L-R: MENTOR Ian Taylor of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, MENTOR Jason Cornish of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, ARCHITECT Joe Morris of Duggan Morris Architects, ARCHITECT Mary Duggan of Duggan Morris Architects, ARCHITECT Pete Grove of Duggan Morris Architects
Duggan Morris Architects is keen to get into large-scale residential commissions
What do you do when you’re making a name for yourself… in the wrong area? That’s the position Duggan Morris Architects has found itself in, “specialising by default” in private residential schemes. Despite considerable success in the sector, Shoreditch-based Duggan Morris has still to take on the affordable housing or masterplanning work it would like to get its teeth into. “Housing on an affordable scale and lifting communities upwards is unfortunately lacking in the work we’ve done,” says founding partner Joe Morris.
But that’s changing, and the firm is now hoping Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios can help it manage the transition. Since Morris and Mary Duggan set up the practice in 2004, it has progressed around 10 housing schemes through the planning process, but none has topped the 14-unit threshold for affordable housing. “Suddenly we’ve got a 60-unit, a 112- and a 250-unit scheme,” says Morris. “But we’re just a minnow with 12 people.”
FCB knows all about making that leap. In 2000, the firm was 60 strong; now it’s got 130 staff across two offices in Bath and London. “You’re at a great size,” FCB partner and studio leader Ian Taylor tells Duggan Morris, a little wistfully. “Once you get groups above about 20, it gets very difficult to keep the cohesion.”
FCB’s answer has been to break the practice into eight smaller “studios”, ranging in size from five to 20 architects. But the largest projects still challenge that model. “We moved to a 650-unit student housing project at Aston University, and it forced a change in the culture of the office — not just how we work as teams, but how we deal with projects,” explains partner Jason Cornish.
“At one point we had about nine people working on it,” adds Taylor. “That was two thirds of the studio. It’s a task in itself to make people feel involved. The challenge is to keep the concept clear throughout the project and find ways of communicating internally.”
FCB Studios is able to say at the outset when it wants to work with another firm.
But there’s another way to get onto bigger schemes without losing the personal touch: collaboration with other firms. FCB Studios is keen to work with smaller practices, and it credits the success of the £80 million Accordia housing scheme in Cambridge in part to the relationships it forged with Alison Brooks Architects and Maccreanor Lavington.
It is also in the enviable position of being able to say from the outset when it wants to work with another firm. “Sometimes we give more responsibility to those practices and almost back away from it ourselves,” says Taylor. “But our preference is to be upfront with the client and say that, for the benefit of the scheme, we’d like to have these different skills.”
“Hmm, interesting…” say Duggan and Morris, who have realised that that FCB are clearly a useful contact to have.
Taylor also suggests they get in touch with other large firms to explore opportunities within large masterplans: “You could be doing 50 houses, and that’s a good way of stepping up to bigger projects.” As a way of sizing up while retaining the scale and personality of a smaller practice, it could be the right transitional move.
Designing the team
Joe Morris: Do you find your clients are becoming more open to the value of design?
Ian Taylor: When we’re approached by a client, we’re in a reasonably strong position. But it’s usually down to the individuals in the organisation, it’s like trying to find a good contractor. In the housing development world, it’s difficult to find a design champion because companies have the land team and the build-it team.
JM: We’re very keen to advise the client that it is worth spending time on design — not being gung-ho when you’re given a brief and two months later, there’s a planning application.
IT: We try to have a session with a client to say: “This is what we offer”. If the client comes to us having seen something, you imagine they already know, but it’s not necessarily the case. Where it’s new territory, we have to say: “This is how we approach the design. We feel you should have an M&E engineer involved before you get the planning…”
Jason Cornish: It’s about involving groups and getting the team — the engineer, the QS, the client — excited. We’ve had a thread through a number of projects now, where there’s one or two people who can say, “It’s going wrong” — and then we can pull it back to the original idea.
JM: How do you feel about all these guidelines, the Code for Sustainable Homes, Lifetime Homes? Our fear is that residential developments will become ever more predetermined.
