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Recession destroyed my career - but made me a success

Bad times taught me that I had to diversify in order to to survive, says Peter King

Some architects will remember the last big recession in the early 1990s, when architectural work all but dried up. While that recession was, perhaps, not quite as severe as the current one, there were many casualties in practices up and down the country. I was one of them – but in the depths of that recession the seeds of later success were sown for me.

Working as a single practitioner and virtually out of work, I sat down one day to consider the situation. Architectural work was drying up; that much was clear. The ‘market’ did not want new buildings, nor even extensions to old buildings. It wanted something else. But what? And how could I find out what that something was and supply it? All of the clients that I worked so hard for over the years in London’s Hampstead Garden Suburb and the surrounding areas were very wealthy by my standards. What was it they did that I didn’t?

Then it dawned on me. They sold something – an item, a commodity. I just sold my time. I decided that the way forward for me was to adapt. I needed to think about something that I could sell. Something which had added value because of my knowledge as an architect.

I scanned through the commercial ideas I had had over the past couple of years. Modular sports facilities – but they needed massive capital and time to get off the ground. Property development – but it needed massive capital input, again, and property was a long-term investment. Then there was a steel replica of a Victorian cast-iron rooflight, which I and my previous partner had designed for our work in Hampstead Garden Suburb. This was small, unitary and low in capital expenditure for development and marketing – but would anyone want one outside the suburb?

The recession forced me to think clearly, boldly, and with entrepreneurship

I had a real feeling about this one. Modern rooflights were ubiquitous at the time and they were slapped on every type of building. There was no rooflight on the market purpose-designed for historic properties. The UK is full of historic buildings, I thought, and set about improving the design of the steel rooflight and marketing it. I called it the ‘Conservation Rooflight’, and the company I set up, The Rooflight Company, has grown to employ more than 60 staff and has made rooflights for some of the most important historic buildings in this country.

At this point I have to confess that there is a downside to being in a purely commercial venture – the creative rewards of business cannot be compared to those of architecture and, over time, I have found myself drawn back to becoming a full-time architect.

However, the recession forced me to think clearly, boldly, and with entrepreneurship, and to use the resources given to me by my architectural education.

Peter King is co-chairman of the Rooflight Company
comment@architectsjournal.co.uk

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