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How to design a new practice

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To succeed with your start-up you need to apply the same rigour and diligence you would bring to any other design project right from the outset, says Simon Foxell

Like many other readers of the AJ, I am a fan of the New Practice column, in which fledgling architectural practices parade their hopes and fears and do their best to make a skinny and fragile workload look like a solid pipeline of future projects. Their ambition is always life-affirming and their faith in Architecture with a capital A unnerving.

In general what comes over most strongly through the use of ubiquitous key words like ‘small’, ‘quality’, ‘diverse’ and, above all, ‘beautiful’ is the powerful notion of a hands-on and craft-based creative ideal and a hankering after the ethos of a semi-mythical student experience. I struggle to think of many other professions or businesses that would use these types of words to describe their start-up goals: not engineers, graphic designers, doctors, teachers – nor even many artists. 

This frame of mind may be a special strength of architecture, yet I worry that it is close to nostalgia. But perhaps architects just want to be seen as swans, serenely gliding across the pond while pretending that the frantic paddling underwater is nothing to do with them.  The business of architecture, and the effort and investment needed to get it right, is an essential consideration in delivering those beautiful projects and fulfilling the design ambitions of both practices and their clients. But, even on the business pages of our weekly journal, there seems to be a desire to avert any prying eyes from this aspect of our trade and assert firmly that it is all about the art really.

This is a shame, as the need to use all of our design skills on the creation and shaping of businesses is essential for architectural success and is the reason why my book, Starting a Practice: A Plan of Work focuses on the design and designing of your practice as an independent exercise, one worthy of its own budget, programme and job number.

The book takes the process of designing a business through all the RIBA work stages from Stage 0: Strategic Definition, to Stage 7: In Use. But, as with any project, the most effective work needs to be done during project preparation, when there is the greatest freedom to research, develop the objectives and the brief and to be able to think creatively. And, just as the answer (as Cedric Price was keen to note) ‘may not be a building’, it might not be a conventional architect’s practice, either.

Getting the most benefit from your opening moves in setting up your practice, firm, agency or business is essential.  Take time over this stage if you can, and try to avoid rushing into an ill-thought-through arrangement.

Decisions made at the outset can, for good or bad, stay with you for the long term. Pace yourselves, and go through some initial steps, such as:

Research and background

  • Arrange site visits to firms that you might want to emulate. Talk, in depth, to both them and, ideally, their clients
  • Research the geographical area where you are thinking of setting up. Establish what else and who else is going on and what opportunities might be emerging
  • Assess the opposition as well as the potential for collaboration and mutual support
  • Find out from experienced clients how they choose design teams and what they are looking for in an architect
  • Work out the skills and abilities that will be in demand. Try to spot any gaps in the market
  • Ask the dumb questions that will be difficult to ask later on, when you want to look credible.

Objectives

  • Work out your core aims and values – why are you thinking about running your own firm?
  • Think about the sort of organisation that could deliver those aims and values. Is it really an architecture practice?
  • Consider the level of risk you feel able to take on. Are you entrepreneurs or would you prefer a safer way to ply your trade?
  • Write your objectives down in a short list and keep it for later.

The team

  • Are you thinking of setting up on you own or with others?
  • Will you work well on your own or together?
  • Do you have all the skills you might need? Do you need to recruit other team members or undertake some training?
  • Can you support everyone from the outset, or can this be phased in over time?

Feasibility study

  • Draw up options and feasibility studies for variations on your plan. Assess them rigorously: economically, socially and environmentally.

You will now be ready to go on to Stage 1: Preparation and Brief.  Write yourself/selves as comprehensive a brief for your proposed practice as you can manage.

You are now on your way.

The second edition of Starting a Practice: A Plan of Work, by Simon Foxell, is published by RIBA Publishing.

 

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