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Exclusive: Foster + Partners eyes future move into UK social housing sector

Norman Foster HR crop use
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Foster + Partners has revealed it has long-term goals to design social housing after topping the AJ100 leaderboard for the eighth year running

In an interview with the AJ, the UK’s largest practice said that public housing was ‘absolutely’ a future target area to move into.

Fosters’ managing partner Matthew Streets said: ‘Nearly every architect tries to crack that problem and it is difficult to do that sustainably, economically, and aesthetically at the same time.’

The company has looked at masterplans for new towns and cities abroad, and Streets thinks a housing ‘breakthrough’ overseas could be the best route to success with public housing at home, where, he says, challenges include a construction industry with set ways of working.

Seeking success overseas first would be the logical approach for a practice that enjoys huge global demand but, by Streets’ own admission, finds the UK ‘tougher’ and more competitive.

During 2018, fees for Fosters’ UK projects fell slightly from £20 million to £18.8 million.

However, this only represents around 10 per cent of the practice’s total architectural fees, which rose from £164 million to £185 million following robust performances in its core markets of Asia (‘not just China’), the Middle East and North America.

In the past few years, Fosters has held the AJ100 top spot despite shedding staff. But an increase in architects employed at its Battersea HQ, from 353 in 2017 to 362 in 2018, means that, although the gap is narrowing, there is still plenty of clear water separating it from its nearest rival, the growing interdisciplinary practice BDP.

The firm opened an office in Sydney off the back of projects such as the city’s new metro system, and is also opening an outpost in Shenzhen, China. There was less success in Latin America, where it closed its Brazil branch, blaming an ‘incredibly difficult’ economic climate. The scrapping of its Mexico City airport proposal after it was rejected in a national referendum is also likely to spell the end for its office there, though Streets says it ‘hasn’t given up yet’.

‘These ups and downs in local markets can be easily navigated because of the practice’s ‘global footprint’, explains Streets. ‘Unless there is worldwide recession, typically at any point an economy or country might be down but another will be up and we can balance and redeploy in the light of that.’

Fosters’ willingness to adapt became apparent last year when the practice announced it was considering uprooting itself from the UK because of Brexit.

Is a move still on the cards? ‘That keeps cropping up in a B-for-boring kind of way,’ says Streets. The firm wants to remain in London if it can, he affirms, but still has ‘contingency plans’ to move.

If there is a silver lining to Brexit, which Streets argues has needlessly damaged the UK ‘and continues to do so’, it is that through negotiations over the deal, politicians and the civil service have learned a lot more about the architecture sector. But there is still a need for more clarity, he adds.

Another priority area, according to Streets, is sustainability and climate change, where ‘everybody’ – by which he means the government, the profession and individuals – must take inspiration from 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. ‘It falls to us all to push it further up the agenda.’ 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Back when Norman Foster was a young whippersnapper in Manchester the pioneering work of Walter Segal in developing minimalist self-build very low cost housing was becoming recognised - although his radical ideas don't seem to have germinated as widely in Britain as they have in mainland Europe.
    Foster and Segal might seem to be at opposite ends of the design spectrum, but when it comes to social housing (and sustainability) Norman will hopefully be singing from the same hymn sheet as Walter.

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