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‘Executive architects are seen as playing second fiddle to someone else’

Mole Architects' office
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Laura Mark speaks to Meredith Bowles and Ian Bramwell of Mole Architects about being executive architects on some of the UK’s most anticipated schemes, including Peter Salters’ Walmer Yard and Peter Zumthor’s project for Living Architecture

You began working as an executive architect on Living Architecture schemes 10 years ago. As an already established practice what made you do it?

Meredith Bowles I had got to know Alain de Botton [Living Architecture’s creative director] through my wife. It was at a time when the Black House had just won the Manser Medal and he came to visit and was talking to me about the process of building. Initially I was assisting him in how to set up this idea he had which later evolved into Living Architecture. As that evolved and they decided they wanted it to have an international presence, they realised that there would be a practical issue, so that is when he first phoned me and asked if I would be interested in working with their foreign architects to realise projects.

Initially I thought: why can’t I be one of the internationally famous architects? The executive architect role is often perceived (and rightly so) as playing second fiddle to someone else. You are not there as design architect – it has less prominence and you get none of the glamour. You do the gritty stuff behind it and no one gives you any credit for it. Why would you want to do that? But then I thought … if I heard one of my mates had got the job to work with Winy Maas of MVRDV would I be envious? And yes I probably would. So that was the decision made. 

You are not there as design architect – it has less prominence and you get none of the glamour

Mole's work as an executive architect

Mole’s work as an executive architect

Dune House by Jarmund Vigsnaes Architects

Do you think your role on the Living Architecture projects differs from that of a standard executive architect?

Meredith Bowles Our first project was with MVRDV on the Balancing Barn; then quite quickly afterwards we worked with Jarmund Vigsnaes Architects on the Dune House. During those projects we had to figure out what the nature of our role was.

It is probably slightly different to other executive architect roles because there is absolutely no sense from Living Architecture that they want their design architects to stop and us to come in to deliver the scheme. They also realised that if they wanted someone good to help with delivery it would be much more likely to work if they came in right from the beginning of the project.

Ian Bramwell Our role also encompasses the planning aspect, which generally wouldn’t be part of an executive architect’s job. We negotiate with planners and present at committee meetings. That early contact with them has helped on most of the projects. Sometimes it can be difficult for the foreign architects to understand our planning system and the nuances of planning committees. 

Mole's work as an executive architect

Mole’s work as an executive architect

Source: Edmund Sumner

Balancing Barn by MVRDV

What are the real benefits of acting as an executive architect?

Meredith Bowles Ten years ago I probably would have cut off my right leg to work with Peter Zumthor. Who would have thought we would get the opportunity? To be able to get an insight into the working practices of someone who you have admired is fantastic – even if some of those working practices are a little frustrating. Peter Salter was also a hero of mine. 

Would you have got involved if you had little contact with the design architect?

Meredith Bowles There are other business reasons why we got involved. As an architect it can be difficult to win jobs when you don’t already have proven experience. We see things on architectural terms, but clients often see things as a number on a spreadsheet; they just want to know if you can deliver. So there is a compelling business reason for taking on jobs that you might not otherwise do if it expands either your knowledge or your sector.

Another reason we take on projects as executive architects is because I really like to build things. I’m keen that as a practice we continue to do that, and through doing these jobs we have developed a side of the firm that will allow us to do that. There are a lot of practices who are desperate to build things but are only ever appointed up to planning stage. When that happens you lose the skills to be able to do it. Ditching design architects at planning stage is de-skilling our profession. That is one of the reasons I’m so interested in the executive architect role – I want to ensure as a practice we continue with a knowledge of building. 

Ditching design architects at planning stage is de-skilling our profession

Did you have to make any compromises as an architect with an established practice in your own right?

Ian Bramwell Some of the architects we have worked with have less of an interest in the thermal performance of a building, and that is something that we are well founded on. There can be a lot of negotiation involved. For us we almost have two masters: the design architect and also the client. We have to tread a balance between the two. 

Are there compromises you have to make?

Meredith Bowles I wouldn’t want to become a company that just does executive architecture. Understanding its role within our overall development is really important. It is a subsidiary one rather than a core one. We are all ambitious architects who want to do our own thing as well. We could put Peter Salter’s project on our website but we don’t want to mislead people. We are not the design architect, but on the other hand it is a project we have worked on for five years.

