Justin Nicholls, one of the founders of Make, explains why his new venture wants to be at the forefront of the digital manufacturing revolution
Practice name: Fathom Architects
Founded: May 2016
Main people: Founding partners - architect Justin Nicholls and creative producer Tom Shard
Where have you come from?
Justin’s architectural career began with 11 years at Foster + Partners working on projects including Beijing International Airport. Justin left in 2004 to become a founding partner of Make, where he led a team focused on heritage, residential and higher education for 12 years, delivering high-profile projects such as Grosvenor Waterside, St James’s Market and six research buildings for the University of Oxford.
Tom has worked as a creative producer for more than 20 years in the film and TV industries, and establishes ‘a strong studio ethos which encourages research, interdependency and collaboration’. We’ve also welcomed our first two members to the practice - Huma Mohyuddin and Oliver James.
What work do you have and what kind of projects are you looking for?
Projects in heritage areas and sensitive sites in London, Oxford and the south of England. Complex briefs interest us - we love the chance to get to the physical and cultural essence of a site. Our collaborative research-led approach isn’t particular to a type of architecture - we have experience with residential, higher education, office and cultural uses, so we’d like to establish a broad portfolio. We’re working with universities supporting research projects as well as competitions.
We have some exciting projects on the drawing board. We can’t say too much about them now but hope to share them with you soon.
Fathom office concept
What are your ambitions?
We love the London Bridge area (where we are currently based) and hope to find space in Bermondsey Street - we love the creative vibe and the fact we are still only a few minutes from the West End and the City.
Our studio culture is crucial. Tom leads this and he’ll be bringing the creative spirit of the film world to the practice. A collaborative workshop feel allows us to engage with research into materials and processes, testing ideas before we apply them to projects. We’d like clients and collaborators to have fun working with us - a friendly, human approach is how we do business.
In a fast-growing digital world, innovative materials and efficient construction techniques are becoming increasingly important. We’d like to develop this alongside our strong contextual sensibility, embracing technology while building a reputation for creating beautiful, rigorous architecture which relates to people and place.
What are the biggest challenges you are facing?
In a start-up, everything’s a challenge. But that’s why we’re doing it - it creates opportunities to question everything we do and hopefully improve it. And that’s exciting. At the outset we need to make sure we are utilising the skills we have at our disposal - Fathom is creating a diverse team of talent and our job is to ensure we are using it effectively. As a small practice we need to ensure we have the right people to deliver projects as they become live, and be nimble and adaptive when things change.
The digital manufacturing revolution is well under way with people such as Boeing and Google digitally producing jet engine parts, electronic components and 3D woven fabrics. Our industry substantially lags behind these and we want to be at the forefront of addressing this
BIM is a big issue for architecture and construction - as a start-up this is an opportunity for us, as we don’t have the baggage more established practices have in changing existing ways of working. However we need to go beyond BIM. We plan to combine expertise from groups such as the Bartlett’s world-leading digital fabrication researchers with our knowledge gained from delivering buildings with leading off-site manufacturers, including GIG Fassaden, Techrete, NDM, Stewart Milne Timber Systems, Caledonian Modular and WeberHaus.
Which scheme, completed in the last five years, are you most proud of?
St James’s Market is a project Justin led at Make for the last six years. This 261,000ft² flagship development by the Crown Estate and Oxford Properties involved redeveloping two urban blocks between Regent Street St James’s and Haymarket, and pedestrianising two roads, creating a new public space. It’s a real place-making exercise which combines global business, world-class dining and flagship retail right in the historic core of Westminster. Its contemporary appearance delicately balances the richness of St James’s with refined but pragmatic construction methods.
How are you marketing yourselves?
Our first project has been our brand. We collaborated with excellent brand agency dn&co who Justin had worked with through the Crown Estate. They established our name, Fathom Architects, which we feel communicates everything important to our approach and work, and our wider brand identity. This name plays with two meanings of the word ‘fathom’: as a human-scale unit used to measure depth, and the deeper understanding of a difficult problem after much thought.
From the outset we didn’t want to show projects delivered at previous practices, and so dn&co worked to create a bold reductive visual strategy to provide a strong platform for our approach.
The architectural and design press have been very supportive of us as a small business, and we’re using social media to share news about Fathom. This provides a great platform to build upon our personal relationships. So after a long time planning, we’re really enjoying meeting up with clients and consultants to finally tell them what we’re up to!