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Stepping willingly into the void: the new wave of practices

It takes some guts to break from an established company and go it alone with your own start-up practice during a recession. But that’s exactly what Harry Gugger, Roz Barr and Nadi Jahangiri have done

The number of architects setting up new practices is ballooning. The RIBA’s Springboard to Chartered Practice programme was a good industry barometer - the event attracted more than 50 architects, the majority of whom had recently started up firms or were on the verge of going it alone.

This explosion of new outfits, as recession-hit firms continue to shed staff, is not a new phenomenon. Former practice president Owen Luder, who ‘has lived through every downturn since the war’, says: ‘[The] institute’s statistics show that in every slump, the number of small practices increases dramatically.’

What is surprising is the burgeoning band of professionals leaving larger practices to start afresh out of choice, not through the pressure of redundancy.

In recent weeks this trend has been highlighted by a number of high-profile breakaways. Among them the departure of the five directors, led by Lee Polisano, from commercial giant Kohn Pedersen Fox Architects to set up the ambitious PLP Architecture (pictured), and the decision by Hamiltons’ figurehead Robin Partington to also go it alone.

Over the coming weeks the AJ will publish profiles of selected firms in this new wave, including those that have set up following redundancy (click hereto see the AJ’s New Practices column).

The brave newcomers

Harry Gugger
The brains behind the Tate Modern revamp, is to leave Swiss stars Herzog & de Meuron after 19 years to set up on his own.
‘I might set up my practice here in Basel or Zurich. Or maybe even London. I know how I want to organise my company. I want a flat hierarchy. English law favours this; you can set up a limited company and then have an employee’s trust, like Make. I want everybody to be a co-owner. That’s not so easy in Switzerland.

My dream would be for it to be small. I know I could handle a larger practice, but I want it to be more like a family. Indeed, I want to focus more on spending time with my young family. I am also a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and, together with working at the practice, it was all too much – running my projects, looking after the students and doing research.

‘I never intended to be just an academic. I’ll work at Herzog & de Meuron until the end of the year. I have to pass on my projects, so haven’t had too much time to think about my own practice. But it will have a slow start. Lots of people have said I need to create a lot of momentum from the beginning, but that’s not my style. I’m simply too exhausted.’

 

Roz Barr
The former associate director at Eric Parry Architects recently left her job after 10 years to set up Roz Barr Architects.
‘Mentally, I had decided that I would leave last Christmas [2008]. Then, slowly, we all awoke in the mornings to more doom and gloom and global meltdown, and it became obvious that buckling up and riding 2009 out was the best thing to do.

‘However, the thought of continuing the trudge of dealing with others’ stress, for little personal satisfaction, made the decision to resign very straightforward. I have a very good friendship with Eric and although my resignation came as a complete shock, with a lot of discussions and offers to make me stay, I knew, the moment I said it, that it was 100 per cent the right decision to make.

‘I needed to breathe and regain my own creativity, which ultimately meant doing my own architecture and designing again.

‘In 2006 or 2007, when everything was booming, things were going so fast there wasn’t time to think about what would come next. Everyone was only interested in making more money. When things crash, there is an initial shock, and the media frenzy that came with this recession didn’t help, but what it does do is free up time. Finally you have time to think.

‘It was this thinking time that meant quite a few people could look around and decide what they wanted to do next. My thoughts were to either keep my head down and hope we all didn’t go under, or take the opportunity to build up my own practice and try to do things in a different way.

‘The response I have had from clients has been fantastic in encouraging me and helping me see the risk I am taking at this time as an asset. Also, I hope having more time will breed creative thought, instead of knee-jerk decisions. Quite a few clients will build houses, for example, in recession or re-think developments. Construction prices are down, they can ask for lower fees so there is more opportunity.

‘I may have got this completely wrong but it certainly feels like the right time to me. I presume this happened in the last recession when younger architects jumped ship and started afresh. This is the next wave.’

 

Nadi Jahangiri 
Twelve years after breaking from Foster + Partners to found m3 architects, Jahangiri is at it again with SCALA architects.
‘It does feel a bit “all change” at the moment. Positive destructive capitalism, I think it’s called. In my case, it seemed like a good opportunity to draw a line under a successful few years and start again, a bit like moving house.

‘When I left Foster + Partners to start m3 architects in 1997 everyone thought I was mad. Fosters was on the up and I had no work. But the urge to set up on my own outweighed all the fears and I guess that’s what is happening again now.

‘A recession is actually a very good time to set up: a lot of the less efficient and bloated corporate clients, with a few notable exceptions, have shrunk or disappeared altogether and the emergence of their replacements – what we call Hotmail developers – have taken their place and they don’t come with the same corporate baggage. They are looking for good design from smaller practices who can give them the down-and-dirty personal service the big boys just can’t.

‘Anyway, sometimes it’s just a good idea to throw all the cards in the air and see what happens, and that’s a significant driver for me.’

Top tips for starting up

1. Get some good quality information; buy the Architect’s Job Book by 3DReid, the Architect’s Handbook of Practice Management by Sarah Lupton and the RIBA Good Practice Guide: Starting a Practice by Simon Foxell

2. Prepare your business case (including your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis – SWOT) and your business plan. Your bank will want to see your cash flow forecast.

3. Understand your liabilities; make sure you have the right professional indemnity (PI) insurance cover in place and think about limited liability status.

4. Spend wisely – don’t buy what you don’t need yet.

5. Get to grips with appointment documents and working out fees in relation to the resources you need to deliver a project.

6.Get noticed – stick close to other professionals, go to the local chamber of commerce - twitter

Postscript:

The Yorkshire Regional executive has already identified the creation of a new forum for small practices and, particularly starts-ups, as one of our priorities in the 2010 business plan. This is in direct response to the trend, reported to us by members, of an increased number of newly set up practices in our region. An invitation for members to get involved will be issued in the regional newsletter early next year. 

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