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New practice Assorted Skills + Talents*: ‘The profession is at a turning point’

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The latest in a series of practice profiles looking at architects who have recently decided to go it alone

Practice name Assorted Skills + Talents* (AST*)

Where are you based? Manchester and London

Founded July 2017

Main people Chris Boyce, founder; Claire Lewis‐Smith, director; and Duncan Hammond, design director; plus three team members – Jan Kuttnner, Daniel Crossland and Paul Nelson.

Where have you come from?
In 1997 Chris worked for the office of James Stirling, Michael Wilford & Partners, which was dissolved after Michael Wilford retired. The many talented staff who worked in the studio on Fitzroy Square spread out across many major practices. He spent the next 20 years in large practices, working for Aedas, and then for Capita ESA with design director Duncan, employing many highly capable and skilled people. AST* was set up to bring those members of our team back into one practice.

Our people are what makes us unique. All the AST* team members come from Capita ESA, CJCT, BuckleyGrayYeoman and John Roberts Associates, coming back together with Chris to create a highly experienced team with broad typology experience.

What work do you have and what kind of projects are you looking for?
We are currently working on planning-stage designs for over 1,200 build-to-rent apartments spread across the country from Essex to Yorkshire. So our core work right now is residential, but we are experienced across many typologies, from office to education, transport to civic.

We won a competition in October 2017 to renovate a historic 1920 Arts & Crafts rowing club on the Thames, The Quintin Boat Club, and to design a new rowing facility alongside it. We are now working on a significant new multi-sport facility as part of a wider masterplan for the Quintin Hogg Trust’s historic site at Chiswick.

Architecture is just part of our role in the property cycle, and as well as being a design-focused creative practice, we are interested in the process of commercial and strategic estate and asset planning, maximising social, community, educational, as well as economic values. We are also advocates of RIBA stage 0 and 7 and want to work with clients who seek guidance in building their brief, or better understanding their assets in use.

We have a broad network of clients and our work will speak for itself.

Aj image 6 qbc vision 2020

The Quintin Boat Club vision 2020

The Quintin Boat Club vision 2020

What are your ambitions?
We currently have six people across two small offices, and we intend to grow slowly to suit work won.

We want to create a lean, sustainable practice, with a diverse portfolio of projects. We are digitally nomadic and VR/BIM capable, so our working practices encompass new ways of communicating and sharing our ideas with each other and our clients. This means we can smart resource to win work from either office anywhere in the UK and Europe.

This year’s ‘work-winning’ focus is on build-to-rent and higher education in London and the regional cities of Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham. However, we are keen to break back into London West End workplace, high-end residential and office design.

We’ve a soft spot for primary schools, having designed St Silas as a team in 2013 at Capita, where we won our first RIBA National award. The school was shortlisted in April 2018 by a BBC public vote as one of Lancashire’s Building’s of the Decade, which made us all proud as the school is part of our DNA.

We want to be known as imaginative, commercially sensible and able to respond to any brief, our background with larger, land‐owning clients has led to a very good understanding of strategic (sometimes non‐architectural) advice about utilisation, infrastructure and change management.

We are about to set up an interiors team and to develop new FM software to work with the complex data models we are generating as a service post-occupation, we see ourselves as architects but also as a digital consultancy. We feel there is a space for us long before the building is designed and long after it’s occupied and in use.

We want to make a real difference to the places we impact on, the cities and towns we design within, and the people who come to use the buildings we build.

At heart, we are designers and we work in pen and pencil first; we love material adventures, and challenge how simple materials can be used or deployed. We will always use controlled innovation for a better result, and look for simple, clear ideas in our work.

Aj image 8 st silas from st silas church riba national award 2013 nick gutteridge

Capita Symonds’ St Silas Church of England Primary School in Blackburn

Source: Nick Gutteridge

Capita Symonds’ St Silas Church of England Primary School in Blackburn

What are the biggest challenges facing yourself as a start‐up and the profession generally?

The big challenge for us was addressing the large scale of the work our clients needed us to undertake, from a standing start.

It took us three months to become a solid business, and we are developing the QA processes and methods of working that learn from the work we have previously undertaken over our professional careers in order to give our clients maximum trust in the work we produce.

As a start‐up we didn’t borrow money, so have no debt; but we need to win new work monthly to stay profitable, allowing us to reinvest in the tech we use and develop our processes to generate better designs, which then wins us the next great client.

We have had help along the way from some key mentors, Jeffrey Bell in Manchester, Tony Williams (ex-Aedas global partner) in Birmingham have both given us the benefit of their knowledge, as well as having start up strategic business advice from former colleague Martin King of Urban Green in Manchester.

We feel the profession is at a turning point in terms of how we create, communicate and prove our work to all clients, how we express the narrative of our work, how we tell our client’s story.

The wider use of BIM processes in design – which we first developed in 2010 at Capita – has taken us on a journey that means the ‘drawing’, while important, is simply a frozen moment in the birth of a project model. We have refined how we input, design, interrogate and extract data from our models to really push the BIM programme and challenge other disciplines, as well as refining our graphics to show off our buildings ‘virtually’ right up to and beyond RIBA stages 5-6.

We have fully adopted and work with VR/AR to enable us to use technology to explore our work in depth; we also craft physical prototypes with 3D printing or edit using VR headsets in live working models.

Which scheme, completed in the last five years, has inspired you most?
Blackburn meadows Bio Mass plant in Sheffield by BDP for its wow factor; the work of Duggan Morris at Alfriston School; or Architecture 00’s Foundry appeal in their material simplicity and crafted approach that Claire and Chris have as former students at the Bartlett and Glasgow School of Art.

How are you marketing yourselves?
We use social media platforms for fun really, but as 2019 progresses will develop a new website and targeted messages via various platforms. We certainly believe in the brand power, and Chris named us to be a flexible company, directly linked to the value we place on skills and people as well as being good designers.

The main push in getting seen and heard is Chris’s constant movement across the UK into and out of networking groups, events, dinners, conferences, reviewing at schools of architecture (Manchester/Salford/Bartlett) and meeting new clients weekly.

Chris and Claire both attended MIPIM 2018 and had a great week meeting new people, we already have some project leads directly as a result. Chris will be attending the preview showing of The Venice Biennale to network with our future peers as we hope to form collaborations on larger projects with other like-minded firms.

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