WAF Newsletter - In Practice - November 2020

In Practice

Paul Hyett, 1 November 2020

Starting from scratch

The new practice that I have established will be one of the world’s first post-Covid-19 architectural consultancies, writes Paul Hyett.

I make this bold claim because, unlike practices established pre-Covid, my co-director Ben Vickery and I have not been ‘slimming down’, nor adjusting our operation in an effort to survive this tragic period. Nor have we been preparing for any ‘new normal’. The reason is quite simple: we did not exist pre-Covid; we had nothing to adjust from; Vickery Hyett was created after Covid started.

Many construction consultancies, large and small, have made incredible and effective adaptations in order to survive this challenging time. The majority of architectural firms rightly understand that when this is all over, there will be a transition in working practice which they will take on board. We have no such transition to make.

Our circumstance are akin to that rare, strange opportunity that follows a bankruptcy: we not only have to start afresh, but we also want to start afresh in re-thinking the operational platform for a new business. Put simply, we have no baggage to carry, no compromises to make, and no nostalgia to accommodate. We have nothing to carry forward except our talent, experience, enthusiasm, and ambition.

The starting point has been that we do not want an office, in the physical sense of that term, because we no longer believe in ‘offices’ per se. Why should we? Having now experienced life outside and beyond the office, we realise that we do not like going to offices, we do not like being in offices, and we do not want to ever again be constrained by the idea of the office environment.

It is true that by accommodating new systems and technologies, the pre-Covid office managed to flourish as a physical reality if expensive institution. But now, through the unprecedented impact of Covid, the likelihood is that the traditional office will not endure.

Will it survive as a hub, in the tradition of the design studio, where teams can engage and collaborate in real time and place? Yes, of course. Long live design reviews and workshop sessions that are the stock-on-trade of good design firms. But as a daily place of work, ‘9-to-5’ rules, conventions and formalities are unlikely to return.

It is true that big changes had occurred over the last 30 years. This had, pre-Covid, seen the abandonment of the T-square, the ink pen, and the parallel motion drawing board. The architect’s office has been completely reinvented..

The main stepping stones in that journey started with the introduction of Rubenstein and Barnaby’s ‘word processing’ in 1979; then progressed through the fax machine, the mobile phone; parametric design and CAD; web-sites; and thereafter Google, and latterly screen sharing and the contemporary tools which have so revolutionised design and communication, rapidly transforming them from a physical to a virtual process.

Examples include programmes such as Revit and Rhino for modelling; and BIM, Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp and WeChat for communication. For filing, archives, and plan chests we have the Cloud and cyberspace. All have combined to transform the office beyond recognition.

These changes, with new equipment and methodologies, were already taking us beyond the conventional processes of traditional practice. But now, the breath-taking scale of reinvention across office life will be accelerated courtesy of Covid-19.

Given this backdrop, our new office, Vickery Hyett, will not be adapting old models of operation. Our starting principles are that we do not want to provide physical workstations . Nor do we want any non-fee earners. Such personnel only dilute the offering, encumber the process, stifle the output, and corrupt the culture of any real design studio. Instead, we will provide an efficient, effective, and substantially virtual service, employing only those who can deliver.

The other typical functions of a large office, from accounts to human resources, and from admin to legal and secretarial, will simply not exist. With the rarest of exceptions, any task that is not fee-earning will be outsourced.

Can it work? Well, from a standing start just four months ago we have set up our website, engaged our service consultants, established our IT systems, registered our practice, structured our team network, worked in Europe, the Middle and Far East as well as Europe, and logged our first CPD lesson courtesy of the RIBA. All without leaving our respective homes. We have secured a diverse fee-paying workload, a positive cashflow, and financial security for the next nine months. In short, we are up and running.

We will not be emerging from Covid as a slimmed-down composite of old and new. If we ever do invest in any ‘real; space, it won’t be an office, just a space where we can occasionally gather to host events, share experience, and celebrate. Food, drink and fun – just like the old days.

Paul Hyett is a founder partner in Vickery Hyett Architects

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