Richard Waite looks at the pros and cons, the risks and rewards, for architects thinking of developing their own schemes
It is the question every architect is asking. Shouldn’t we all be developers? Long-time advocate of this do-it-yourself approach Roger Zogolovitch has even written a book with this precise title.
Clearly there are those that think this is not a wise move. Chris Brown of regeneration specialists Igloo is not convinced: ‘This is precisely the wrong time in the property market cycle to be getting into development and history is littered with architect/developer insolvencies.
He continues: Architecture is complicated, and so is development. Trying to be both a good architect and a good developer is probably impossible.’
Yet investigations by the AJ show the profession is increasingly embracing the model of architect as client. A wave of new practices are being set up specifically to do just that, among them emerging firms like Wimshurst Pelleriti, led by former Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners duo Will Wimshurst and Leonardo A Pelleriti together with Will’s brother Tom.
This shift is unsurprising, given that practices can earn significantly more by buying the land, drawing up the scheme, running the contract teams and selling on the product than simply billing for design work. According to Will Foster of Foster Lomas, which has just completed its first architect/developer housing scheme in East Dulwich, the firm has made three times the profit it would have done solely as designer. What’s more the government has recently pledged to break up large sites and hand plots to smaller developers as part of its ‘radical’ direct commissioning housebuilding policy.
For any budding architect/developer the most valuable lesson – and perhaps the toughest – is how to manage the money.
It is important for architects to get to grips with the financial side
‘It is important for architects to get to grips with the financial side – it is not just a question of bunging in a planning application and making things look nice,’ says Ghislaine Halpenny, head of communications at the British Property Federation.
Former RIBA president Jack Pringle agrees. He says: ‘Property development is a numbers game and you need to be both numerate and creative. Some architects aren’t numerate and that is partly a result of this country’s separation between architecture and money – we employ quantity surveyors to add up what designs will cost, something which architects do routinely in other countries.’
Nick Johnson, a former director of Urban Splash, also believes some architects may struggle with financial problems if they take on the client role. He says: ‘Architects will be forced to confront decisions they may be uncomfortable with, such as sacrifices that have to be made through value engineering.
He adds: ‘Also, if architects are buying land and getting the uplift in value from a planning permission, that is different to staying in for the longer term.
‘You then face issues that arise from long-term ownership that architects might not have come across before.’
J-J Lorraine of Morrow and Lorraine, who was client and designer of his own home, says: ‘Architects should be developers at least once during their careers. It shines a light on certain aspects of the process that might otherwise be invisible.’
He adds: ‘Imagine it’s your money being spent when designing. If the financial effects of a “baggy” design take food off the table then tighten things up. That’s not to say do it as cheaply as possible; more that each pen stroke or mouse click matters.’
Among the hurdles facing wannabe architect/developers is getting hold of the sites. Paul Karakucevic of Karakucevic Carson Architects says: ‘The stranglehold that the big 10 house builders and developers have over land and housing delivery in London is worrying.
‘The public sector is partly at fault in this regard, too, as it has a unique opportunity to change how the public sector land bank is developed. Unfortunately, too many council procurement teams think big housebuilder and big contractor is the best combination.’
He adds: ‘[But] if small collaborations and co-operative groups can start to change this, then it will lead to better and more homes being built.’
The tax system favours larger-scale operators and planners can be blind-sided by major projects
Sophie Goldhill of Liddicoat & Goldhill agrees that this is a ‘significant challenge’. She says: ‘The availability of land to all but the largest developers is a huge problem. The tax system also favours larger-scale operators; and planners can be blind-sided by major projects.
However, Steve Sanham, development director at developer Hub Group, is not so pessimistic. He says: ‘The architect is very well placed to understand the intricacies of a development, where value can be added, and where costs and risks might lie. To be a successful developer you have to have a commercial edge.’
According to many of those architects already working as their own client, this challenge to the conventional housebuilders paves the way for the profession to claw back some of the ground that has been lost to others in the industry over recent decades.
Goldhill says: ‘The industry will need to adapt or die. Acting as developer is one way of reclaiming territory for the architect, and a great way of improving the prospects for the quality of our built environment.’
The chance to do your own thing, unfettered by an independent client’s wishes, is a key temptation, too, for any practice. Ash Sakula co-founder Cany Ash says: ‘There is freedom as a developer. Often when you are working for a client you don’t have the freedom to be very connected to the local community you are building in – the client might see that as a risk.
‘The experience also helped us with our own confidence about how we would like to work in the future – I see it as CPD for all of us here.’
John Smart of John Smart Architects, which has already delivered schemes of some scale, adds: ‘The possibilities of ethical architecture lie through patronage. As one who has converted to architect/developer, I am not sure if I can fully distinguish between client and architect – it becomes more than having two heads on and is a way of making that offers far greater autonomy and authorship.’
However, he has a final word of warning: ‘Architecture can be endless in pursuit and so knowing when not to overbuild is key, as that can rapidly lead to bankruptcy.’