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AJ120 #04: Sheppard Robson

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156 employed architects, 31% female architects, fourth position in 2014

A recruitment consultant once told me the average employee checks out 18 months after joining an architectural practice, and that this neatly equates to the typical length of a project. But at Sheppard Robson the average employee opens their leaving card after 4.7 years. That’s a long time in Britain’s zero hours contract work culture, the envy of efficiency-worshipping but legislation-bound employers elsewhere in the EU. Sheppard Robson takes a broader view, and 4.7 years is long enough for staff to really build on their skill sets, and their portfolios.

As Sheppard Robson projects completed last year and under way confirm, departing staff have little in their portfolios to be embarrassed about. The practice can fondly remember its class of 2014: the Bristol Life Sciences Building, which flaunts a Cyberman aesthetic before its listed neighbours; Citylabs, a high-spec, flexible and customised biomedical facility in Corridor Manchester; and the environmentally supple 3 & 10 Finsbury Square, with its offset, coiling floor plates. The future promises the new glazed entrance to the London Business School, a propranolol injection into the heart of a civic worthy; contemporary mixed-use regeneration with a public access courtyard at Fitzroy Place; the East Wick and Sweetwater project for 1,500 new homes in a mix of residential typologies masterplanned to mend the urban fabric around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and the faceted zinc Aldwych House rooftop extension.

Alongside architectural results, the practice will remember 2014 as a year of outstanding growth. ‘The size of our team has grown 47 per cent in the last 18 months,’ says partner Alan Shingler. ‘The practice promoted six new partners in 2014, including two in Manchester, and this is part of a tradition of carefully considered succession planning.’

Sheppard Robson’s current work suggests its outlook is paying dividends

Sheppard Robson is a meritocracy built on a solid work ethic, altruism and a belief in nurturing staff creativity, but within a collegiate setting which encourages continuity and transferred expertise. Until 2014 there were 16 design directors. But these were replaced by a Design Review Group comprising six members in the practice’s London office – in a 1970s piano factory conversion – three in Manchester and one in Glasgow. ‘This has created a greater convergence in design methodology, as well as empowering creativity in the studio,’ says Shingler. ‘Put simply, this convergence takes the form of asking a series of probing and pertinent questions, addressing issues such as sustainability, context, craft, scale, etc.’ Potential contradictions exist between converging methodology and individual creativity, but this new structure is more democratic than a design director culture. The diversity and conviction of Sheppard Robson’s current work suggests its outlook is paying dividends.

The practice’s most interesting projects have promisingly experimental qualities

Looking through the archives, some of the practice’s most interesting projects have promisingly experimental qualities, as seen in the low-technology free-standing rooms of the Sopron Monastery hotel-retreat and Project Estidama in Abu Dhabi, a 30-storey asymmetrical double helix generated by a parametric algorithm to create a self-shading structure for office, hotel or residential use. This project embodies firm belief in avoiding formal preconceptions and integrating performance with aesthetic quality. ‘No building, space or place can be considered well designed if it does not positively contribute to environmental, social and economic sustainability,’the practice website prescribes, but recent work shows how far these objectives are being integrated with other formal and technological objectives. Post-occupancy evaluation, Shingler explains, sits within a much broader context.

Sheppard Robson is striving to diversify its market focus, which is difficult at a time of heavy demand for certain building types. This approach involves working hard to secure commissions in emerging fields such as hotel design and specialist areas, including healthcare. But, product-focused and committed to quality, Sheppard Robson’s approach to overseas work remains selective, entailing strategic deployment of flagships in Abu Dhabi and Johannesburg. Quality is the goal, achieved by a fulfilled workforce: a simple truth which eludes many practices.

AJ120 Sheppard Robson

AJBL Sheppard Robson


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