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Who needs an office?

Clare Nash’s practice is not only officeless, but puts its fees on the website. Wait – it works very well, as she explains

Office meeting at the Crisis Cafe Oxford. From left Jaina Valji, Katie Reilly, Julia Phillips, Clare Nash, all employees at Clare Nash Architects.
Office meeting at the Crisis Cafe Oxford. From left Jaina Valji, Katie Reilly, Julia Phillips, Clare Nash, all employees at Clare Nash Architects.

When talking to other architects I often receive either a look of horror or one suggesting that I might be a bit mad. This is shortly after I have told them that our fees are on our website and that I run a five-person architecture practice without an office. I understand these looks and in some ways I quite enjoy them. I know I am breaking the rules of traditional practice. I am using my creative brain, honed at university and applying it to business, constantly questioning the normal way of doing things. Asking ‘does this work for us as human beings, does it really make any money, do clients get it?’

Sadly, using my creative brain for business is not something I learned at architecture school, but problem solving, questioning ‘why am I doing this’, ‘is it authentic’, getting to the bottom of client needs, all are. All architects therefore have the capacity to be fantastic at business, but instead I learned that I would have to put up with low pay and long hours, ‘it was just the way it was’. Well, it isn’t and it needn’t be.

I set up my practice in the midst of the recession in 2011. I had recently been made redundant following a six-month research trip abroad for my masters’ dissertation. I was in a small amount of debt. But I managed to find some freelance work, could then afford the insurance and while working as a dinner-lady part time I set up Clare Nash Architecture Ltd with a few postcards in local shops and a very simple website.

For a while I took anything and everything, none of it paid that well, and I seriously undercharged for my services. Finally, I got myself a marketing strategy (networking events are brilliant in helping you find people who know this stuff), I read stacks of business books (the E-myth by Michael Gerber is a must for anyone in business) and I started blogging – talking to my ideal client. Consequently, by September 2014 I had become an ‘expert’ in the client’s mind in my area of specialism, legislation affecting barn conversions/self-build in the countryside, eco building, contemporary vernacular design of housing. I know stacks about my specialism but so do many other architects. The only difference is that I am writing about it and using SEO – search engine optimisation – so people can find the information I am providing. Three months after blogging seriously, I had a business boom. My ideal clients were finding my blogs and calling me up from all over the country. I restricted myself to an hour’s drive, then half an hour. Then came employees and a doubling of my fees, still more work came pouring in. I now turn away four projects a month.

Fees horror

So back to the horror of having our fees on our website. Clients repeatedly told me that they had no idea if an architect cost 50p or £50k, they needed an idea before they knew if it was something they could afford. I was also utterly bored of answering phone calls from people whose first question was, how much do you charge? I just wanted to know about their project. I also did this because I am British and I hate talking about money. Now people rarely ask me what we charge because they have either seen our fees and run a mile (because they did want to pay us 50p) or they have seen our fees, and want to talk to us about their project. The fees on the website are not set in stone, they are guidelines, with five different project type examples that we do. I also use them to remind myself what we are supposed to be charging when I am writing fee proposals (I am a terror for undercharging and trying to help everyone). It has the bonus that anyone in my firm can write a fee proposal as well as I can.

Office madness

So to the madness of running a practice without an office. Firstly, through freelance work, I discovered that I enjoyed the autonomy over my own time that working for yourself gives you, not to mention the opportunity for other activities such as teaching, writing and research abroad. I didn’t want to lose that by having to go to an office every day. I also worked out that I would only be able to sit in said office for two full days a week due to being out on site and teaching. Lastly, I couldn’t see the point of getting in extra work just to pay for an office with a view of a car park. I have a view of my garden and chickens at home which I prefer. As an introvert I also really enjoy the quiet time to do focused and enjoyable work.

