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AJ100 interview: Chris Williamson, Weston Williamson

‘I can’t imagine anyone thinking this a great time to be an architect - though it is exciting’

Did you expect to be included in this year’s AJ100?
Five years ago, we had three key decision makers – the directors. We’ve since made Rob Naybour a director and appointed several associates. Today we have 10 senior staff comfortable making design and management decisions. It’s helped us to grow and it’s why we’ve broken into the AJ100.

How have the past 12 months been?
Last year we had 15 housing projects on the books. By the time we filled in the AJ100 survey, that had dwindled to three. Some had already gone through planning, including 500 flats in Salford for Urban Splash.

Have you retooled to cope with the loss of so much work?
We’ve had to retrain and refocus our 20 housing architects to work on other projects, primarily in the transport sector.

What sectors are currently the most important for you?
The bulk of our work is in the transport sector. We’re lead architect for the look and feel of the East London railway line and we’re doing the Docklands Light Railway extension to Stratford, both of which are anchored by the Olympics. It’s a steady sector, but it has its own problems; insurers are more wary and the hourly rates are not great. It’s more competitive than ever, too – more architects are sniffing around, particularly on Crossrail tenders. But the work is consistent and tends to be long-term. Urban design and masterplanning are other sectors we work within.

How important is work overseas?
We’re looking at masterplanning projects in Dubai and China, but work is just as tight in those markets. It’s still just a small percentage of our fee income – it’s more about building a reputation.

How optimistic are you for 2009?
I can’t imagine anyone is thinking this is a fantastic time to be an architect, but it can be quite exciting, thinking, ‘how are we going to deal with this?’ It’s just another set of problems.

Are you entering competitions?
We’ve entered one recently, for two big housing projects for the 2016 Madrid Olympic bid. Because our housing architects were underemployed, we thought it was a good use of our resources.

How important is profitability?
The directors don’t drive flash cars or live in flash homes, but obviously we want to achieve financial profitability. But you don’t enter this profession to earn money! We’re more focused on selling a good service. That’s got to be the way forward.

What impact will the recession have on the profession?
Energy-conscious design is back on the agenda for the first time since the 1970s oil crisis, not only because of climate change, but because energy is simply more expensive. And given the economic climate, we’re already starting to see local authorities incentivise developments – almost a reversal of Section 106. At times like this, many Section 106 requirements are not justifiable. Rory Olcayto

Weston Williamson was number 92 in the 2009 AJ100

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