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Why practices are sharing their knowledge, resources, and staff

The benefits of mutual support, collaboration and employee transfers

07 November 2019

It's good to talk. Communication networks between architects can be an essential prop, providing ideas, information and resources to keep practices healthy and their work flowing.

Many practices are currently reporting a lack of confidence in future prospects: reaching out to your peers is one of the best ways to find solutions to common problems.

A group of like-minded practices banded together around a year ago with the aim of exploring avenues for mutual support and collaboration. The London Practice Forum currently consists of 21 London based small practices and includes Mæ, Pitman Tozer, Bell Phillips Architects and the recent Stirling Prize winners, Mikhail Riches.

It was the brainchild of Russell Curtis, Founding Director of RCKa and member of campaigning procurement platform Project Compass.

Perhaps the most unusual collaborative activity of the London Practice Forum so far has been its sharing of staff. A little like a “player on loan” arrangement in professional football, some practices have arranged a temporary transfer of talent between them.

The idea is that, should a practice find itself short of projects and unable to provide all its employees with work, it could redeploy staff to a fellow practice.

Only a handful of practice staff have tried out such transfers to date, but this kind of lateral thinking will pique the interest of plenty of small practices who worry about hiring (or firing) staff in today’s uncertain climate.

“It certainly makes it easier for small practices to take people on,” states Curtis. “Workload is so bumpy at the moment that no-one can be absolutely sure about future work. Having the option of temporarily placing a staff member with another practice where they would be happy to work reduces the fear of needing to make someone redundant.”

Andy Puncher, Founding Director of PH+, is one member who has found the Forum to be an essential source of support and discussion. He singles out professional indemnity (PI) cover in particular: he found his peers’ input very helpful given that insurers were withdrawing cover for fire-related claims.

“The discussions we had helped us push back against retrospective withdrawal of cover, which we would not have been able to do without the Forum,” Puncher reveals.

The restaurant at PegasusLife Park House, an extra care residential scheme in Harpenden, designed by RCKa © Jim Stephenson.

Curtis is interested in the potential for groups such as the LPF to negotiate joint or pooled PI cover for their members, which could help smaller practices access public sector work where minimum levels of cover are prohibitive.

Equally valuable for PH+ has been its collaboration with Forum members in bidding for masterplanning projects that which would have been too big to tackle alone.

“The Forum has been very positive for us from a collaboration point of view. Knowing that members share common values with us gives us a very strong link.”

It is an informal organisation which holds monthly meetings. Thus far, it has found that practices tend to be grappling with the same issues: from concerns over salary bands and staff diversity to the means of procuring work from the public sector.

One of their most useful tools is their dedicated channel on messaging and collaboration app Slack. This is a great platform for members to pick each other’s brains on topics including HR issues and insurance.

Another example of the group’s cooperative approach is its pooling of expensive capital equipment, such as 3D printers and CNC machines. Forum members make their expensive kit available to each other on a materials-only cost basis.

The next step for the Forum is to draw up a members’ ethical charter, which Curtis hopes to put into place as an example for design-led practice. This is still a work in progress, but he hopes that one common agreement will be a pledge to rule out bidding for work where cost criteria are clearly weighted disproportionately over quality.

Groups like the Forum, Curtis suggests, could use their collective weight to campaign and influence good procurement practice, leading to better work for architects and better quality for clients.

Thanks to Russell Curtis, Director, RCKa; Andy Puncher, Director, PH+.

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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Posted on 7 November 2019.

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