JC: On Lifetime Homes, ideally we’d all have bigger flats. I do think they are quite a good force within the process, and to engage with them is quite valuable.
Pete Grove: We were talking earlier today about how Irish space stand-ards are much larger.
IT: Yes, we did a competition in Prague a few years ago, and it’s illegal to design a north-facing apartment there — every room must have sun coming into it.
Mary Duggan: If design standards are the absolute minimum standard then there’s no design aspiration and developers latch on to those as all they need to do.
IT: But some of them are quite useful — getting 100% Lifetime Homes isn’t too tricky. Housing should in any case be flexible, and we always try and provide that.
JM: With the code, do you find there’s an aspiration to push the level beyond two or three?
IT: We can make a point of being quite selective about which housing projects we do. The environmental performance has to be high.
Getting past Stage D
MD: RIBA Stage D is a pivotal point, where there’s the threat of the client pursuing alternative architects. Is that something you’ve experienced?
IT: Our gut feeling is that probably we want to take it through because you can keep some control over the detail. We’ve got two projects at the moment where we’re about to be novated. But we’re reasonably happy with design-and-build as long as you’ve got a contractor you can trust. On some projects we are being retained by a client to be its adviser, where the contract becomes a design-and-build contract and the contractor has its own architect — we monitor that work. Or you could get the planning approval and then work with a good builder that has its own in-house architects.
IT: Housing projects are quite vulnerable to stop-start — it means we have to be a bit clever about how we do our fee arrangements. We say: “We’ll do this for this amount of money, and then await your instruction”. But unfortunately, we’re not as scientific as we’d like to be.
JC: You set out the fee and you do a discrete piece of work, then there’ll be a hiatus when you look at some planning issue that has popped up and that is outside your brief completely. By our very nature, we’re very good — or bad — at saying yes, we’ll do that.
Mix of aspirations
MD: We feel we’ve got the residential thing sussed now. Now it’s about how we deal with the com-mercial parts — how can we raise our clients’ aspirations in terms of mixed use?
IT: The core is finding out the aspirations of the local authority and the community. Our instinct is to consult earlier than our clients want to. There’s a bit of a culture among housing developers where the standard way of working is to put in two applications, thinking that one will get refused, and then try to play tough with the planning department. That moves onto the whole issue of how you consult. It’s all politics — officers, councillors, community groups, who all have different views. And there are design panels. Have you presented to a design panel yet?
JM: We’ve been on one in Lewisham for about a year. It rotates between three groups, so we come in every three months. It does give us a sense of what it feels like to be on the other side. You see a microcosm of the planning process in that room.
MD: I think design review panels are bridging the gap where planning authorities don’t have any design skills. I don’t think they should exist for very long; hopefully people in local authorities can take on that role.
JC: I think you do need to have a body that makes sure things don’t just get passed. The only difficulty is that when you get into larger projects sitting within a masterplan, you can get “interested body” overload, talking at cross purposes all the time.
Cruising through the credit crunch
Joe Morris: Do you think the credit crunch will affect residential schemes?
IT: Developers who’ve got cash in the bank will be fine, those who need to borrow will find it difficult. There will still be residential developers who want to develop housing that is better than the market average. Certainly, with regard to the sustainability agenda, new stock will have to be better than the existing stock, and that will drive the market.
JC: In terms of London specifically, we’re not necessarily that concerned because of the scale of require-ment for housing. The only problem is that a lot of demand is due to the way people choose to live, say in one- and two-bedroom flats. If people were to change that, it would have an impact, but I don’t foresee that happening now.
JM: What about smaller practices, how could we recession-proof ourselves?
JC: As a smaller practice working on private housing, at that level you might not be affected. It’s of more concern where you’re working at the margins of affordability. We’re optimistic — but you can never know. The opportunity to diversify and work in different markets is obviously critical. In our practice, we always strive to diversify. For example, we’re now working in the further education sector. It’s a buffer in terms of potential decline rather than having
a monoculture of housing projects.
Words by Katie Puckett, photographs by Ed Tyler