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New practice ThirdWay Architecture: ‘We’re a collection of misfits’

Thirdway architecture profile
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The latest in a series of practice profiles looking at those who have recently decided to set up their own architectural outfits

Practice name ThirdWay Architecture
Based Old Street, London
Founded June 2017
Main people Petr Esposito and Liam Spencer of Thirdway Architecture Liam Spencer

Where have you come from? 

Petr Esposito We met at MATT Architecture but have widely different routes to architecture; happily, neither of us played with Lego at aged 5 and had an epiphany…

Liam Spencer We both realised early on that architecture was a fantastic platform and industry to make the most of our certainly varied skillset, talents and ambitions. At the root of everything is a shared work ethos…

PE … and a genuine belief that we can move past some pretty archaic processes to find new outcomes and better ideas. We didn’t want to be 40 starting a new ‘young’ practice, and while that certainly comes with its own challenges, our drive and exuberance to produce important work closely alongside some great clients led us to set up.

LS It’s been great to see it grow alongside us too, I mean it’s certainly not just about us two. We would have missed the point if that was the case. We are lucky to have a fantastic studio of architects and designers from fantastic backgrounds: Gensler, Arup, dMFK, Piercy + Co, Foster + Partners, KPF, Bennetts etc. In some ways, we’re a collection of ‘misfits’ determined to find an alternative way to designing and procuring architecture.

What work do you have and what kind of projects are you looking for?
PE
 While we like to think of ourselves as workplace specialists alongside the wider ThirdWay Group, we certainly have a varied portfolio of projects already spanning from a 1,000 sq ft rough-and-ready pop-up with Landsec, through to extensions and refurbs of world heritage and listed buildings.

In some ways this variation in portfolio, but also team and client base, speaks to a manifesto not so much based on set rules or styles, but on a keen interest in creating a great product through a clear and exciting process.

LS I often make the point that we are great designers, but even better story-tellers, which in some senses is exactly that process. To a client there are stories to be told about understanding the vision for a building, or commercial narratives, while one would hope that planning officers and design review panels are certainly interested in my carefully woven historical analogy! Another part of it is how much we like working with existing buildings, not that we are necessarily averse to new-builds, just more that particularly in London there are so many great buildings that have potential waiting to be unlocked, and often that it is in the most simple of ways: a facelift, a rebranding, a bit of pushing and pulling here and there.

PE As a young practice, we’re always eager to expand our contact base and build relationships, and while design contests and competitions are always interesting, we really thrive on the ability to develop personal and longstanding commitments to our clients and with that, work closely with them to unlock great projects.

What are your ambitions?
PE
 We certainly don’t have an ambition on size of practice any more, as our idea of maybe hiring a couple of people in the first year was a touch under ambitious. We’re now a team of 21 and excited to be flexible and growing organically based on the traction and level of belief we have invested from our clients so far.

LS Starting life in a former meeting room/small glass box as a two-man practice, we certainly didn’t imagine the velocity of it all but the most important point we have come to learn is to maintain an enjoyment in the process. We certainly share a common architectural ambition to leave the environment in a better place than when we found it. I suppose our twist on it is to consider if it can be done better and if it can be done quicker than before? Architecture is slow, and we’re not sure it needs to be.

Architecture is slow, and we’re not sure it needs to be

PE The City Fringe is our home and I imagine we’ll have a long life here ahead of us, if the frills, spills, and frivolity of this area so far is anything to go by. As a practice we enjoy employing young, vibrant, energetic architects and designers and giving them a platform to design spaces from the best superloo you have ever seen to a complete 27, 870m² campus office; doing away with what we can of traditional hierarchy and playing with the norms to find new ways of delivering quality architecture that a 40-year-old practice would be proud of/dream of/laugh at/grimace at.

LS I guess in one line: the ambition is to deliver great architecture, and have a great time doing it.

What are the biggest challenges facing yourself as a start-up and the profession generally?
LS
 The biggest challenge is holding on to the ideas we set out at the start. We’re both young and know what we don’t like about ‘traditional’ architecture and ‘traditional’ architecture practices. It’s too easy to fall in line and play it safe…

PE It’s way too easy to fall back on the typical, the ‘way it’s always been’ and revert to a system that’s warm and cuddly. Our team is a collection of exemplary architects and designers from companies we aspire to be recognised alongside, and we are most definitely not ashamed of striving to be better by finding another way to take a product to market. I mean the fact that neither you or I are ARB registered despite years of education and degrees between us could have been a stumbling block, but by surrounding ourselves with fantastically talented architects allows us to be slightly more provocative with ways of working and processes.

Every client is getting that ‘A-Team’ small practice experience

LS We have a clear strategy and turnkey solution as part of a wider cross-industry group that’s appealing to the commercial market, and allows us to design and deliver spaces that a young practice wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to even look at. By setting up the studio with a genuine belief that each person has a leading role on the project, every client is getting that ‘A-Team’ small practice experience even with a company of 21 people and growing…

PE Reverting to the norm would suggest a one-man-band lead with our surname adorning each letterhead, sheet title, and oddly abstracted e-mailed Christmas card. We live by the principles of the ThirdWay Group, an eclectic cross-section of people enjoying the work, challenging each other, sharing the successes but also the failures.

LS That was certainly our biggest and hardest hitting piece of advice, in that failures whether large or small will occur. It’s how they are handled, learnt from and avoided that reflects most on a growing practice. I would like to think we have stripped a lot of the ego back in our approach and try to apply this open-mindedness and reflexive attitude even before they occur - that way the process just becomes a great deal more conversational rather than confrontational.

Which scheme, completed in the last five years, has inspired you most?
LS
 We are both huge fans of Turnmill by Derwent and Piercy & Co for a number of reasons. Primarily it sets a fantastic and Pinterest-able visual benchmark for using rich material in commercial buildings, but at a more ‘principles and process’-based level, it shows that shared belief between a client and practice in pushing and testing certainly pays off in the end. In fact, a number of Derwent schemes are exemplars at this.

PE For me, I would say the housing development opposite my house as it demonstrates a wonderful ability in inanity, a divine divorce from even the basic principles in architecture in the worst possible way and therefore demonstrating a wonderful window to do better, not just for us, but for all young practices. But for the building that inspires as much as we aspire to deliver, it’s 53 Great Suffolk by Hawkins\Brown.

hawkins brown 01 53 Great Suffolk Street  C  Tim Crocker

Great Suffolk Street by Hawkins\Brown

Source: Tim Crocker

Great Suffolk Street by Hawkins\Brown

How are you marketing yourselves?
PE
 We spend a lot of our time going to meet prospective clients for informal chats, building that awareness of the company and what we might offer and how we can add value.

Appointments take a while – it can be a year before an initial pitch turns into a full commission

The biggest thing we have learnt is that appointments take a while, and sometimes it can be a year before an initial pitch turns into a full commission, so a lot of gentle pokes via text, e-mail, phone calls all form part of our marketing strategy…

LS … and we do love to host parties.

Website address: www.thirdwayarchitecture.com

Email: hello@thirdwayarchitecture.com

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