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AJ100 2010 International Practice of the Year: Aedas

Aedas, which employs 482 architects overseas, doubled its international fee income last year

Sponsored by Hilson Moran

Aedas is a practice with such a strong international presence, and somewhat meaningless name, that it is easy to forget how it developed: from the aggregation of a number of UK practices followed by timely acquisitions in Hong Kong and the US.

Brian Johnson, chairman of the practice, puts much of this down to kismet - but if it is just fate and good luck, his practice demonstrates just how far these can carry you. Its overseas architectural fee income for 2009 doubled compared to the previous year. It is on this basis that it won the international practice of the year award.

The practice employs 207 architects in the UK and 482 overseas. And it is still, says Johnson, ‘the largest privately owned practice in the world.’ There are 25 partners in the UK, nine in Hong Kong and six in the US, and they take responsibility for 38 offices across the globe. ‘Everybody thinks of us as hugely corporate but we’re not,’ he adds.

So how did they get to where they are today? Johnson started his career with Holford Associates, which then merged with Abbey Hanson Rowe to become Abbey Holford Rowe. Then Temple Cox Nicholls came in, followed by a tie-up in Hong Kong with Liang Peddle Thorp, and then a purchase of Davis Brody Bond in the US. At some stage, explains Johnson, the name changed to Aedas because ‘there are only so many dead architects you can name your practice after’.

By putting these modest practices together the business moved into the next league, able to undertake private-finance projects costing around £50 million. The Hong Kong office ‘was heavily into transport infrastructure,’ Johnson says, ‘just as China took off. Kismet again. Now we are working across China, Singapore, Vietnam and in the Middle East.’ Other huge projects that have contributed to the practice’s success include the headquarters of Abu Dhabi Investment Council, and the emirate’s massive Cleveland Clinic hospital, for which Aedas is executive architect.

Aedas has invested heavily in two areas. One is Revit building information modelling software which, Johnson claims, ‘is paying dividends in efficiencies.’ The other is in research and development, which one can only do seriously, he believes, if you are big enough. As part of this, the practice concentrated on sustainability, which helped it win work in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi.

Promising places includes Saudi Arabia and Iraq, as well as central United States, where Aedas is weaker than on the two seaboards. Johnson also sees potential in Sao Paulo, India, and Central Africa. With offices in Warsaw, Moscow and Kiev, Aedas is also well placed to take advantage of developments in Eastern Europe.

This helps compensate for the UK, where the practice’s strengths in health and education don’t predict a rosy future. Although the number of architects has grown, the total number of staff has shrunk. ‘We are leaner and fitter,’ says Johnson.

He admits that when Aedas set out to become a global practice, the main reason was ‘to work in a range of markets, countries and sectors, so that when one part went down another went up. Nobody thought about a global recession.’ But Aedas at least has weathered it pretty well. Kismet or careful planning? It scarcely matters which, with results as good as these.

Shortlist

BDP 1
With 116 UK architects working overseas, BDP recently opened an Abu Dhabi office. Projects range from 10 new universities in Libya to a children’s hospital in Kiev.

Pascall + Watson 19
Known mainly for its work on airports, Pascall + Watson’s portfolio stretches to rail, commercial buildings and some residential, with work in Naples, Pisa, Montenegro, Dublin, Cyprus and Abu Dhabi.

RMJM 12
The Gazprom Tower is still the most prominent project for this practice, which has rapidly become a global brand.

RTKL UK =43
95 per cent of the architects employed by RTKL’s UK arm operate outside the country, and the business has enjoyed rapid growth. Children’s hospital, Kiev, Ukraine, by BDP Gazprom Tower, St Petersburg, Russia, by RMJM

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