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Understanding practice

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Created during the roller-coaster economy of the late 1980s, ORMS is a practice which has thrived on finding opportunities in unpromising circumstances. This optimistic approach has worked equally well for a wide variety of clients

The 1980s were the cruellest decade, mixing opportunity with calamity. But such memories obscure what tempting conditions those years offered to architects who wanted to start not just a new practice, but a new type of practice.

Outmoded regulations disappeared and new kinds of clients appeared, and many established practices found these changes uncomfortable. Young architects were better placed to exploit them, and many did. When the downturn of 1989 took the stuffing out of a whole generation, a handful continued as if little had happened; some went under; many had to change their structure to survive, and a few emerged much the better for the experience.

Among these is orms. It celebrates its 15th birthday this year, and its cv is typical. It started with retail - albeit Oxfam shops which Rodney Fitch could not afford to do - but went on to that 1980s icon Next, and then progressed to a series of developers like Rosehaugh and Kentish Homes whose names are indelibly linked to that period.

Then came the recession. 'It was a painful process ten years ago,' says Oliver Richards; clients called up and told the practice to stop work. 'The nicer ones asked how much they owed; some just said stop,' says Richards' co-director Dale Jennings. So much is common experience. What makes orms unusual, believe Richards and Jennings, is that the process of change they underwent both placed them more effectively in the market and increased the quality of their work; that a re-definition of their purpose around new commercial conditions tapped previously unexploited architectural skill. Jennings summarises: 'We feel we've sorted out what we're good at and what we're not good at; what we like doing and don't like doing.'

What they evidently enjoy doing, and seem to do rather successfully, is using design as a means to understand and resolve complicated operational problems.

They have remodelled the Ibex building on the Minories, a 1930s Moderne 17,000m2 leviathan built for the insurance industry. It was advanced enough to have air conditioning but subsequently spawned so many cheap formica- sheaved amendments that its owner, Friends Provident, had no idea what to do with it.

Being listed didn't help, and its location on an edge between the City and the East End called for tactful handling. 'It was a straightforward task', says Jennings of a problem which had eluded several previous attempts at resolution, and demanded several complex techniques such as the drilling, fixing and sealing of external tiles which were in danger of falling off, 'of how to make more money'. That meant 'turning it into something people enjoy...that more people want to use', adds Richards.

Posed in commercial terms, the problem was simple: the architect's task was to translate that aim in the maelstrom of project management, existing fabric and operational conditions - the building remained in partial occupation throughout. And such an approach casts building fabric in a different light.

The deep, unlit basement, for example, becomes an opportunity for a user which might want deep, dark space - like the health club which has taken it. Having a health club in the building adds more opportunities, like the presence of a club room with bar and cafe halfway along the spine corridor which connects one end of the building to the other, breaking up the banality and demonstrably adding an attractive facility to tenants. Creating sightlines between the different spaces, including the three levels of the health club ('It's amazing what you can do now with fire- resistant glass,' confides Richards) relieves the dark interior, and bird's- eye maple panelling lends an air of opulence. Above ground, the naturally attenuated plan shape makes good, relatively shallow office space which needed little other than cleaning off the complexities of time - and ensuring that the attractive tiles stopped falling off.

Other projects show similar skills. John Stow House, built for a specialist insurance company formed to run-off long-term liabilities, was a 60s building just up the road from Ibex on Bevis Marks. 'We were able to tell them that this building would suit their operational structure,' explains Jennings; that was despite having a pub on the ground floor with a separate lease and its loading bay adjacent to the main office entrance.

New curtain-wall facades added some extra width to the floor plate; more importantly, this created a perimeter zone with a shallower floor depth which made space for running services, a device which, together with a chilled ceiling, made fully serviced offices within a ridiculously low floor-to-ceiling height. If this sounds like space planning, dealing with the facade which incorporates a loading bay and the main entrance called for Architecture. Striking colours and formal modelling, which creates a three-point turning space for a delivery van (a City Corporation requirement), enliven the lower levels below the curtain walling.

The other facade incorporates an 'homage a Le Corbusier' roof garden, showing that architecture and commercial design can come together, even within the strict cost constraints of an organisation headed by an insolvency partner of Coopers and Lybrand.

Adapting an old bt office in Holborn for Hill and Knowlton, a pr company and part of wpp, has different but equally demanding commercial parameters and operational ambitions. wpp set a standard area of 13m2 per person, and doesn't allow capital expenditure on property; spending has to come from revenue.

Without an understanding of sequencing and project management the project could not start, while the essence of a successful outcome will be measured by the degree to which imaginative design can improve the working environment. Here is another delicate balancing act and outlet for orms' strategy which pares down personal space - in some instances to 4.2m2 per person - in order to offer as extensive communal facilities as possible.

These projects represent the point which orms has reached; if the early work for clients like Next stressed design as the generator of 'style' - in line with the ethos of the 80s - its work in the late 90s uses architectural design as an instrument to achieve operational ends within physical and economic parameters. What was a cipher can now be an integrated part of a business strategy, and the ability to move between design and commerce is what underpins its success.

