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Coping with growth

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How practices can be organised to retain intimacy while expanding

As architecture offices expand, the ethos of the design studio as a structuring principal is proving to be increasingly untenable.

‘Fifteen to 20 seems like a good number so people know what is happening and can communicate effectively with each other,’ says Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCB) partner Ian Taylor. But the intimacy and information-sharing-by-osmosis that characterise small studio culture can be lost when practices grow beyond a certain size.

In response, firms have developed new ways of working that have dramatically different implications for staff and how projects are managed. We look at how four firms - FCB, John McAslan + Partners (JMP), HTA and Aukett Fitzroy Robinson, all of which have over 100 members of staff - have responded to their growth.

Practice structure is not just an abstract management concept, but has a defining role in determining office culture and social life. Issues like maintaining design quality, knowledge capture, and staff recognition are all influences on how practices are organised. Other issues such as ownership structures and succession strategies remain important, if less explicit.

FCB (which has 116 members of staff) and JMP (which has 105) have recently created studios, called ‘units’ in McAslan speak, within their practices. Aukett Fitzroy Robinson (which has 194 members of staff) has teams covering different sectors. Ben Derbyshire, managing director of HTA (which has 114 members of staff) has a longstanding interest in organisational structure, which led him to tour the US to see how practices there dealt with structural issues. HTA has a matrix structure which matches project managers with individuals from teams on a project-by-project basis.

Empowering a second tier of individuals within the practice was a driver for the creation of studios at FCB. Partner Keith Bradley says: ‘We are a practice which doesn’t adhere to keeping a really tight rein on things. We want to give people their heads in terms of design.’ Eight studios have been created, with a ninth covering all the support functions (marketing, IT, HR, graphics and finance). Two have formal specialisms (creative reuse and urban design), and two more work primarily on housing and education. Bradley says there is a deliberate intention not to specialise by sector, because of the danger of ‘getting into a rut’. He adds: ‘Some of our best work is on building types we have not done before.’ He adds that the studio boundaries are kept deliberately ‘fuzzy’ to enable cross-working as resourcing needs change. Bradley acknowledges that there is ‘a drift towards specialisms,’ but adds ‘we are trying to resist it’. The studios are not competitive profit-making centres, although profitability is monitored and openly discussed.

JMP director Roger Wu says his firm had a ‘watershed moment’ when the practice grew beyond 70 people and was in danger of becoming a corporate office rather than a design studio. JMP has five units loosely based on design specialisms, with a sixth covering ‘operations’ (IT, marketing, HR, graphics and >> finance) and a seventh is the Manchester office. Knowledge retention was a major driver, because units enable the grouping of people who work on similar projects. Directors within the practice have more room to grow by developing expertise within a sector and through managing and mentoring younger staff. Peter Eaton, a director at Aukett Fitzroy Robinson, emphasises the importance of creating opportunities within the practice by removing the glass ceiling of directorship to ‘recognise the skills, enthusiasm and commitment’ of younger members of staff. Six new directors have recently been appointed to make a total of 18 who manage the UK staff of 194 people.

HTA’s matrix structure is all about ‘the need to match tasks in the design process to human talent’ according to Ben Derbyshire. He says: ‘The world is not made up of polymaths. Some are good designers, others are strong technically. It’s rare to find both in one person and you need both to create a good building.’ HTA has six project managers (four of whom are architects) who lead project-based teams with a portfolio of work with input from different disciplines. Immediate peaks and troughs in work-load are dealt with through a weekly resourcing meeting, where ‘loans and transfers’ are agreed. All teams operate as business units. Derbyshire’s view is that profitability ‘is an important criterion in how you run a business and deliver a service and it is appropriate to delegate it’.

FCB’s Ian Taylor pinpoints the challenge and potential of managing individuals within larger practices. ‘People identify with being in a studio,’ he says. ‘There is a way of discussing issues within smaller groups that can be very powerful. Under this fantastic umbrella [the practice], individuals are given the autonomy to pursue the things they believe in.’ These intangibles - and the money - are the reasons why people stay, ensuring the longevity of a practice.

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