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AJ100 interview: Tim Hall, Lewis and Hickey

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‘It’s a global recession, and we’ve had to retract to survive’

How have the past 12 months been?
They have been hard. Struggling is the word. And I would say it has been more than 12 months, that the problems go back to January 2008.

Which of your projects have stalled?
A £100 million mixed-use developmentin Guildford, the Westfield, was put on hold at the end of 2008, which was a key project for the firm. But it hasn’t just been local projects. Our office in India stuttered, as did Romania and the Czech Republic. That was when we knew it was really a global recession.

How has it affected your business?
We’ve had to retract to survive. Over the last 12 months we have probably dropped from 240 staff to 160 across the board. We have also reduced the size of our offices to cut overheads. We are 50 per cent down on the number of projects we would hope to have.

What are the key sectors going forward?
Frameworks are our bread and butter, although there are fewer of those. Student residences, hotels, NHS and some school projects: they guarantee cash flow, but it’s the bigger individual projects, which last 12 months or more, that we need. We have an £80 million mixed-use project at Heathrow still on hold because of a blockage in the funding pipeline.

What is most frustrating about the economic downturn?
There are developers out there with funds, but they cannot get a site. Nobody is willing to sell the space, because the owner knows the prices are so low. And at the same time, with interest rates so low, they can hold on to the land until prices rise. So a lot of my time is now spent trying to put these groups together to discuss a potential solution. It’s like putting together a jigsaw.

How will the recession affect how you manage your resources?
We need to be more flexible. We make ourselves vulnerable with big projects by bringing in large numbers of staff. Maybe we could use consultants more, especially as, when things pick up, it is likely to be stop-start.

When will there be an industry turnaround?
I remain optimistic. I do think it will be at least six to 12 months before we see an end to the tough times, though. We are the first as a profession to suffer and the last to be switched back on.

What do you hope people will learn from this crisis?
A reassessment of construction methods and building in a sustainable manner: we were in a framework of 20 architects with Marks and Spencer, which stripped that back to three on the basis of sustainability. Prefabrication will take greater precedence. If one can draw a positive from a recession, this will be it. Christopher Sell

Lewis and Hickey was number 51 in the 2009 AJ100

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