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New practice Jas Bhalla Architects: ‘I was a planner before becoming an architect’

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A graduate of the Bartlett’s planning school and a Fulbright Scholar at Yale, Jas Bhalla is looking to use his comprehensive knowledge of the planning process to grow his practice

  • Practice name Jas Bhalla Architects 
  • Based Greenwich, south-east London
  • Founded November 2017
  • Main people Jas Bhalla, architect, town planner and urban designer 

Where have you come from?
Before setting up on my own practice I worked at KPF Architects for a few years and before that at Adjaye Associates. At both I was fortunate to work on a range of project types and scales, including the conceptual design and delivery of a few complex mixed used projects in London.

Unusually, I trained and worked as a planner before becoming an architect. After graduating from the Bartlett’s planning school, I worked at several urban design and master planning firms, including Urban Practitioners (now part of Allies and Morrison). A few years into my career as planner I won a Fulbright Scholarship to study Architecture at Yale. I established my practice as the synthesis of these two distinct parts of my career.

What work do you have and what kind of projects are you looking for?
We’ve been involved with an incredibly broad range of projects. At the urban scale, we are part of a multi-disciplinary team leading the design and promotion of a potential new settlement in Bedfordshire. We also just submitted a planning application for 150 new homes in Somerset and have been appointed to draw up a masterplan for a further 350 homes and community facilities on adjacent land.

Alongside this we have been appointed to design several extensions and refurbishments and are looking forward to breaking ground on two of these later this year. Given the commercial nature of the projects I previously undertook, transitioning to a more intimate scale required an initial period of adjustment. I have consciously sought to utilise the skills I developed in practice, including the use of BIM models built around point cloud data. We’ve found using 3D models has helped communicate architectural ideas to clients who may not be comfortable reading plans.

Unusually, I trained and worked as a planner before becoming an architect

In the immediate future, we are looking to capitalise on our expertise in designing individual houses, housing, and placemaking. There seems to be increasing political emphasis on increasing the quantum, quality and diversity of housing stock; I think an emerging interdisciplinary practice like ours, with knowledge across architecture and planning, can add a lot of value to these types of projects.

What are your ambitions?
Many of our projects to date have been concerned with housing and domestic spaces. We are keen to broaden this to include work in other sectors, especially those within the public realm, and to increase our client base to include local authorities, community land trusts and social enterprises.

I firmly believe inspiring buildings and spaces shouldn’t be the preserve of those with means and would love to demonstrate this through projects that elevate and inspire within challenging contexts. Perhaps it’s because of my background as a planner, but I have an underlying interest in background buildings, generating moments of interest in otherwise ordinary environments.

As someone who is captivated by cities and how they work, I am keen to ensure our work is underpinned by research into what makes a place successful in social and economic terms. It’s only possible to deliver enduring architecture if you are building in the right places. In previous roles I worked extensively on urban policy documents and it would be great to collaborate with planning departments, government agencies and think-tanks again in the future.

What are the biggest challenges facing yourself as a start-up and the profession generally?
We have worked with some very large developers and hope to collaborate with one or two of them on an on-going basis. Nurturing this relationship wasn’t easy, as established clients tend to be risk-averse, often preferring to work with architects who boast an extensive portfolio.

Demonstrating a comprehensive knowledge of the planning process was a useful way to overcome this, as was stressing some of the benefits of a smaller practice with a ‘start-up mentality’.

As many others have suggested, bidding for public work remains a consistent challenge. While there is a clear appetite amongst public sector organisations to collaborate with small practices, the tender and bidding process remains onerous.

The best advice I’ve had is to avoid the destructive cycle of ‘feast or famine’ by constantly developing the business, even when we are inundated with work. I see maintaining a diverse work stream across a range of sectors as a critical part of navigating the ups and downs of architectural practice. 

Which scheme, completed in the past five years, has inspired you most?
Peter Barber’s Moray Mews is an incredibly smart response to a heavily constrained site. The scheme’s massing is very well calibrated, creating a series of intimate semi-private courtyards and terraces along a cobbled public street. It demonstrates a deep understanding of domesticity and how residents are likely to inhabit space and interact with each other.

How are you marketing yourselves?
A lot of work has come through previous colleagues and contacts, as well as word-of-mouth recommendations. The practice is active on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn, which are great platforms for forging new relationships. I try to attend networking events beyond those specially aimed at the architecture community; being a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute has been very useful in this regard. Finally, I regularly write articles to demonstrate an insight into the wider forces that shape architecture, such land value, infrastructure and the planning system.

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