Ian Bramwell We have been approached by other clients to take on executive architect roles but we are very careful about the projects we accept. 

Do you receive different fees for your role as an executive architect? How do they compare to your other work?

Meredith Bowles We work it out on a project-by-project basis and all our executive architect roles have been pretty unique. With that executive architect role we are probably more dispassionate about it compared to our other projects so we are less likely to make decisions that would result in us taking risk or losing money. As an executive architect we take a more commercial line. We would be less likely to do a lot more work without getting paid for it on a project that didn’t have our name on it.

Are there particular skills involved in being an executive architect that differ from your role working on your own projects?

Meredith Bowles Ian is a great diplomat. There is a skill in that and in keeping everyone happy.

Ian Bramwell It takes that skill one step further because you are not just dealing with the client but also with another architect. 

Do you find yourself acting as a go-between?

Ian Bramwell There have been cases where the design architect has come forward with an idea and we have just thought it was a bit odd. It can be quite enriching in the process – to look at how other architects approach building. Peter Salter, Winy Maas and Peter Zumthor all differ tremendously. With Winy if there was a problem it wasn’t ‘let’s take a step back’; he’d go right back to the beginning and go through it all over again. It’s enriching to see how others work. 

Do you change your approach? Do you learn from the other practices?

Ian Bramwell Definitely. We’ve had slightly different roles on each project. MVDRV gave us much freer reign over the detail. They are much more used to working with a delivery architect. Jarmund Vigsnaes were much more involved and wanted to run through every detail with us. Peter Salter, of course, is absolutely obsessed with every detail. So our role there was to guide the process rather than do the design delivery drawings. 

Mole's work as an executive architect

Mole’s work as an executive architect

Source: Helene Binet

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

How was it working on Walmer Yard with Peter Salter? How did you interpret his ideas and hand drawings into something that could be built by a contractor?

Meredith Bowles The publicity surrounding the project concentrates on the hand drawings but there has been a big process in taking it from that to something that could be built. Peter has made a fetish out of construction turned into art. It’s not that his drawings were completely fanciful; the content of his thinking is very much to do with what you would experience in the space, the materials it is built out of and the way it is constructed. They weren’t so fanciful – just expensive. It’s a difficult site. It expands to the rear and you have no access and no elevations. What Peter managed to do by making these houses that had an incredibly internalised quality has meant that they can fit more houses on in a way that shouldn’t really work. When we started on the project Peter had already been working on it for around three years. Initially students had been working to convert Peter’s drawings into a set of CAD drawings. That transcription had already happened when we got involved but it had been done by people who were not really thinking about construction or sequencing.

Ian Bramwell We also took on the regulatory aspect of it. That was very challenging.

Meredith Bowles There wasn’t a lot of room for playing around; everything was so tight. There were a few things that didn’t work that we had to change – for structure or ventilation. But the small changes all had a knock-on effect, and Peter would go away and solve these. We worked very closely with him. 

Mole's work as an executive architect

Mole’s work as an executive architect

Source: Helene Binet

Walmer Yard by Peter Salter

Is there enough respect given to the role of the executive architect?

Meredith Bowles You should get respect where it is due. There are plenty of architects working as executive architects that don’t deserve respect for the things that as a profession we value the greatest. Because for most, the executive architect’s role is to do with Design and Build and construction where the design intent is often lost. It is a more subservient, technical role and it should be recognised that there is great skill required to build things. But ultimately if the building isn’t fantastic and the executive architect has been complicit in that then there is a reason they are not respected. 

If the building isn’t fantastic and the executive architect has been complicit in that then there is a reason they are not respected

Has the executive architect role been tainted by Design and Build projects where the design is dumbed down after the original architect is not novated?

Meredith Bowles Totally. It is a bigger issue for the profession and our role of building buildings and not just designing them. Procurement systems favour Design and Build for the majority of clients. We are sidelining ourselves by not taking on the management of construction. Executive architecture and how architects operate should be united so that architects are offering themselves with the skill to see a project all the way through. 

This has become so embedded in the profession. How do we change it?

Meredith Bowles Through education and through recognising the opportunity as businesses. Why is it that other members of the built environment profession are willing to take on the management roles but architects want to keep it at arm’s length? Partly it is because everyone goes through college wanting to be Le Corbusier. They don’t want to be executive architects or to do any of the other roles. They just want to be internationally famous architects.

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