This appeared as an article in Architecture Today in June 2020 at the height of the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic. You can see the article here: https://architecturetoday.co.uk/stronger-together/
One welcome outcome of the Coronavirus outbreak has been the remarkable level of support and collaboration we’ve experienced from and with other architects and practices.
The pandemic has provided an unprecedented and constantly evolving challenge for practice owners at every scale. Among other issues, the shift to home working, reduction in workload and the hastily concocted and introduced Job Retention Scheme have all had to be learnt, understood and implemented incredibly quickly.
Practice owners have had to learn new ways of working with new softwares and/or procedures, familiarise themselves with new legislation and pivot or adjust to finding new potential work-streams in a very short space of time. All this has had to be done whilst coping with the personal challenges of childcare and home-schooling for many, and the general anxiety stress induced by the situation.
In such circumstances, it is particularly useful to learn from others in a similar position. At nimtim architects we are members of three different groups of practices and practicing architects, all of which have proven to be incredibly useful resources during the crisis. They vary in scale, objective and the nature of information exchange but each has been helpful in different ways.
While starting our practice six years ago, we began meeting and sharing with a group of other practice owners, most of whom were starting out at a similar moment. The practices included DeDraft, M Jones Architect, TPM Studio and SODA Studio, and many others later joined at various moments, including Mustard Architects and AOC. It started as an informal support network for comparing ways of working, and sharing recommendations of consultants and contractors, and we’ve often carried out informal design reviews of each others’ work.
Our practices have evolved in very different ways and now range from committed sole traders to relatively large firms of 20-plus people, competing for significant cultural projects. This diversity brings particular richness to the discussions. We reflected recently on the benefits of our connection and meetings, and agreed that we all found reassurance in the sharing and comparing of the challenges of practice. This has been particularly helpful when navigating new and difficult legislation and changes to the way we work; this includes practical advice like how to manage site visits during the current pandemic (using new softwares, dealing with contract extension requests and so on), but also wider discussions about the role of the architect generally. A debate around Groupwork’s recent tussle with Islington Council on its Clerkenwell offices was particularly lively.
Another group, put together by our business coach Parag Prasad, is new – and so far limited to a Wattsapp chat. Inevitably, the focus has been on financial and practice management issues. This has been a great resource for learning about software and systems to support remote working, and accessing grants and money from the Job Retention Scheme.
The final group – London Architects Group – was until recently just a loose collection of small practices based in and around Lewisham, south London, who’d meet up for a drink occasionally. We recently resolved, however, to do more to act collectively to achieve things that we couldn’t do as individual practices.
Within the larger group of 35 practices there are now various steering groups pushing forward different objectives and ideas. We are closely involved alongside (amongst others) Gruff Architects, Fraher Findlay, Office S&M and Conibere Philips in developing peer-to-peer design reviews which can be attached to planning applications. This emerged from shared frustrations at the way our applications were being assessed by various local authorities. We’ve run a few of these reviews already which have been very positive and contributed to several approved applications and we are in discussions with Local Authorities about how these could start to be formally recognised by planning officers and departments. The intention is that these might expand to cover various local authorities and be open for any architect for projects on small sites to present and receive feedback.
Other steering groups are looking into construction costs, so that all members of the group can advise our clients better, and another is looking into whether we could collectively approach larger clients and organisations to secure bigger and more interesting work as a cohort.
We aren’t sure where these various groups might lead. We are keen to start to collaborate and share more extensively – on projects and bids, sharing resources (even staff) and working together to create and enact positive change that would be difficult to do on our own.
At times of crisis it would be very easy for practices so close up and protect their own interests and work-streams. It is therefore incredibly positive to have seen so much collaboration and openness in the last few weeks – particularly as we are likely to be competing for the same work with many of the other practices.
It seems reasonably clear that the coronavirus is going to change everything, not just in the short-term but the long-term as well. Working practices, healthcare and – hopefully – our relationship to the environment are unlikely to ever be the same again. The pandemic and inevitable recession will pose great challenges for every practice, but as a profession, we believe architects will be best able to respond by working together rather than competing with each other.
As Arundhati Roy recently noted, the pandemic can be perceived as a portal to a different (and hopefully better) world. Architects are problem-solvers and have the rare ability and ambition to imagine things as different and better than they currently are. This makes times of profound change a great opportunity for us to collectively seize the moment.