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AJ100 2010 Practice of the Year: Austin-Smith:Lord

It has been a storming year for Austin-Smith:Lord (ASL), a practice in the process of reshaping itself while winning work and increasing its fees in the process

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ASL has jumped nine places in the AJ100 in a single year, putting it in the top 10 of British practices. Its UK fees have risen by 30 per cent and income has been boosted by a major arts and cultural project in Abu Dhabi, about which the practice is obliged to be tight-lipped. That will open later this summer and on the back of it, ASL plans to open an office in Abu Dhabi. Other landmarks are the practice’s 60th anniversary this year, and the return of Rob Firth, who left ASL for Capita Architecture five years ago.

Firth is one of the four partners now sitting on the executive board. As management moves from its third to fourth generation of partners, he sees this as a key transition period and thinks it is time for ASL to be noisier - both in its architecture, and in the way that it talks about itself.

‘We need to be a lot more bullish,’ Firth says. In terms of work, ‘our strength is in being considered. But some potential clients have said we are too safe, so we will start to take more risks. In going international, we need to be more diverse.’

If this is the approach in future, how has the practice managed to do so well thus far? The Abu Dhabi job, says partner Neil Chapman, has kept the London office going through the recession. And more generally, ‘there has been a bit of luck’, he adds.

As well as benefiting from the government’s ‘fiscal easement’ funding policy - in particular, cash injections for transport schemes such as Manchester Metrolink - the practice managed to hold on to other projects which, fortuitously, couldn’t be stopped when the credit crunch hit.

With offices in London, Manchester, Cardiff, Liverpool and Glasgow, traditionally ASL has operated more like individual practices than as a single unit. This, Firth feels, must change. But he is not looking for revolution. ‘The practice has such a bedrock of quality staff and skills that it would take a stupid person to wreck it,’ he says. If the design has been a little too well-mannered, the restrained ethos of ASL itself is something he feels should not be lost. here will not be a rush for growth, but an approach that looks for opportunities as they arise.

In personal terms, there is a lot to look forward to. ‘I have been astonished,’ he says, ‘to see that Austin-Smith:Lord does very little public sector work.’ Still, he thinks that future prospects will include urban design and regeneration of local authority stock - possibly coming from funding by contractors working with local authorities.

Other challenges come from the pressure on fees. They ‘have got far more competitive. On one bid the expected fee was between £30,000 and £50,000. The job was eventually won at £11,000. [In general] we are looking at the need to shave 10 to 15 per cent off our normal fees.’

ASL has evidently been getting a lot right. Firth’s return is a sign that it wants to get even better, but not change completely. ‘Capita concentrated first on profit,’ he says. ‘Here, design comes first.’

Shortlist

Allies and Morrison 14
This practice has grown steadily on its dogged avoidance of flashiness and fashion. The time seems to have come for its ‘antiiconic’ stance, and although Allies and Morrison has had to make some cutbacks, profitability is impressive.

HKS Architects = 74
The London arm of this Dallas practice specialises in sport, education, healthcare and offices. It has designed the new stadium for Liverpool Football Club. Although there have been some staff redundancies in the past year, overall the number of designers working there has grown.

Hawkins\Brown = 45
This is another practice that has built a successful business out of a determined adherence to a strong design approach. Profits are good, and although the practice has admitted to cutting its fees in the recession, it has done this from one of the highest levels in the AJ100.

Jestico + Whiles 42
Profits are excellent and the staff are happy at this practice, which employs architects and interior designers in London and Prague. Although the portfolio is broad, contemporary hotel design has recently become a speciality.

Populous 25
Of all the practices in the AJ100, this must be the most specialised. The clue is in its former name, HOK Sport, from which it bought itself out at the end of 2008. The highest profile project must be the London 2012 Olympic Stadium, but the practice is working globally. It reports no redundancies.

Weston Williamson = 71
Staff numbers have grown and profits are respectable at this practice, which has made a name for itself in transport, most recently designing the Crossrail station at Paddington. But it has other skills too, and has just produced a proposal for a retail store in earthquake-wrecked Haiti.

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