Time-poor architects and practices may well find it hard to draw up long-term business or career plans. The day-to-day concerns of current projects can be challenging enough. But while it is obviously important to deliver projects to schedule and be paid for them, it is important to take stock of what projects could lead to. Setting goals and mapping how to achieve them is crucial to practice growth.
The directors at emerging practice alma-nac knew where they wanted to be in ten years, and mapped out a step-by-step strategy to get there. Doing so enabled them to overcome obstacles such as the ‘Catch 22’ of acquiring experience when clients expect demonstrable experience before they hire.
Chris Bryant is a Director at alma-nac, and a former Chair of the RIBA Small Practice Expert Advisory Group. His practice’s approach was to plot where they wanted to be in ten years’ time, and then map out the stepping stone projects that could give them entry into target markets.
“It is one way of approaching a business plan,” he suggests. “We worked backwards from our targets to identify the sort of projects that could put the practice on a trajectory – projects which the practice could feasibly win over the course of a year.”
Most young practices begin with residential work and one-off houses. Alma-nac were no different, but had a wish-list of sectors: education, public space, social housing and art galleries. Getting a foot in the door of a new sector is a hurdle familiar to many practices. Alma-nac managed to achieve a few relatively early successes in securing some work on schools and workspaces.
The school sector is one case in point. Bryant says the practice had to face up to the fact that winning public sector work would be extremely difficult, with procurement invariably requiring experience. The practice therefore started targeting private nurseries and schools.
A networking event led to an introduction to Dulwich College, a school in south London, and an invitation to present a talk. That eventually led to alma-nac being offered an ‘architect-in-residence’ opportunity at the school. This in turn helped the practice pick up some nursery work, including a renovation. There followed a modest £500 refit for the practice’s local borough of Lambeth, thanks to some money applied for from the Royal Academy.
Last year the practice was invited to pitch for a larger Lambeth school project from a 15-strong shortlist - the first-time alma-nac had found itself on such a list, and it won.
“We could say we had worked with a local authority on a proper paid project,” recalls Bryant. “It ticked the box.”
The practice has already followed its success in Lambeth with a playspace and landscaping project in Westminster. As far as its ambitions within the education trajectory, the practice is sticking to its plan.
Bryant reports that moving into the social housing sector - another of alma-nac's long-term ambitions - is proving more of a challenge. However, the practice has carried out some feasibility studies and has now made it onto its first procurement framework.
There is a clear ripple effect at work here. Bryant admits that chance encounters and informal recommendations play an important part in small practices landing early projects. But these chance encounters cannot happen unless a practice is actively networking.
The events where this networking happens are not those you might expect. Bryant is not referring to MIPIM here: he is simply talking about local or regional events at which you know there will be interesting people.
Therefore, alma-nac directors take opportunities to give talks about their work, and make a point of inviting people who could be future clients. Alma-nac capitalized on the small education project funded by the Royal Academy by presenting three talks, ensuring they invited representatives from Lambeth to them.
Bryant has found that collecting quotes and endorsements from clients when signing off projects has helped bolster their authority and reputation. Solid endorsements do not win work in themselves, but are part and parcel of establishing confidence in clients for whom risks are not an option.
Alma-nac’s business plan, then, follows an incremental, step-by-step approach. If a practice wants to place itself on an upwards trajectory, it appears there is a lot of truth in the adage that ‘you make your own luck’. You cannot reach a destination unless you are travelling in the right direction.
Thanks to Chris Bryant, Director at alma-nac.
Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas
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