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Collaboration can make great business sense

Small specialist practices can work on the big stage with a larger partner.

09 November 2017

Collaborations between large practices and smaller specialists can make good business sense for both parties if managed properly, with one side able to access specialist expertise flexibly, and opportunities for the other to work on high-profile projects.

For ten-strong practice Abell Nepp which specialises in science/laboratory-based and higher education projects, collaborations are a key part of the business model, accounting for around 70% of turnover.

Their collaborators are high-quality, large practices who cannot or will not retain their specialism in-house. The practice has worked alongside the likes of AHMM, Allies and Morrison, Hawkins\Brown, Herzog & de Meuron and Hopkins Architects, among other high-profile names.

‘We love doing full service architecture, but collaborating has allowed us to work on some fantastic projects,’ says Chris Abell, director and co-founder.

‘Collaboration for us is helping good architects to do fantastic builds and deliver beautiful buildings that achieve a function.’

Abell previously worked for Norman Foster and went on to become director in charge of major science projects for RMJM London before setting up their own practice with Bruce Nepp in 2009. An element of collaboration was there at the beginning, but it has grown steadily since.

Current projects include Allies and Morrison’s £80m Uren Biomedical Engineering Research Hub for Imperial College, and the £330m AstraZeneca Global R&D Centre in Cambridge designed by Herzog & de Meuron and BDP. On both projects Abell Nepp provided laboratory planning services.

Sometimes the practice is taken on as an undisclosed consultant, but as it has now a solid reputation in its own right, it is more likely to be part of the bidding team.

Allies and Morrison’s £80m Uren Biomedical Engineering Research Hub for Imperial College London, for which Abell Nepp provided laboratory planning services. CGI © Allies and Morrison.

Authorship can be a problem for junior partners, but Abell is unconcerned and says their own marketing can make sure that everyone across their client base knows about their contribution.

The practice does have to carry a serious amount of indemnity cover for their size and there needs to be trust between the practice and its senior partner, but overall the benefits of collaboration clearly outweigh the downside, says Abell.

And collaborative relationships can become long-term: the practice is on its third joint project with Allies and Morrison and Hawkins\Brown.

Another of Abell Nepp’s collaborators is Llewelyn Davies, a practice that is no stranger to partnering with other architects, having worked in 70 different countries.

Director Steve Featherstone is not a believer in the automatic ‘yes, of course we can do that’ response to a client enquiry and is happy to advise a client when he sees a benefit in seeking specialist consultancy.

‘We are very open to clients about the need to bring in specialist design expertise when necessary, we find what’s of more concern to the client is that they still have a single point of responsibility,’ says Featherstone.

‘The rationale for collaboration is always quality and knowing that you can deliver the highest quality to the client. Combining practices adds value.’

As a practice with a long history of collaboration, Llewelyn Davies does not worry about giving the junior partner a joint design credit.

More important than authorship is defining responsibilities carefully, Featherstone finds. ‘Defining ownership and who is doing what is critically important and we always use standard schedules of responsibilities,’ he adds.

He also sees collaboration as a useful bulwark against continuing economic uncertainty and the never-ending pressure on fees, a business climate in which large practices have to manage their resources with care.

Rather than hire and fire specialist expertise, Llewelyn Davies prefers to build mutually beneficial relationships. That said, he argues that collaboration should only be in response to specific requirements, not just for temporary capacity.

And what of the problem of the junior partner stealing the client on the next job?

Featherstone says it’s when you are partnering with a practice of similar size that you are always looking over your shoulder. If you are large enough and your partner is small enough, it’s not an issue.

Thanks to Chris Abell, director, Abell Nepp; Steve Featherstone, director, Llewelyn Davies.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a ‘Practice News’ post edited by the RIBA Practice team. The team would like to hear your feedback and ideas for Practice News:

Posted on 8 November 2017.

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