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shedding commercialism

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people; Shed KM's 'democratic' team relies on a sense of excitement rather than commercial drive to motivate it. The Liverpool-based practice has found this a successful formula for its assault on the city's conservative clients by deborah mulhearn. photo

As with Oscar acceptance speeches, including everyone can get a bit ludicrous. So while Dave King wants to run Shed km as a co-operative, he also knows the pitfalls. 'Years ago, when I was working at Arup Associates, we were all divided into groups and everybody was at the same level, everyone had their input. It became quite time-wasting really, because everyone went to all the meetings and we had these huge lunches that went on for hours.'

At Shed km everyone makes models, everyone makes tea, and everyone has to be in the picture. It's a democratic team where four out of the 11 architects are women, points out King. He joined 'young' practice Shed when his then partner Rod McAllister left their Liverpool base for London two and a half years ago, and he freely admits the merger has rejuvenated him. At 62, he has the idealism and enthusiasm of someone fresh out of college. In fact, as a lecturer at Liverpool University's school of architecture, a career he ran in conjunction with his award-winning commercial practice, King McAllister, he taught his current partner, James Weston. 'Well, actually,' he recalls, 'I supported him in some tricky situations; he didn't want to be taught,' he laughs.

You could say, then, that Shed km's third director (a fourth is about to be announced) Jonathan Falkingham, provides the ballast for this bolshy, passionate and energetic practice. As co-founder of successful developer Urban Splash, Falkingham has earned a reputation for 'getting things done' in a city where so much potential is throttled at birth by bureaucracy. Urban Splash is a major client and two large Liverpool projects are coming to fruition, but Shed km has worked hard to diversify its client base and lose the 'provincial' tag. A major project's in the pipeline at The Fort in Birmingham, and winning schemes against strong international competition for a Liverpool Housing Action Trust and against the likes of Marks Barfield Architects for Southport Pier, plus making the shortlist for Barking Town Square have all raised its profile beyond the local arena.

But Shed km is more interested in delivering quality than increasing its size. 'We have grown, but in a structured rather than a meteoric way, and there is room for a little more,' says Falkingham. 'But all businesses that grow have growing pains and managing that growth is very tricky. How do you keep delivering quality?' The practice is prepared to properly resource projects, he says, even if it means that there are practices with the same amount of staff and double the turnover.

They prefer to spend time with clients and thinking about projects, says Weston. 'Our clients are not what you'd call glamorous,' he says, 'but we are quite strong at putting together a persuasive package.' At university he learned the crucial skill of talking through a project. 'You could more or less do what you wanted as long as you had a precise logical reason for wanting to do something, and that was a very good schooling. And if you are putting that through the Urban Splash-type process, where the client is rigid about the cost, you need very focussed arguments.'

The Blue Hotel is a case in point. Liverpool has a strong market for city centre hotels at the moment, for clubbers and football fans wanting overnight accommodation. Granada has picked a prime site and Shed km managed to convince them not to go for the traditional box with a pitched roof. 'It's not easy, but they were responsive to it being moved onto something stronger. They understand it's a different ball game from the Travelodge approach that they normally do,' explains King. 'We wanted to sell them a clean modern design for what is essentially a Costa del Sol type development. But there's very little money available.'

The choice of a bright blue rendered facade on a highly visible site is controversial for a city centre with very little Modernist intervention. 'Yes, it's the cheapest possible way of cladding a building and it can get shabby if it's not done well, but it's an opportunity to bring sharper colour into the city. It's making a statement, and it's also Granada's house colour,' adds King.

For a while in Liverpool it seemed that the only opportunities for progressive practices were small shops, bars or restaurants, usually conversions from the plentiful but redundant Victorian stock. Big clients were used to dealing with the bedrock of established Liverpool practices and the contacts were strong. Austin, Smith:Lord has been one of the few outside practices to break that stranglehold.

Shed km has slowly but surely been building a more diversified client base. 'In fact, we've actually aimed for clients who have been more traditional and conservative in the way they have commissioned design in the past, such as housing associations,' explains Weston. The strategy for Liverpool Housing Action Trust in the Knotty Ash area was to re-establish a sense of community. The scheme comprises the refurbishment of two existing tower blocks, where the original, space- wasting design has been addressed, and the creation of new apartments and care facilities for the elderly.

Back in the city centre the design for Maritime Housing Association, a conversion of two warehouses, focuses on a reinvented south-facing elevation with slatted timber planes to allow light in without the interiors being overlooked. 'The unusual thing about Shed km is its motivational drive,' says Falkingham. Rather than feeling obliged to take on any project they are offered, they decide whether there is an opportunity within the brief to create something they can feel excited about. The commercial imperative doesn't have to override everything. 'We have a more solid base and interestingly, the money side is more resolved now than it has ever been. What we hope for the future is that the financial backing of the business comes out of a solid belief in the work that we're doing.'

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