118 employed architects, seventh position in 2014
Few architectural firms look better placed in the coming months than WS Atkins. The AJ120’s seventh-placed practice chalked up a good performance in 2014, thanks to the buoyancy of its key markets: defence, education, airports and rail. These are all sectors set to grow both oversees, in the wake of global urbanisation, and in the UK, following the May election.
George Osborne’s penchant for rail – HS2, possibly HS3 and £13 billion of transport upgrades as part of a bid to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ plays particularly well to Atkins’ strengths. On the engineering side it is already heavily involved in HS2 – including design work for the station Interchange at Old Oak Common in west London and a four-year contract to provide Building Information Modelling technical services to the £42 billion HS2 project. Elsewhere, a new station designed by the architectural team to serve the Cambridge Science Park in the Chesterton area of north Cambridge, will open in December. Meanwhile, the upgrade to Dalmarnock Station in Glasgow, built for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, has won awards for the practice.
The election result is good news for transport infrastructure
‘It’s certainly good news in terms of transport infrastructure,’ says Philip Watson, UK design director, talking about the election result. ‘And that’s not just the opportunity of working on new transport hubs themselves, but the opportunities that come on the back of them, like new commercial and residential.’ Work for the rail interchange at Old Oak Common has already led on to work to design new schools in the area.
Watson is one of three senior directors responsible for architecture in the UK who together lead a group of 265 architectural staff in the UK across 11 offices, the biggest studios being in Glasgow, Leeds, Bristol and London. Architects work on both UK and overseas projects. They form part of the 17,500-strong multidisciplinary global consultancy that has mega infrastructure coursing through its veins – The new King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Crossrail in London, Etihad Railway in the UAE – to name a small few among a workload that adds to its £1.75 billion turnover. Meanwhile, work continues to expand in China on the commercial side with projects such as the Window of Canton development, due to be completed in 2018. This consists of three standalone buildings which will house high-end office space. Two of the buildings resemble ‘floating’ windows and the other tower stands at 208m tall.
But Watson is at pains to put out that the practice is not about trying to sell everyone a one-stop shop – with Atkins regularly collaborating with other consultancies. On the architectural side, Atkins has had a string of successful collaborations with other design specialists that have helped land some impressive wins in higher education – a growing market when the 24 universities that make up the Russell Group alone are boasting opportunities worth £9 billion.
One of its largest wins was in collaboration with Mosescameronwilliams for a new £330 million University of Northampton campus. The scheme received planning permission in February this year. The firm has also designed a new innovation centre and campus hub at the University of Edinburgh with completion scheduled for 2016.
Both of these schemes were won by design competition, a fact for which Watson is particularly proud. ‘We have a reputation as a safe pair of hands, but we’re much more than that. We do thoughtful, intelligent design – we are good designers,’ he says. ‘I think we’ll surprise people in the next couple of years.’
Like many practices, Watson says it is still experiencing a tough operating environment, with fees yet to catch up with costs and salary increases, a perennial problem coming out of recession. And although there are plenty of market opportunities it is not the intention to grow massively in size.
‘Acquisition is certainly not on the agenda in the UK,’ he says. ‘We’re looking for other architects to work alongside us, rather than for us to grow dramatically. These might be small practices looking to Atkins’ expertise in BIM, or its reach in geographical territories.’