Sustaining a design-led business

Benna Schellhorn, Practice Manager at Jamie Fobert Architects, talks about supporting one of the UK's most creative architectural practices...

A balance of the creative and the practical

A design-led architecture practice exists to create beautiful and extraordinary buildings. We take it for granted that this objective cannot be achieved by dreaming and sketching alone; for architects, technical expertise and industry knowledge is essential. So too with the business side of architecture: we cannot simply imagine ourselves into success, we must be prepared for the nitty-gritty stuff, the practical, day-to-day running of our business.

  • Image credit: Hufton+Crow
  • Image credit: Hufton+Crow

Observing the growth of a practice

Soon after beginning Jamie Fobert Architects in 1996 – then a one-man band still working out of his own home – Jamie attended one of Caroline Cole’s business courses at the RIBA. As his practice grew and developed, he took care to apply what he had learnt from these sessions about the importance of understanding his business and planning for the future.

I joined Jamie’s team as his Practice Manager in 2005. It was, back then, a small team of 6 or 7, but with two major arts competitions recently won the practice was in need of additional administrative support to free up the architects to focus on design. I had not previously worked with architects, but Jamie articulated his vision in ways that taught me how he wanted me to run and manage his practice.

Since then, driven by the need to resource incoming projects, we have grown to be a team of 18 with a wide range of experience and skills. We have also moved from a relatively small split-level office in Clerkenwell to a generous studio space at Rochelle in Shoreditch, with the luxury of a separate meeting room and a dedicated model-making room. Our growth has been incremental, although not always smooth. In retrospection— like looking back at teenage photographs—we can observe moments of awkwardness.

  • Image credit: Olivier Hess

A shared purpose

Looking back on our practice’s growth and development, and that of our peers and colleagues, one thing is clear: a good team needs to have a shared purpose. In our case, Jamie’s instinctive vision for the practice has always been very strong; and our team provides the machinery to support it. It is Jamie who has guided our choice of projects and our way of working. He is naturally clear and direct in his communication as well as having great enthusiasm and confidence in his understanding of architecture and design. It has therefore been natural for his approach to filter down throughout our team.

Our vision and purpose must be present, not only in our design work, but also in the way we produce it and in our everyday interactions as a team. It is appropriate that our design aspirations should be present in our studio life. We are fortunate to have a big, beautiful workspace with the necessary facilities to enable us to carry out our work efficiently and well. And we have a strong team of skilled individuals who are excellent communicators. We make site visits together, learn together and enjoy social occasions together. When potential clients see our well-organised, well-presented studio we hope they will feel they will enjoy working with us as well as being confident that they can rely on us professionally.

  • Image credit: Olivier Hess

Investing in good support

Getting the right support in place can seem daunting from the point of view of a young, small practice; employing additional support staff, setting up expensive timesheet software or attending training courses all have a cost in terms of time and money.

Furthermore, however good the intentions, changing operational habits can be very difficult in reality. But, it is well worth making carefully directed investments in order to achieve a well-functioning work environment. Such investments do not in any way act in opposition to a focus on design because a well-functioning studio allows freedom for design to flourish.

Ever since the start of the practice, Jamie Fobert Architects has kept timesheets, first simply in Excel and more recently using industry-specific resourcing software. When we first considered this upgrade, the cost was eye-watering. But now that it is part of our everyday function, we cannot imagine working without it. It helps us to understand our business: we know which type of project is most profitable and we can aim to maintain enough of these to keep the business financially secure.

Continuing development

Recently, our support team and associate architects together participated in Colander’s Business Planning course. It has been an interesting point in the practice’s story to look critically and holistically at the strengths and weaknesses of our business. We found we have much to learn from Colander’s expertise. Although we have the essential machinery in place to run our practice smoothly, there is real benefit in refreshing our awareness of the business of architecture and considering carefully our place within the industry. In fact, I believe we gained a lot of confidence from this exercise, in recognising the value of our business, from outstanding staff to certain moments of good luck. The process refocussed our attention on the importance of maintaining good organisation and working together to an authentic business plan.