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New practice Fieldwork: ‘The prerequisites in some public tenders make them impossible’

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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 Fieldwork Architects
Based Old Paradise Yard, Waterloo, London
Founded Winter 2018
Main people Tim Gibbons and James Owen

Where have you come from?
We met in 2014 while at Foster + Partners and left independently to work at other practices before joining forces in 2018. 

Tim was at Fosters for six years, becoming an associate and leading teams on a range of projects internationally, including the design and construction of a private dwelling for Norman Foster in the USA. He went onto join Mailen Design before starting Fieldwork.

James has worked for a number of practices, including Fosters, Pollard Thomas Edwards and Harper Downie. This involved working with high-profile clients across a range of sectors, including the UK’s largest restoration project and complex development sites to a wide range of community-focused schemes. 

Working at both large and small-scale practices has broadened our knowledge of design and business in practice, while highlighting the possibilities of how these can be best implemented. Our aim for Fieldwork is to use this broad skillset to explore and interrogate design that is underpinned by a pragmatism.

What work do you have and what kind of projects are you looking for?
As with many new practices, most of our work consists of private residential projects. We’re fortunate in that our client base tends to be very design-focused, often being designers, actors or musicians. They have been engaged with the design process from start to finish. 

This is evident on a large renovation project to Henry Moore’s original studio in Belsize Park. It’s a fantastic project to be involved in, but not without its challenges, due to the complex nature of the site. The project has involved a careful balance between the inherent influences of the previous and current owners, which have been combined to create unique design elements using raw materials and natural light.

We’re expanding our work base beyond conventional architecture

We are also involved in more community-led schemes, one being a large masterplan with a mix of prefabricated housing typologies and also a zero-carbon co-housing development. Past experience has been invaluable in driving these schemes in the correct way from a project strategy perspective and a design approach.

We’re starting to move our attention to the public realm to expand our work base beyond conventional architecture. This involves a collaboration with the small foundation on the development and construction of a series of temporary shelters. Formed with plastic waste, BottleHouse was displayed at last year’s TED London and CDW 2019. Springing from this, we’ve recently been commissioned to design and manage the build of the new Talk Space Pavilion within Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, for Clerkenwell Design Week 2020.

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Bottlehouse for small.® foundation at te Clerkenwell Design Week

Source: Peter Landers

Bottlehouse for small.® foundation at te Clerkenwell Design Week

Another side project focuses on new concepts for assisted mobility for people with disabilities – an area we feel particularly strongly about.

What are your ambitions?
We understand the responsibility architecture has towards solving some of the socio-economic and environmental challenges we face today and in the future. Therefore, as we grow, our goal is to help to tackle these bigger issues; whether this is focusing on improving the way a family use their home, the accessibility of public spaces, or looking at these more holistically on a larger scale. The best way this can be achieved for us is through a medium-sized practice where we can personally remain involved in the design and delivery of the projects.

It’s important to us that an office environment feels collaborative; where the opinion of everyone involved is given equal consideration.

What are the biggest challenges facing yourself as a start-up and the profession generally?
Gauging fees and client expectations. A client can always find someone to do the job cheaper and, as a start-up, our pitch always begins with explaining to clients the true value a full architectural service can bring to the project. Therefore, it seems that the bigger challenge is that the role of the architect is becoming increasingly undervalued, with work that an architect is well trained in being outsourced to other consultants or the benefits of a considered design approach not being recognised.

Working on both sensitive sites in London and masterplans in rural areas, we understand the need to respect heritage, the sensitivity of the context and the surrounding community, while also striking a balance with progressive ideas in architecture.

It is a very crowded marketplace for a new ‘young practice’ in London 

To achieve better quality architecture, clients need to be better informed of the positive benefits an architect can bring to the brief and an improvement in the design expertise within the planning system. There’s an opportunity for architects to be placed at the forefront of design decisions and offer design expertise to help tackle issues like improving the quality of housing delivered. This could be by way of assisting local councils with improved design codes and mandatory design reviews by councils. By instilling more confidence in the profession and outsourcing our own expertise, architect’s can improve the built environment and change the public’s perception of the profession for the better.

As a new young practice in London, we are in a very crowded and competitive market place and you have to be careful not to be obsessed with following the trends or indeed get too absorbed with setting them yourselves. We try to focus on ourselves and our own approach. If we can deliver well-considered, successful projects with happy clients, keep the practice growing and our mortgages paid, then that’s a good start.

If we’re recognised for our design credentials along the way, then that’s a bonus.

Which scheme, completed in the last five years, has inspired you most?
The Red House by 31/44 is a great example of an architect taking a sensitive site and making an impact. This is achieved in the use of space and light internally and the material approach to the elevation, with the precast homage to traditional Victorian patterns and terrace form externally. The integration of the design concept is clear and 31/44 as a practice appear to have a considered, yet highly creative, approach to their work, which is reassuring and inspiring.

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The Red House by 31/44

The Red House by 31/44

How are you marketing yourselves?
Without the spare budget to promote our USP and marketing strategy in the first year, it’s difficult. Unless you are particularly social media savvy (which we’re not) or you have a particular sector to target, you have to be flexible and adapt to the work that comes your way. Most work comes via recommendation – in a packed marketplace with too many options to choose from, a positive recommendation goes a long way.

Designing and delivering the projects we currently have, in the best way we can, is our main focus at this stage. The marketing of these projects will hopefully be worth the investment further down the line.

The architect’s role is becoming increasingly undervalued

The admin and prerequisites in some open competitions or public tenders make them impossible. Fee-paying jobs need the focus required to keep clients happy and maintain cash flow but, if a competition is something of real interest or something we would want to market regardless of the result, then it is worth the time. As architects, we give a lot of ideas away for free, so ensuring there is some marketing value gained in the invested time is important.

We’ve found that being involved in events within the design community can act as a springboard to gain exposure via public events or competitions.

We’ve lectured and taught at architecture schools and talked at events when asked to do so in order to expand our contacts and let people know we exist. Being proactive and open in our involvement with others is important to us as you never know what it might lead to.

www.fieldworkarchitects.co.uk

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