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Survive the recession with planes, trains and automobiles

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Plenty of infrastructure work is out there, but it’s tough to find a way in

Next month, Crossrail will choose from a shortlist of four firms to win one of the London rail link’s first design contracts – a £5 million project to make sure all the ‘bits and bobs’ like handrails, tiles and window fittings ‘conform’ across the wider £16 billion Crossrail project.

Among the finalists are just two known architecture practices: BDP and Aedas. The firms are lined up against multi-disciplinary giants Atkins and Mott MacDonald, and are the only design-led firms on the larger, 12-strong Crossrail framework.

The chances of other architects winning new Crossrail work are slim, unless they are brought in by private developers working on some of the outlying stations. But if Crossrail is not the saviour of the ailing architectural profession, there is still millions of pounds-worth of infrastructure work out there – and the sector is booming.

A look at RMJM’s workload confirms this. The ‘civils’ market now makes up nearly 40 per cent of the practice’s work and it has up a specific Global Infrastructure Studio to target future business.

‘At the moment, many of the best opportunities are in those areas that are paid from the government and public purse,’ said Peter Morrison, RMJM’s chief executive. ‘[We have] moved quickly to structure our business accordingly, rather than resting on our laurels and waiting for the recession to bite.’

RMJM has already made overtures to land a slice of US president Barack Obama’s £562 billion economic recovery plan, which includes rebuilding America’s highways, and is currently bidding for a ‘massive’ job in Los Angeles. The company is also looking at rail projects in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa.

There is plenty of work in the UK too. According to those polled in the AJ State of the Profession survey (AJ 19.02.09), infrastructure was viewed as the second most likely sector to sustain practices through the recession, after education. The government is pressing ahead with its new generation of nuclear power stations, the major transport infrastructure needed in the Thames Gateway has yet to be built, and extensions to a number of airports are proposed, including Bristol. CABE has also reported a growing number of civils schemes at the design review stage.

Chris Littlemore, chief executive of Archial (formerly the SMC Group), admitted the company was working on a series of nuclear bids. ‘There has been a sea change in public opinion regarding nuclear projects,’ he said. ‘We have worked in a number of locations across the country and have a long established history of working in this sector.… [for instance] the Alsop part of the business was recently shortlisted to work on the Hinkley Point nuclear energy scheme in Somerset.

Architects are also finding plenty of opportunities at a smaller scale. John Lyall Architects has designed four pumping stations – two for the Olympic Park in East London. Over the last year, the practice’s infrastructure work has increased from around 5 per cent to nearly a quarter of its total workload.

Practice director John Lyall said the schemes also offered the chance to create decent architecture: ‘Our Pudding Mill waste-pumping station is small fry compared to the velodrome and Olympic stadiums… but hundreds of thousands of people will walk up close to it… and the Olympic Delivery Authority wanted it to look cool.’

Lyall admits that winning the jobs takes effort, with many projects offered only to those on frameworks. ‘Finding work is about getting to know the contractors, particularly those that do civil engineering types of work,’ he said. ‘It’s about raising your head above the parapet and saying “we are interested in this kind of work”.’

For David Kingdom, from Aedas’ growing transport focus group, the challenge of getting on frameworks is an issue. ‘In the UK, transport is one of the most difficult sectors to get into,’ he said. ‘For some frameworks, the principal architect needs 15 years’ experience and, [for executives], a minimum of 10. Trying to find architects who know about transport is very difficult.’

Aidan Potter, head of the urban design and infrastructure unit at John McAslan + Partners, agreed: ‘The framework documents [such as Network Rail’s] are understandably couched in engineering terms. So the easiest way to get on to them is by partnering and collaborating with a large consortia.’

However, Potter warned: ‘Infrastructure is not a lifeboat, and if you think you are going to survive [the recession] just surfing on a wave of infrastructure projects, you are sadly mistaken. The schemes are interesting but the fees are very modest.’ 

Yet, as this year’s AJ100 list of Britain’s biggest practices, to be published in AJ 28.05.09, will show, firms with a foot in the infrastructure door have seen their practice stabilise, if not grow.

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