Laurie Chetwood was recently interviewed by Neil Morris for a Professional Feature for RIBA members on how architects identify new sectors to branch out into and cultivate new business opportunities.
“It’s about really knowing what you’re good at and then looking for the gaps. And then pushing for innovation along the way.” Laurie Chetwood, Chairman Chetwoods
We share the full RIBA article ‘How project analysis data can help architects increase their market share’ below:
How to use what you specialise in as a launch pad
Jumping into a brand new sector takes time, says Chetwoods founder Laurie Chetwood. The key guiding principle, he argues, is knowing what you are good at and applying imagination to the gaps opening up around the areas you specialise in. Using this approach, a practice will likely know many of the clients and they will be happy to talk to you if they appreciate they can use your expertise.
This is a philosophy that has taken Chetwoods into a whole range of new areas, although almost invariably there is a common thread that can often be found in their commissions – industrial and logistics.
The practice started out 35 years ago doing commercial projects: retail and logistics warehouses in the days when the sector mostly operated just from strategic out-of-town locations. Looking to push boundaries in the sector, they designed the world’s first net zero carbon for construction verified building and the world’s first BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ logistics building.
While the practice found success in in this area, it was clear that the sector was about to evolve. With the rise of online shopping, developers wanted to take logistics into increasingly urban areas, but the higher value of land and progressively smaller sites meant new design solutions had to be developed to meet a very different brief.
Laurie and his team saw an opening for innovative solutions and so started pushing the boundaries by exploring multi-storey warehouses and mixed-use urban logistics, front-facing retail, and residential.
Diversification: developing what you’ve got
In London, the Mayor wanted to re-introduce industry into Strategic Industrial Locations, or SIL sites, adding industrial units to the mix.
“These sites can be sitting next to high-end residential developments. People understandably have concerns about co-locating with other sectors, especially industrial and logistics. However, as architects there are clever design solutions we can use to ensure cohesive live and work environments. Whether it be utilising the latest technology to mitigate noise and ensure the safety of pedestrians, or considering attractive facades that complement the immediate area,” Laurie explains.
Apart from a series of innovative mixed-use projects, the practice has been developing Industrial Intensification templates for SIL sites (below).
Other examples of how Chetwoods used its core expertise to branch out into other areas include the Royal Academy competition-winning Well-line proposal (below) that would bring the mothballed Mail Rail Line underground system back into use. Laurie says its high-tech logistics proposals – a conveyor belt from Paddington to Whitechapel handling 20,000 parcels an hour – could take 30% of delivery vans off the road in Central London. The practice is still in talks with funders and developers about the plan.
Laurie expands on his practice’s approach to business diversification by adding: “It’s all about wringing the dishcloth out a bit and having creativity and ambition. Then the easiest way to start diversifying is by talking to the people you already work for and building on what you are good at.
“The second level down is to ask who you haven’t worked with in associated industries or sub-sectors. For us it was those associated with logistics. The third level – and this is the hardest way – is to identify a sector you haven’t got experience in before.
“If ever there’s a crisis – like a recession – we always go back and look at our portfolio. We call it fracking, where we rack our brains as to how we can best expand on what we’re already doing and which associated industries we can work with. This thinking meant we also explored infrastructure and working within that sector.
“It’s about really knowing what you’re good at and then looking for the gaps. And then pushing for innovation along the way.”
How to use the business plan to predict opportunities
If any architects are looking for a masterclass in diversification, they would be well advised to look at Pegasus Group, where diversification and the targeting of new growth areas effectively is the business plan.
The group started 20 years ago as a 10-strong planning consultancy in Cirencester, before adding design services and environment consultancy. It now has 400 staff across 13 offices and has moved into heritage, transport infrastructure, property, and economics.
Mike Carr, Executive Director (Design) heads up a design team of 120, primarily focused on work up to and including planning. Mike and his team offer services from land use promotion to outline applications, layouts, and construction packs and, when necessary, planning appeals.
The team’s business plan looks at what is changing, or is expected to change, as a result of policy decisions at both the UK PLC level and worldwide, Mike explains. They also keep a close eye on how the business models of their clients are evolving.
A good example is solar energy and wind farms. The group was there right at the beginning, when lots of developers were interested in moving into renewable energy, but had no idea how to get planning permission.
“We’re at the sharp end of where things are going,” Mike says, although he cautions that the business structure has to be kept flexible to adapt quickly enough.
The group responds to policy changes by setting up expertise areas within the group, such as the teams providing design and development consultancy for care providers.
When it comes to heritage, the group has built up a sizeable specialist team, prompted by the importance placed on expert heritage statements and a new emphasis on landscaping and the setting of heritage assets.
More recently, Mike says they have been looking at the implications of changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), such as the removal of the need for local authorities to maintain a five-year housing land supply if they have a local plan in place, and how this will impact house builders.
Consultancies do need a critical mass to be able create expertise areas within the group, Mike adds, but he has no doubt that variety of work is a strength. He is also mindful that everything should be kept under review.
He places great store in key performance indicators (KPIs) and six-monthly performance reviews for separate business areas. ‘How did we do with the last one?’ is a vital exercise when trying to grow a team around a new area of work, he advises.
Thanks to Laurie Chetwood, Chairman, Chetwoods; Mike Carr, Executive Director (Design), Pegasus Group.
Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team.
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