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Q&A with David Miller: ‘Being a small practice is something to celebrate’

Dma david miller headshot
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Ahead of the RIBA’s Guerrilla Tactics conference next week, creative director David Miller shares his tips to create a thriving small practice – and explains how his practice has harnessed technology to stand out from the crowd

Tell us a bit about the evolution of your practice, David Miller Architects.

We started out as a very small practice in the mid-2000s and have steadily grown to a team of 20. We work on a wide range of projects, many of which are in housing and education, and we tend to compete with much larger practices for work.

Early on, we realised that we needed to find ways to make ourselves more competitive. As designers, we can add considerable value through our ideas, but the time expended communicating these ideas can erode that value, and our fee. We believed that by embracing advanced digital design as a means of streamlining the way we work, we could be more efficient.

We are using technology-led solutions to solve tricky problems around design, and programme and budget too

An unanticipated benefit is that it has also allowed us offer something more, whether it’s assessing the viability of developments at an early stage or using technology to help with the conservation of historic buildings. In all our projects, we are using technology-led solutions to solve tricky problems around design and often programme and budget, too.

Our office set up reflects our working approach too, which is based on transparency, openness and collaboration. We all work around a single long desk that runs the length of the office and there is a 30m magnetic white board running alongside interspersed with interactive projectors that give views into the computers. This encourages knowledge sharing and peer-to-peer learning which allows the team to learn quickly and progress their roles in the office.

David miller architects index

David miller architects index

David Miller Architects’ revamped Lord’s Cricket Ground Media Centre

Is now a good time to run a small practice?

We are finding that the ability to change and adapt ways of working is essential, especially in times of economic uncertainty (of which we’ve been through a few!). Being small is something to celebrate. Large companies can often be seen to stick with one type of money-generating formula, applying tried-and-tested methodology that they know works, but which inherently has a shelf life. Being smaller gives us the flexibility to adapt and change to evolving markets and client needs. This gives us a better understanding of our practice’s strengths and what we might be able to offer clients that no one else can.

What do small practices need to do in order to be successful in the current market?

We need to innovate and inspire. The adaptability and agility that comes with a small team helps us to innovate in the way we practice, giving us a head start in our current fiercely competitive market. It’s actually a good time to invest in the team through training and skills development, nurturing talent and building strength from within.

We have also developed a shared vision and business plan within the practice – something that is also easier as a small practice as there are fewer parties to convince – and this helps to keeps us focused. However it’s important that the plan allows for flexibility so that it can be easily adapted as the environment changes.

David Miller Architects Wood Vale housing

David Miller Architects Wood Vale housing

David Miller Architects’ Wood Vale housing in Forest Hill, south London

What resources should small practices invest in to stay successful?

For us, opening up to adopting digital design techniques has been an essential path to follow for sustained business growth along with investment in the team. However ongoing investment in the practice infrastructure to give us robust processes and procedures has also been key.

For example, we introduced an ISO 9001 accredited quality management system back in 2008 when we were just four people and soon after an ISO 14001 accredited environmental management and Investors in People where we’ve now achieved Gold standard. This has allowed us to grow in a controlled manner and gives a solid platform for future growth.

Investing in software that makes the financial and time management side of the practice has also been really beneficial, giving the project teams better understanding of project performance and freeing up our admin team to do more ’value add’ and more interesting work.

Can small practices afford to embrace BIM and new technologies?

Obviously it’s down to individual practices, but if the aim is to produce high quality information in an efficient manner, then certainly BIM is a good solution. As architects we can create value with our ideas, but the time spent delivering them eats up the hard-won fees.

As architects we can create value with our ideas, but the time spent delivering them eats up the hard-won fees

If new technology can speed up that process not only does it save us time, but it reduces the repetitive part of the job making design development more enjoyable. As BIM has become more the norm, the switch is also less onerous. Processes are clearly defined and therefore faster to adopt; software is more evolved and there is a much larger pool of trained users.

How can smaller practices win work and run sustainable, profitable businesses?

More than just a product or service, small businesses have the opportunity to offer customers an experience. Small practices can provide one-to-one services that are often impossible for large companies. Personal service encourages clients to build personal relationships and trust, and if we can provide them with consistently high quality work – which digital design techniques help with – it should lead to repeat projects.

That said, we still have to go through the tender process to win work and as small practices we have to set aside the time and resource to prepare the bid to make it worthwhile. Being very selective about what we bid for has really helped us to manage this.

David miller architects5

David miller architects5

David Miller Architects’ revamped Lord’s Cricket Ground Media Centre

Are small practices worried by the implications of Brexit?

It’s inevitable that practices of all sizes will have concerns over the implications of Brexit on architecture and the construction industry as a whole. No matter how it happens, there will be challenges ahead and possible changes to the dynamics both domestically and internationally.

At DMA our approach is to continue to be open and flexible. We have to keep on re-assessing our business plan and adapting it as more information emerges. Above all, we need to keep looking critically at how we work and coming up with new and better ways of working both for ourselves and our clients. 

What advice do you have for architects starting up on their own today?

Design talent is a given, but you need to know what your practice stands for, what distinguishes you and stay true to that. However, being open minded and collaborative is almost more important. For example, being able to set up your practice based on the latest technology will give you a head start and by asking others who have gone down this path already you can learn a lot.

Within the profession there is a great generosity and willingness to share and by joining professional groups and coming along to events like the RIBA’s Guerrilla Tactics, you’ll gain great insights and start to develop a network of people who can help.

Win a ticket to Guerrilla Tactics 2017 CPD Day

The RIBA’s annual conference supporting small practices takes place on 14 and 15 November at RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1B 1AD

The creative director is David Miller and the keynote speakers are Sam Bernard, global category director of engineering, Dyson and Nanne de Ru, Powerhouse Company (Rotterdam). Other speakers include: Gem Barton, author, academic, futurist and consultant; Darren Bray, Pad Studio; Sarah Castle, IF_DO and WilliamMawson, Mawson Kerr Architects.

The conference programme is completed by a speed mentoring event and a day of CPD, comprising 21 seminars.

WIN! The AJ has one ticket to give away to the CPD Day on 15 November. Please email mary.douglas@emap.com with your name and email address by 2pm on Monday 13 November to be in with a chance of winning.

To see the full CPD programme, please click here

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