To orms, understanding the economics of a project is a bit like understanding how the structure works; it is a parameter which sets the band within which design has to operate. And 'if you understand it', says Jennings, 'clients trust you'.

Having clients' trust brings innumerable benefits which allow goals to be defined in a comprehensive way. For Aroma coffee bars, for example, the brief was merely to provide '15 minutes of sunshine'; it was up to the practice how it provided this. 'We would be very surprised if someone came with a 20-page document and said, 'There's the brief,'' says Richards.

The pair expect to be involved because their skills lie in asking the right questions. And the flexibility which accrues from such a relationship works to the client's advantage too. At Hill and Knowlton, construction and design work are progressing simultaneously; there simply isn't the time or the resources to allow for the conventional sequence of a project.

What brought orms to this point, suggest Richards and Jennings, can be charted through an analysis of the changing divisions between their project types.

Initially they engaged in architecture, in headquarters for Next and Laserscan, retail design for Oxfam, Next and Littlewoods, and worked for several speculative developers.

The outcome of their projects closely followed the input from the project type. These neat distinctions inevitably crumbled during the recession, when there was very little conventional architecture, and work came from interiors and clever re-use of existing buildings to maximise value. Yet in projects like De Beers Industrial Diamonds - half offices, half laboratories in a 1930s country house for this powerful and secretive corporation - they developed 'interiors on an architectural scale'.

The practice was fortunate enough to obtain work for city lawyers - one sector which did not slow down in the 90s - and started to crack that holy grail for law firms, where neither fees nor salaries can be too far from their competitors, of reducing property costs. This came about through an understanding of architecture applied to the interior, the challenge of providing a share of daylight for 100 lawyers and secretaries in a deep-plan building with only 46 windows. How orms solved this was by arranging banks of offices radiating from the centre to the perimeter, with glass fronts onto open-plan spaces with secretarial and support facilities.

This has proved a generically effective way of dealing with deep-plan space, not just for law firms like Watson Farley Williams and Taylor Joynson Garrett, but for other users too. It had the desirable effect of giving the practice a double track record: it could remodel the entrance for Lovell White Durrant, making a distinctively bright, sunny, timber-slatted garden pavilion rather than the normal corporate foyer, or, develop strategies for converting the deep space at the Bow Quarter into useable and saleable lofts for Colin Serlin of London Buildings which drew on a number of tricks from commercial interiors.

More spectacular was the fit-out for the itv network centre in Foster's itn building where, 10m from the nearest outside wall, the chief executive said: 'This is where my office will be'; he wanted to be entirely visible within the atrium hub of the building, an important symbol as Thatcherite changes in broadcasting regulation turned the organisation from a servant of the broadcasters to their controller.

Just as these projects were challenging conventional categories, opportunities to design buildings started to arise again. They included a competition- winning new business school for umist and a series of projects for the Institute of Child Health adjoining Great Ormond Street Hospital which tapped into just about every area of experience in the need to maximise the potential of an estate where expansion can only be upwards.

Meanwhile the unambiguous legibility demanded in retail design started to find outlets on an urban scale; the umist building was, says Jennings, the 'first time we designed a building thinking what it would be like at night', as if it were a shop front. Intense introspection during the recession helped to evolve a flexible approach where ideas developed in one category might open new opportunities in others.

Greenalls' brewery site in Warrington shows many overlaps. It is a hotchpotch of former industrial buildings which evolved over a century or so. Some are listed; most are undistinguished, but they offer a series of large and potentially interesting buildings in a campus setting.

The most dramatic building is the former malt house, five storeys high and unstable. 'In order to re-use it, we had to wind the process back', says Jennings, 'to understand the process' by which the building had evolved. The design opened three giant windows to concentrate the structural problems - and these light three previously 'blind' floors.

Richards and Jennings identify three clusters of projects: architecture, interiors and re-use. But each segues into the others and sometimes the boundaries are unclear. John Stow House may be architectural in scale, but it essentially remodels an inadequate 60s office building, and its interior has to be commercially and operationally efficient.

Greenalls is the epitome of re-use, but its scale is architectural and its aim commercial. And the opportunities from one lead into another as, for instance, when searching for a potential use for the basement at Ibex led to a health club; executing this project developed an expertise in a particular type of interior.

Residential schemes show a similar progress, from the strategic decisions at Bow Quarter in the early 90s, to being trusted to do the show flat at the Ziggurat, through to an ongoing new-build commission for live/work units in Highgate, where two blocks, one for work the other for living, are joined by bridges, thus creating units with potential for privacy, adaptability and growth.

Between orms' experience over 15 years and the way it conceives its services to clients there is an underlying parallel. Just as it has exploited whatever opportunities there were within economic constraints, so it seeks to maximise its clients' programmes within the constraints of budget, time and fabric. What psychological affinity this produces may be elusive, but it does suggest that architects and clients can have common cause: that such architectural services have much to offer the worlds of commerce, leisure and living - not least through using innovations in one to improve the others.

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