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Setting up in practice

The rewards of setting up a practice are great, but there is an immense amount to learn

There seems never to have been much doubt that Julian de Metz and Amit Green would set up in practice together. 'We'd always talked about working together,' says de Metz, and they were also fortunate insofar as there was a family company, involved in building and development, which provided a framework into which the two newly qualified architects could slot their own practice, de Metz Green Architects.

Gareth Hoskins chose a different route. Having trained at the Mackintosh School and the University of Florence, he was invited to join the established practice of Penoyre and Prasad. 'I probably always wanted to set up on my own,' he says, but it was only after six years with Penoyre and Prasad that he finally packed his bags and returned to Scotland, not to his native Edinburgh but to Glasgow, which he perceived as providing more opportunities.

He was doubly lucky in that his wife found a job in Glasgow, and the couple moved into a property large enough to provide both living and working space. De Metz and Green work from small company offices in North London, an arrangement which they say is ideal. It means that, in return for a percentage of fees, they can tap into established systems, and expenditure on office furniture, faxes and phone systems is kept to a minimum. Even without the family connection, de Metz reckons that this is a good system for a young practice, especially if the incomers offer either skills or services which the main practice or company can use.

Hoskins had to start from scratch, but teaching provided him with some income and he has also maintained strong links with Penoyre and Prasad, for which he is a consultant.

Both practices have kept expenditure to the necessary minimum. Computers are owned, but de Metz and Green plan to lease any further equipment they may require. Hoskins bought the necessary office equipment, and 'inherited' office furniture. So far, his practice does not have an internet service, and even photocopying is done at the local photocopy shop.

De Metz and Green have not only internet links - e-mail can be a time- saving and easy method of communicating with clients - but also a web site (address www.demetz.co.uk). 'Better than a brochure,' they claim, since it is regularly updated and costs only a modest sum each quarter. They have had a number of enquiries from the site, and it was through this that they recruited the Danish student currently working with them. The practice has a contract with a local company for computer support. Hoskins currently relies on his father, whom he describes as a 'computer whizz'.

Hoskins set up without a project in hand, 'not necessarily the best way', he says, but the practice quickly made itself known through intensive networking, marketing - and, most notably, with winning entries in three competitions. The main areas of his experience are arts-related projects, visitor centres and small-scale medical facilities, so he made sure that all potential clients in the latter area were informed about his experience in the field.

De Metz and Green already had one project when they set up, and de Metz says he can't envisage any other way. Both men had previously won 'fairly prestigious' competitions but, says Green, the proportion of competition- winning designs that actually get built is pretty small, and in any case they both wanted to be 'hands-on' architects.

Most of their work so far has been interiors. The first commission, which came through a friend, brought others in its wake. They reckon to have had at least 15 projects in their first year in practice and now, nearly two years on, they are working on their first £1 million job.

They admit to having probably spent more time than was economic on their first projects, but the extra attention to detail has proved a good investment for their reputation with clients. And both agree that they learned a great deal on those initial small jobs. Time management is a problem, they confess, and it's often difficult to start drawing before late in the afternoon because of client meetings, dealing with utilities, etc.

However, they have learned to keep administration quick and simple, using riba standard letters and contracts and the riba fee scale which, says de Metz, is sometimes the only benchmark you have with a client. They have also used the riba's legal advice line, whose helpfulness they thoroughly endorse.

Hoskins uses the services of the rias, including its small-practice indemnity scheme (de Metz Green is covered through the de Metz family business). He claims to be quite careful about time allocation and says that it is important to be realistic about this issue when pricing jobs. Time management is also an issue. 'Architects are the worst time managers out,' he claims.

Since setting up, both companies have expanded. De Metz Green, which started at the beginning of 1997, now comprises the original two, a student and a general assistant who had it made clear from the outset that her employment depended on the amount of work the practice had. Gareth Hoskins Architects now consists of three architects and a student, and has just about grown out of its working space. Hoskins professes to be surprised that the firm has come so far in such a short time, having opened the practice only at the beginning of this year.

At the moment everybody is working on a self-employed basis, he says; the telephone is answered by whoever is nearest and everyone deals with their own correspondence. However, the hunt for new premises is on and, with two winning projects starting construction next year - a visitors centre at hmp Edinburgh and the Mackintosh Interpretation Centre - it wouldn't be surprising if some general help became necessary in the very near future.

De Metz Green will be on site next year with its major project, which is providing a new level of experience for the pair. A job of this size is organised very differently from their normal projects, with one day a week taken up by client meetings and a further day in preparation. However, they have been quite open about asking for advice from all their contacts. As Green puts it: 'There's a bottomless pit of things to learn,' and it's clear that many of them are not (and perhaps could not be) taught at architecture school.

Both practices are evidently making enough to provide a living for the partners, nor are the pressures of work so great that a private life becomes impossible. And in any case, it's clear that the thrill derived from seeing your hard work reflected in the growth of your own practice more than makes up for a few late nights and lost weekends.

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