AJ100 #9: Ann-Marie Corvin on CAPITA - ESA
AJ100 Top 10 profiles: Capita has been unfairly lumbered with a bland reputation, writes Ann-Marie Corvin
According to Chris Boyce, this publicly listed practice’s design director, Capita has been unfairly lumbered with a bland reputation. He points to an article he has read about Preston, which took a critical view of a building that the writer likened to ‘something that Capita would build’. He says: ‘It wasn’t even one of ours, but we still get blamed. We need to fix that perception.’
He points to work by Capita that has been shortlisted by RIBA: South Wolverhampton and Bilston Academy, which made the RIBA West Midlands Regional Awards shortlist this year and its Green Park step-free access project, which was built ahead of the London 2012 Games.
The past year for Capita – ESA has, Boyce says, been about ‘looking at all the chess pieces and working out how to reframe and resize them’. The firm has dropped six places in this year’s AJ100, to ninth, having shed 80 staff. Boyce says precise staff counts have been difficult to arrive at in the past because only 12 per cent of the 4,500 people employed in parent group Capita Property and Infrastructure are involved in building in some way and many were dispersed within the group’s various subdivisions. From January this year, however, head counts have become much easier, thanks to a restructure that places all the architects within Property and Infrastructure in the one business. ‘We are around half the size we used to be four years ago, which is not a bad thing,’ adds Boyce.
Since it joined forces in 2011 with ESA, a 100-year-old Hull firm that largely specialises in central London office blocks the practice’s full title has become Capita – ESA and now operates as two brands under one leadership team. Boyce adds that the multidisciplinary practice’s renewed focus is led by architects and designers, rather than accountants.
Clifford Martin chairs the architecture business, ESA’s Alastair Roberts is managing director, while ESA’s Nic Sampson and Boyce are creative and design directors respectively. ‘It’s the first time we’ve had co-direction that’s going in one direction,’ says Boyce.
Despite the decrease in the number of architects employed, fees have been broadly stable (£290 million in December 2013 from the overall group, compared with £300 million the year before) and Boyce maintains that the restructure has made it easier to focus on the direction it wants to take and work it wants to pursue.
The new leadership sees housing, infrastructure and transport as key – but sectors vary from region to region: ESA’s legacy means workplace and residential are key areas of output in London, while in the South West and Wales it is defence, education and health. In the North West and North East it is primarily education and, on a smaller scale, private health and workplace.
Through its connections with local authorities – it is in a long-term partnership with Blackburn Council and is a key partner in the Rochdale and Lancashire BSF scheme – it is also involved in several estate rationalisation schemes, which recently saw it retrofit two office blocks in Blackburn. Through a Highways Agency competition, it is also working on Blackburn’s bus station.
While the firm’s footprint remains firmly in the UK, it now has an office in Poland through ESA, while the diverse range of skillsets held within the wider Capita group mean the company also boasts two globe-trotting sea tunnellers, who have recently completed a bay tunnel in Japan.
Boyce acknowledges that Capita – ESA is never going to have a house style or be driven by a single personality. He says: ‘Ultimately we are about designing good buildings for clients that we trust and who want to work with us and, because of the way we are structured, we are able to do that to scale.’