Design quality is the current aspiration for the architecture team within Atkins, says John Cherrington, director of architecture at the multidisciplinary international consultancy. And it is an aspiration that, he believes, it is well on the way to achieving. He is very enthusiastic about the calibre of the new and younger architects that the company is taking on. 'We are able to pick and choose the very best, ' he says.
The advantages of working for Atkins, Cherrington explains, include the conditions of work, the range of experience and the global reach. Indeed, for an architect, it is certainly like working for no other practice in the UK. Officially the second biggest employer of architects in the UK, it may in fact, believes Cherrington, be the largest, due to some under-reporting. Atkins itself is the biggest design firm in Europe and the eighth largest in the world, with a staff of 15,000, of whom about 3,500 are involved in the design of the built environment. In terms of architects, there are about 500 in the world, of whom about 190 are in the UK.
It is not just size that makes Atkins different. It is also a public company. This means, explains Cherrington, that 'growth is the watchword - we don't have the luxury of ebb and flow'. Because the practice works in so many sectors and so many parts of the world, it is relatively impervious to market changes. But, says Cherrington, 'We don't have the luxury of turning work away because it doesn't suit our offering to the market. If there is design work to be done we will do it, unless we turn it down on ethical grounds.' And it will take on surprisingly small-scale work considering the size of the practice - down to £2 million in value.
Cherrington has taken on responsibility for the education sector, where he sees tremendous opportunities, with developments such as schools for the future. 'We are gearing up now to maximise our impact.' Already, as well as designing schools, the practice has about 20 people working within the DFES setting parameters for the design of city academies, and others in advisory roles in local authorities.
Asked about the role of PFI in school design, Cherrington is diplomatic. 'PFI has delivered on cost and pretty much on programme, ' he said. 'In terms of architectural product it has been less than exceptional. We have seen D&B solutions of the old school. Architects can take the blame. What architects haven't done is designed so simply and economically that their solutions have been attractive to the client. Often the best option put up by the architect is the most expensive.' Cherrington hopes that in the future, by taking this approach, Atkins will take full advantage of the burgeoning education market. He is aware that until recently the practice has had a low profile in the world of architecture, despite the fact that both the chief executive and the current chairman are architects. Now it is consciously raising awareness, helped by example by its recent win of the international competition to design Lytham Quays. And at the same time, keen to recruit the best talent, it also wants to put something back - hence its sponsorship of the President's Medals.
'Atkins has nothing to offer the world except clever people, ' he says. 'If the business is going to benefit from people, it's right to invest in them as well.'