of a mutual idea that innovation might flourish in a financial crisis,’ says Simon Allford. ‘We had worked on a series of projects together based on ambitions we set ourselves early on, and agreed that our research had to go to the next level of detail.’
RIBA Journal’s own Eleanor Young talks about how, for journalists, practices are at their most relevant and interesting when they’re on the cusp – of emergence, growth, an architectural milestone or major award. The same goes for their appeal to collaborators, clients and potential employees. The most successful practices will use these moments on the cusp as a springboard to their next stage of evolution. They don’t even have to be positive turning points: those that come through the current coronavirus outbreak best, for example, will use the experience as an opportunity to reassess and re-set their focus.
The practices that mature most gracefully are those that never get complacent, the ones that never look back. They’re the ones where the founders build with a legacy in sight and bring their people along on that same journey. They acknowledge that to be resilient they will have to bring in expertise from other fields. They make the most of the moments of arrival but always have their sights on the next.
This is the second in a series of four articles on thresholds in practice. Read about emerging practices here.
Emma Keyte is a communications consultant and writer. Twitter @FreeEmma
Rachel Birchmore is a business and leadership coach with a marketing background. Twitter @rachelbirchmore