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ajenda - As BDP came out top of the AJ100 once again this year, it seemed an ideal opportunity to catch up with the firm's chairman, Nick Terry.Ruth Slavid talks to the nice man in the dark suit

Go to an event in BDP's still relatively new Clerkenwell offices, or indeed to many other architectural events around town, and you may well find yourself speaking to a very pleasant, unassuming man in a dark suit.

That man is Nick Terry, the chairman of BDP, who is specky, slim, very slightly nerdy and just, well, just so nice. That is a word my mother tried to teach me never to use, but it seems more apposite than any when describing Terry. And with that comes the mystery. How did somebody who is so nice come to be heading a practice that for several years has comfortably been the largest in the UK?

He is a great contrast to his predecessor Richard Saxon, a man of enormous presence. It is no secret that Terry became rather annoyed - though, of course, being such a nice man, he used others to express that annoyance on his behalf - by the fact that for some time after he took over in July 2002 from Saxon, who is shortly to retire as marketing director at BDP, people still referred to Saxon as chairman.

But maybe Saxon was the aberration.

Ever since its foundation by George Grenfell Baines in 1961, BDP has been a determinedly anti-personality practice. That is what has allowed it to keep going for so long, when more individualistic practices have run out of steam. And, if Terry does not impose his presence, that does not mean he is devoid of ideas. Look at his history, and you will see a trajectory that must have involved not just talent and intelligence, but also grit and determination.

Terry is a very particular type of BDP person, one who started his career in the practice and will probably finish it there - but has done plenty of other things in-between. He qualified in 1972 and both he and his wife, who is also an architect, joined the practice.

They won the competition for Durham Milburngate, built using a new Bovis method of procurement - a forerunner of all today's new construction methods.

But Terry was frustrated by the stagnant economy and the three-day week prime minister Ted Heath imposed in the winter of 1974, so he and his wife took off to the west coast of Canada, 'where I reckon I condensed 12 years' practice into three years'. He came back to the UK just as the American invasion of the early 1980s was starting, working for Heery, where he headed the architectural practice doing then-revolutionary shell and core work.

While he benefited from his American experience, he also had the essential knowledge of British architecture: 'The UK had a design ethos of carrying the structure through, where the US had wallpaper, ' Terry explains.

He rejoined BDP in 1990 to head up one of the three architecture teams prior to his election as chairman. Terry also ran the BDPDixon Jones collaboration that built the Royal Opera House in London.

BDP makes a clear distinction between the roles of chairman and chief executive.

The chief executive runs the business dayto-day, while the chairman's role is to look to the future and steer the overall direction.

One of Saxon's strengths was recognising the huge growth potential of the health market, a strategy from which BDP is still reaping benefits. Health has risen in five years from representing 2 per cent of turnover to 25 to 30 per cent. So what are Terry's insights?

'I'm very interested in our urban agenda, ' he says, and indeed a vast amount of the practice's work involves masterplanning around the world, often including the design of some key buildings as the project progresses.

'We are trying to respond to environments, ' he says, 'not to be directional in a formal sense - we want very much to work from the inside out.' This lines up well with his history of working on very large projects.

Another key interest is in the use of technology to enable projects. In 2002 Terry was also elected as the chairman of the International Association for Interoperability (IAI), the organisation tasked with bringing in real cooperation, single building models and suchlike - all those things that have been so long promised and so slow to arrive.

Terry is evangelistic. 'The missing thing in the Egan and Latham agendas, ' he says, 'was what would be the enabling technology. The answer is computer integration.' BDP doesn't have a bad record in terms of architectural quality. Some of its projects have won prizes, and the poorest are at the very least adequate. But more can be done.

'There is a strategy for us to compete with the signature architects who can go into any building type, ' explains Terry. 'We are trying to develop people who know their entire client base nationally or internationally. That is working increasingly successfully. We have to take the dead hand of the organisation off the talent that is there.' Terry envisages more architects following his own route - starting in the practice, leaving for a while, and then coming back. 'I think it has been absolutely good for me that I haven't been in BDP all my working life.' For the right people BDP is certainly attractive. They can get a wide range of experience, develop expertise and run big jobs, all in an atmosphere that is determinedly collegiate rather than dog-eat-dog.

As well as the future of the practice, Terry has his own future to consider. He is 58 this year and, like all BDP staff, has to retire at 62-and-a-half - unless employment law forces a change. He doesn't have many hobbies. 'Architecture as an occupation has been all-consuming, ' he says. But he is intelligent enough and interested enough in the world that one need not doubt that he will be involved and active all his life - ever so nicely, of course.

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