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New practice Southgate & Sarabia: ‘MIPIM was our launchpad – we made friends at every corner’

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

Practice name Southgate & Sarabia Architects
Based Manchester
Founded February 2019 (launched at MIPIM March 2019)
Main people Darren Southgate and Natalie Sarabia-Johnston, Architects

Where have you come from? Having studied at Sheffield University, Darren began at HLM in Sheffield before joining Bond Bryan where he became a main board director pioneering. With 25 years under his belt, Darren approached Natalie to join him in a new independent venture. Natalie, with 28 years in the industry, had been running her own business Architecture ID. Before that she’d spent seven years at Atkins and two at Capita. Since studying architecture at Leeds, Natalie also has a keen interest in supporting the profession’s new and emerging talent, and has lectured for the last 17 years and is currently a Part 3 examiner.

What work do you have and what kind of projects are you looking for? 
Schemes range from modular housing with a northern region’s developer; regeneration, masterplanning and housing at Wigan Pier with Step Group; heritage and conservation with the National Trust; a masterplan for Harrogate Hospital; advisory with the University of Strathclyde; National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS) and Advanced Manufacturing delegation to West Virginia US, a boutique hotel in the East Midlands, some design management consulting on DfE schools development for Interserve and bid-writing for Morgan Sindall. It’s hard to believe we’re only four months in business!

We’re looking for clients who have a passion for design, who want to pioneer and regenerate and who have a fair and collaborative approach to business. We’re looking for projects across a spectrum from highly technical and feature automation and process building through to heritage projects that need immense care, sensitivity and attention.

Two projects that demonstrate the breadth of our expertise and have been keeping us busy recently are the Wigan Pier masterplan and housing, and a 3D-printed factory in the US.

Wigan Pier represents a very nice balance of old and new, regeneration and links to technology and forward-thinking construction practices in one site. These regeneration type projects are in our DNA.

At the other end of the spectrum, Advanced manufacturing is one of our strengths, allied to university research type projects. Taking the very latest technology and either applying to buildings or housing technology in a building really gives us a buzz.

What are your ambitions?
Our vision is to pioneer amazing architecture through passion and co-creation.

Our ambition is very, very simple: succeed. Succeed for our clients in inspiring what their future projects can deliver for these changing scenarios and be recognised for being ahead in our thinking. Succeed for the people who will use and enjoy our buildings both now and, crucially, for future generations. Succeed for our business in being proud of our team and what we achieve together as a practice and being recognised as a great place to work with kudos.

Our ambition is very, very simple. Succeed 

The sound of our office buzzing will be a measure. Creating a legacy with our clients is the sweet spot.

We’re using our well-established networks to bring expertise into our business model early with an ambition to have a solid team of 10 within year one, based in our head office in Manchester, rising to 20 in year two, with similar-sized satellite offices in both Sheffield and Leeds. 

Jan, our head of BIM joins us this month and we have contracted with five more talented individuals to head up interiors, graphics, landscaping and technical. We are also welcoming a new director who will lead on research plus two non-executive directors to our board who will share their operational and business acumen to help us build a strong business.

What are the biggest challenges facing yourself as a start-up and the profession generally?
With any challenge there is always an opportunity to innovate or find a new way.

Having been a board director of a previous firm, Darren has faced many of the industry challenges such as stop/start on projects which makes revenue projection and resource-planning difficult to forecast. He has also experienced competitors undercutting on fees to secure business, which actually damages the profession overall, shrinking the market and undervaluing a highly skilled profession.

Natalie, having run her own business for a number of years, has had to meet the challenges of business legislation – such as GDPR and employment law – which can distract any start-up from ts core business function. Just setting up insurance, for example, requires a huge amount of tenacity, detail and savvy.

We’ve been very lucky that a very special client has given us some sound advice and has offered to be a business mentor – they also pay the invoices upon receipt which is always welcome, when cash is key. 

Which scheme, completed in the last five years, has inspired you most?
Darren: The Tate Modern Extension, a gutsy intervention very powerful and perfectly poised against the original industrial power station architecture. Its use of form, brick detailing and the observatory level makes this building sing for me. The simple interior and volumetrics formed give a subtle balance to the external power, which again plays to something of the original building.

Shutterstock mies van der rohe barcelona pavilion

Shutterstock mies van der rohe barcelona pavilion

Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion

Natalie: Mies van der Rohe is my favourite. I love the simplicity of lines and seamless details of the Barcelona Pavilion. I want to turn this on its head and think about what could be after the tragic fire at Notre Dame, what new designs will emerge from this disaster. My father, a wood sculptor, helped restore Windsor Castle and York Cathedral after fire devastated these wonderful buildings. I hope something magical and artistic comes from the ashes, a symbol of our age.’

How are you marketing yourselves?
Well the opportunity to get some profile in Architects’ Journal is great! But other than that….

MIPIM earlier this year was our launch pad….we wined and dined and talked and made new friends at every corner. It was fabulous. Plus we invested in some beautifully printed business cards…an often under-rated marketing tool in the digital age, but after only a month in business we’d run out of our first batch of 300.

It can be a huge distraction getting too hung up on a name and brand

Within our friends network we have many skilled creatives and we worked with ex-Saatchi designer Paul Smith, to create a distinctive and confident start for us. Then we focused on building a website that would act as a professional window to our business. We’ve used a Wordshop template which we think looks super slick and means we can make edits ourselves without racking up costs.

Having each spent more than 25 years each on the architectural circuit, between us we have thousands of contacts and that is probably the most valuable marketing asset any new start-up can have. 

An article Darren wrote about a two-day design charrette for the new NMIS project in Glasgow clocked up 1,242 views in two days on LinkedIn. For any new start-up that’s the best value marketing. 

www.southgate-sarabia.co.uk | info@southgate-sarabia.co.uk 

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