When I decided to employ for the first time, I wanted to challenge the long hours culture and give hope and inspiration to students entering the workplace. I was fortunate in that, through teaching, I have access to a huge pool of talent at Oxford Brookes University. I can choose from a fantastic range of applicants who are passionate about the same things, hold the same morals and values, are good at taking the initiative, are self-motivated and learn fast. But despite designing a part-time role aimed at part 2 students to fit around their studies, one of my employees on graduating has deliberately sought out other freelance architectural work so that she can stay working for me. She has told me that she enjoys the flexibility (she can go for a swim in the afternoon), she applauds that everyone is paid for every hour they work (there is no unpaid overtime), and she really enjoys our weekly brainstorming/designing/debating meetings. So this model retains excellent staff whom I really don’t want to lose.

I do think we are not getting the best out of people by demanding they work nine to five every day (or much longer in architectural firms). People are not necessarily efficient between those hours, there are night owls and early birds. As humans we have good and bad days. Some days we are really involved in a project and will gladly work until 10pm on it, other days we would rather have a break, go for a walk, have some thinking time. Offices that demand a person sit at a desk between certain hours are not using people efficiently because allowing that break, that thinking time, produces far better quality work and motivated people. With more sleep and time for other activities, people make more intelligent decisions and quality goes up.

But in order to do this, you have to trust people. I don’t really understand the lack of trust in architectural staff. We are not working for a fast food chain. We have trained for seven years because we want to do great work. Why not trust us with flexible hours? It is also a complete myth that you cannot run a project part-time. I was amazed when an otherwise very proactive office I used to work for (which has since changed its policy) did not allow a returning mother to work three days a week. As a part-time Part 2 student, I was working three days a week and studying for two (I was full time in university holidays). You might say ‘well that’s OK for junior staff’, but I was running three large jobs on site simultaneously. It was never an issue with the builders or the client as I managed my time and communicated effectively.

How it works

So down to the nitty gritty of how a non-office model operates. Staff use their own laptop and I provide the software including Office Time, a brilliant timing system. Staff upload their hours each month which I import into my version of Office Time so I know what to charge clients on a monthly basis. I send the monthly reports that employees create themselves directly to payroll. Staff mainly work from home, but I pay for them to use a local co-working space when they need a change. This is still far cheaper than office rent. Communication is very key for this model to work. At the moment we are using email in between meetings, but we are exploring Slack, a messaging app for teams. We regularly meet clients on site in addition to the weekly meeting, but for convenience the meeting sometimes happens in the nearest pub/café to site. Mostly we use the Crisis Café in Oxford and I enjoy that my office fund is supporting homeless people in gaining skills. The weekly meeting is hugely inspirational. It is not just a resources meeting, we design co-housing schemes together, we discuss site problems, design issues, the state of the world. We come to these meetings full of energy because we have spent the rest of the week apart.

There is no sense of hierarchy at CNA, we all have a go at everything, staff are heavily involved in business direction, discovering new efficiencies, new ways of doing things. However, we do play to individual strengths. I hate making models, for example. Julia loves this, so she is chief modelmaker. Katie is an extrovert and enjoys being sent to networking events. I train all employees in using Vectorworks and BIM, but because I am not always around to answer questions, I have created a series of Evernotes with screenshots as a kind of manual. Each time there is a question, the answer goes here. It means I am not bothered by questions, staff have a resource they can return to easily and training new staff is very speedy. When people start new jobs, they want to feel useful straight away; my Evernote manual enables that to happen. It gives them confidence.

I have been asked whether this model will need to change as we grow. I am inspired by Boiled Architecture in the US. They have 10 staff all working remotely. They hire a meeting room for a day each week where they all work together, the rest of the time they work in local co-working spaces or at home. Piers Taylor, who used to be a director at Mitchell Taylor Workshop, now runs Invisible Studio with Kate Darby. They collaborate with other architects both large and small, but by keeping the business very agile they work only on projects that truly inspires them. As you can see, architects can be fantastic at business. 

Clare Nash's Contemporary Vernacular Design: How British Housing Can Rediscover its Soul is published this month



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