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What a difference a decade makes?

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AJ100: Introduction

Ten years. Ten years of watching firms come and go. Ten years of economic cycles. Ten years of mergers, demergers, alliances and bust-ups.

Ten years of evolving design styles. Ten years of ever-changing procurement techniques. Ten years of profits and losses.

Ten glorious, fascinating, frustrating, amazing years in the architectural world through the eyes of the AJ100. Any observer will tell you that everything has changed and everything is changing. But has it?

Just a brief glance at the 1995 table and one thing jumps out at you. Sitting proud in first place is BDP, the very first holder of the top spot in the AJ100. This is the same firm that has dominated the chart for the last decade, coming first for the last five years, including this one.

Then, as your eyes get drawn downwards, you see many familiar names jumping out at you. RMJM? Atkins? Sheppard Robson? Aukett? Farrell? Broadway Malyan. Perhaps nothing has really changed at all?

But look again at the other names on the list. Unicorn Consultancy Services? TBV Consultancy? DY Davies? Whatever happened to this mob? Let's not forget that 10 years ago the age of local authority architects still hadn't reached the end of its death throes. In 29th place of this year's AJ100 sits the Birmingham City Council architecture department, followed by the Nottinghamshire County Council Architectural Services Department just five places lower.

There is one consistent theme, however - the Building Design Partnership story. Just how does it do it?

BDP's consistent position at the top of the AJ100 is not a sign that BDP is a nakedly ambitious commercial firm, wringing every penny from every job taken on. It is more a reflection of the fact that BDP is, in the large part, a damn good practice. And it's good at designing good buildings, whether the client is a private one-man developer or the biggest NHS trust out there.

Few of this year's AJ100 would claim to be from the same mould as Libeskind or Vinoly, and nor would they want to be. However, speaking to many senior directors, it is clear that they are determined to get across their commitment to well-designed buildings.

This trend manifests itself in several ways.

Not least the fact that many commercial practices now need a trendy young design director from the schools of Fosters, Rogers and such like. From Atkins to Aedas, they're all at it. And the power that they put in the hands of these figures is sometimes quite astonishing.

One of the other most noticeable elements of this year's AJ100 is that firms are getting bigger. Again, it only takes a brief glance back at the tables 10 years ago for the evidence to stack up this hypothesis. BDP was indeed top. But how many architects did it need to secure the number one status? Just 147. This aggregate would have placed the office in seventh spot in 2005, a year when the office's architectural staff totalled 241.

This is partially down to incremental growth triggered by massive private finance projects;

jobs that are going to the big firms because they are the only ones that can absorb the almost overwhelming bid costs.

It is also down to firms coming together - the last 12 months has seen Capita buy Percy Thomas, and Aukett finalise its deal to merge with Fitzroy Robinson; two of the most notable financial deals carried out for many years.

Is it possible that there is just not the space in the architectural market for medium-sized practices any more? In the words of one chief executive in the Top 10: 'The thing is that these companies simply will not survive. We need more architects to service the large number of massive jobs we're getting and there are people in these suffering firms that we would like to recruit. It's easier, though, to simply buy the company lock, stock and barrel, as a way of getting the architects.' Whether things have changed radically in the AJ100's first decade is debateable, but it would seem a fairly safe bet that the next 10 years will be nothing short of revolutionary.

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