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AJ100 interview: Rob Firth, Capita

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‘We have very good public sector projects in the pipeline’

With public money being pumped into the UK economy, Capita Architecture is making hay while the sun shines. So much so, that while practices everywhere are shedding staff, Capita Architecture is hiring – with plans to add at least 15 architects to its 250-strong design studio over the next few months.

‘We have very good public sector projects in the pipeline,’ says head of design Rob Firth. ‘We are recruiting for transport schemes and to help us bid for Building Schools for the Future contracts in the next couple of months.’

Firth joined the 4,000-strong Capita Symonds group from Austin-Smith:Lord in 2005. He came to Capita’s attention having set up an office for the practice in South Wales, rapidly expanding it to more than 30 people.

He joined shortly after Capita had acquired Percy Thomas Architects. Other acquisitions, such as transport specialist Ruddle Wilkinson, have transformed its architecture business from what was essentially a property consultancy into a big design studio specialising in education, healthcare, transport, defence, justice and cultural projects. Along with organic growth, these acquisitions have boosted it from 12th place in the AJ100 last year with 139 architects to take fifth place with 250.

Capita’s growth strategy has been very successful. In education, its design for the Academy of St Francis of Assisi in Liverpool, one of the first city academies to be completed, has been celebrated for setting some of the highest educational standards in the country. Capita is currently working on Building Schools for the Future contracts in Lancashire, Nottingham and North East Tyneside/Gateshead.

Meanwhile, defence is reaping big design fees with work to start this year on a new education complex for the army at St Athan in South Wales. Justice is another healthy sector, where long-planned projects have finally come through. ‘There are an awful lot of prisons and police stations being built,’ says Firth. ‘People think it’s very unattractive, but it’s an area that has had significant development in design.’

As for infrastructure, in the rail sector the practice has an ongoing package of design work for Network Rail. And in aviation, Capita’s design for the second satellite building at Heathrow Terminal 5, T5c, is about to start on site. It has also designed an airport in Iraq.

Firth doesn’t hide that Capita is doing well, but he isn’t smug about it either. These are tough times, and Firth believes practices should help each other through them. ‘On issues such as IT, research and recruitment, the larger practices should be much more collaborative,’ says Firth, issuing an open invitation to interested practices to get in touch. Damian Arnold

Capita was number 5 in the 2009 AJ100




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