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Back from the brink

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It's a remarkable tribute to yrm's ethos that anyone thought the name worth preserving when the parent plc went under just over two years ago. Four people, all long-term employees in the old architects and planners division, 'felt the urge to take the traditions of yrm out of the plc culture', and completed a management buy-out. With eight other colleagues they now own yrm Architects, Planners and Designers, the architect for Whitefield School, Bristol Airport, Madison coffee bars and Cambridge New Town and ba's advisor on Terminal Five. All 34 employees in the old division were offered jobs in the new company, and it has grown since April 1997 to almost 50.

The buy-out quartet comprises managing director Jonathan Gray, Gordon Ripley, John Clemow and Peter Stocker. They are not the people who made the ethos about which they feel so 'passionately'. They do not obviously exude Yorke's energy, bluff charm and shrewdness, nor the exotic tastes and intelligence of Rosenberg, nor Mardall's effectiveness; nor even the catholic flamboyance of the original yrm's immediate successors, David Allford and Brian Henderson. But they are among the people who made that ethos work on the ground, developed its interface with clients and contractors - Clemow helped Ripley get planning permission for Canary Wharf after both had spent spells in Hong Kong, Gray led the Gatwick North Terminal team - perhaps why Gray in particular brings so much 'passion ... to relationships with clients ... we want to find clients who want performance, quality and sustainability'.

And in this yrm has enjoyed great success. Not only did all its existing clients transfer allegiance to the bought-out company, but it has found new ones. The chance for a buy-out arose when a group of Malaysian investors approached the old plc with a view to buying into it. 'It gave us the opportunity to go back to our core as a group of architects without a plc culture', explains Gray, a culture which starved the company of investment and led to perceptions of weakness. The Malaysians drew back but the buy- out went ahead, precipitating fraught moments for all concerned, but 'our view was that we could get back to what we're good at'.

Primarily, it believes, it has 'very specific skills in airports, hospitals, education, and specialist commercial work'. Paradoxically, its perceived weakness as part of a dodgy plc led it to acquire a very valuable skill, argues John Clemow. There was some reluctance to appoint yrm for major, long-term projects, but it picked up work in brief-writing, something which comes in useful now when few projects start with a ready-written brief.

At Bristol Airport, 'we started with a strategic business plan ... First Group bought the airport and we helped them to integrate air with rail and bus services'. This low-budget but fast-growing regional airport, where yrm was able to improve the efficiency of its design during a delay to the start of construction, will open next year. The consolidated skills were also useful, 'when ba came to us for Terminal Five five years ago - we had a group of people who knew how an airport worked'.

Whitefield is one of several school projects, but the practice also has two major university commissions. One is the National University of Cyprus, working with the institution's own technical-services team to develop a single new campus. The other is in Malaysia. Planning principles are being developed for the 20,000 person Cambridge New Town - 'a new town in a new way' - as Peter Stocker says: 'non-site-specific, reasonably self-contained and non-car-based transport'. Stocker also heads the healthcare team, with projects in Oxford 'where we've been working forever', and Dublin, where an association with Scott Tallon Walker has yielded three major projects.

Gordon Ripley locates yrm's commercial reputation in 'complex city-centre environments'. It carried forward developments in Castle Street, Edinburgh and the City of London, and is overseeing the reconstruction of the old firm's self-designed offices in Clerkenwell. Telehouse, provider of safe computer data storage, whose Docklands building yrm completed ten years ago, came back for phase two, 'much more refined business planning means we can provide the same area for half the price'. yrm is also designing a new conference centre for the Sheraton Heathrow; eschewing the Mughal- arches-in-sticky-back-plastic surroundings - 'we carry on doing what we think is right if we don't like the context ... you'll be able to see it's a yrm building', says Clemow.

That one can speak of a yrm building stems from a decision taken long ago. As early as the 1950s, the original partners realised the need 'to move from a firm driven by personalities to one driven by aspirations and ideals', claims Gray. But it has taken some time to achieve that goal - 'I've been at yrm long enough', he also confesses, 'to have seen it twice at 30 people and twice at 200'.

Each phase has been different. The old yrm was 'very male dominated', remembers Gray. Now 45 per cent of the architects are women. And the age spread is in contrast to the previous controlling troikas who were very close in age. And, says Ripley, it might soon be back in a building designed for itself - something in which the old yrm always took pride.

Building study, page 28 to 35.

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