Founders Diego Calderon and Dario Franchini explain how they win work for their London and Switzerland-based practice
Practice name: DFNDC
Main people: Diego Calderon & Dario Franchini
Where have you come from?
We met while studying at the Accademia in Mendrisio, Switzerland in 2005. After graduating Dario stayed in Lugano, starting his own practice after a couple of years working for a local office. I came to London to work for Jonathan Woolf and later for six years at Duggan Morris Architects. Although we come from the same school, our professional experience formed us in distinct ways. My bimonthly visits to Ticino for my PhD and his interest in London as a field for practice eventually took us to consider forming DFNDC.
What work do you have and what kind of projects are you looking for?
We are working widely across scales, mostly on the residential and housing sectors. Our smaller projects are in London at the moment comprise two private houses and an intervention to a mews house in the Primrose Hill conservation area. In Switzerland current jobs are significantly larger, with over 200 housing units on site over four different projects, and a new quarter in the cantonal capital of Bellinzona. The practice is collaborating with AZPML on the £23 million reconstruction of the Palazzo del Cinema, home to the Locarno Film Festival. Given that we are not yet immediately relatable to any sector in particular, we are looking for opportunities beyond the common.
What are your ambitions? Are there any sectors that you would like to break into?
We would like to remain able to work in several sectors rather than pigeon-holing in one or two, but we appreciate the investigative depth that can be achieved by specialism and repetition. As a general interest, we would like to work in sectors that are at a crucial stage (or crisis) in our immediate context, namely housing and the public realm. Their current instability offers a rare opportunity for a more radical approach.
What are the biggest challenges facing yourself as a start-up and the profession generally?
A big challenge is breaking through in sectors led by professional clients, with who longer-term work relationships can be established. Still, the main challenge is to manage the growth and consolidation cycle in a way that enables us to keep working within our areas of interest.
As members of a profession, I think architects should reclaim our position - which has been gradually lost to an over-fragmented disciplinary specialisation. The effects of that exaggerated need for consensus (and aversion to risk) in the age of collaboration are increasingly evident in the built environment.
How did you win your first significant job?
Most of the larger commissions have been won through competitive bids, and the most relevant public building through a joint design competition. Both of them required conveying a large amount of trust in a young practice without a proven track record. Risk is always a factor, but ingenuity can be a very positive resource.
What is your approach to winning new clients and convincing them to employ you?
At this moment most of our clients are based in Switzerland, so in London we need to resort to more traditional means for getting new clients. We try to capitalise on our different types of networks (professional, private, academic) to the absolute maximum, but this serves only as the first step. Once a lead is created, our specific skills to convey purpose and tangible potential become the key means.
Which scheme, since you started DFNDC, has inspired you most?
Our House in Hampstead was, if not our largest project, a very interesting and close collaboration with the clients. Reconfiguring the house required a deep scrutiny not only of life patterns but also aspirations and symbols. The rate at which this diminishes with scale is traditionally too high, and this is always the tension between the big and the small that interests us.
Do you have a marketing strategy?
Yes, as a start-up practice most projects come from new clients and they need to be reached out to. Although we don’t employ a specialist on the matter, we dedicate significant time and resources to looking for the right clients and the communication strategy for it. On the other hand, our in-house graphic designer ensures that exchanges of information of every kind and medium conform to the practice identity, aiming for a consolidated image that will increasingly become recognisable.
What does success look like for DFNDC over the next few years?
We would like to gradually equalise the workload between the UK and Switzerland, while keeping the distinct character of each group and thus remaining a positive coalition. An early sign of success will come when the first completed buildings begin to speak about the practice, without words.