Small Architecture Firms in London

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Written by Dan Marks

June 2021

Written by Dan Marks

June 2021

The Benefits of Working With a Smaller Architecture Practice in London

 

If you’re considering engaging an architect you might be weighing up the pro’s and cons of working with a small practice vs a larger and perhaps more established one. Where and how can a small practice add value? How can the size of a practice influence the design process, the working relationship and ultimately, the end result? The following post sets out to unpack these questions and more.

Innovation Culture

Small practices, in their early stages of growth & development, are often somewhere in the process of developing a clear culture and ethos, an agenda, common themes and ideas and a method or process of exploring these through their work. Whether they are doing this consciously or not, they are regularly questioning themselves, their assumptions and methods. Theirs is ‘a life examined’, constantly searching for small improvements in every sphere – from the big guiding ideas and principles that motivate them to the innovative small details that make all the difference to a project.

Architecture practices tend to be at their most innovative before they grow. As they scale up they can become more risk averse. They hit on formulas that worked successfully on a few projects and are now repeated across many. The rigorous questioning and self-critique of the early days is often diluted or altogether lost. The output becomes predictable.

The broad skillset required of individuals in a small practice contributes further to a culture of exploration and innovation. Whilst people in larger practices tend to specialize and can get pigeon holed, their counterparts in smaller practices need to regularly perform across a multitude of spheres and sectors too. This, we believe, helps foster a culture of lateral thinking and creative problem solving as, for example, a designer that has recently been involved with a hospitality project and is now working on a private home will bring ideas from one area to another. Cross-fertilization keeps things fresh.

Engaging a small practice, therefore, is buying in to an undiluted culture and vision. One that is often associated with constant inquiry and the pursuit of small, incremental improvements that ultimately produce honest and original design.

The dynamic Black Box rear extension in Islington.

Monochrome kitchen at the Collector’s Flat.

People & Relationships

The unique small practice culture tends to translate into a particular design sensibility that all members of a small team have also bought into and that will be applied consistently to your project. You are also likely to have more stability in the team members allocated to your project. Whereas larger practices often have a larger turnover of staff, people tend to stick around longer in smaller practices. Your project architect, allocated at the start of the job, is more likely to follow the project all the way through to completion in a small practice. This, compared to a larger practice where your initial project architect may no longer be around by the time your job reaches the construction phase, either because they have moved on or perhaps been reallocated to another team as resourcing priorities shift.

You should also benefit from regular and direct involvement of one or more practice principals.  In fact, in a small practice with a studio culture, everyone will be aware of your project and you will benefit from a multitude of views, opinions and ideas as all team members are encouraged to share their thoughts on the evolving design.

The regular and direct involvement of practice principals with your project, and the consistency of a broad skilled project team, translates into a more personal working relationship, a bespoke and tailored collaboration and ultimately, a unique end product that reflects the singularity of that relationship and the distinct inputs of both sides. This is in contrast to the often-formulaic output of larger practices that, long ago, hit on a blueprint that worked and is now replicated regardless of the client or end user’s individual quirks, character and brief.

Reputation & Client Testimonials

The tightness of a small team, combined with regular and direct involvement of practice principals in all projects and at all stages of the process translates into greater consistency of design output. Further though, it reinforces the value of past client testimonials and a practices’ overall reputation. One person’s positive experience with a larger practice may not be the next person’s experience as it will always be down to the particular team and people allocated to a job. With smaller practice’s where practice principals are more directly involved in the day to day of jobs and managing client relationships, there is, inevitably, more continuity in people (not least in project leadership) and, as a result, greater meaning attached to reputation  – it’s associated directly with the practice owners.

Value for Money

Smaller practices tend to have smaller overheads and running costs than larger ones. These are a component factored into architectural fees and, as a result, smaller practices are able to compete and offer better value for money for comparable jobs.

Smaller practices tend to concentrate their work geographically (for instance; conservation areas in central London) whilst larger practices work nationally and internationally. Team members may also be active participants in statutory local associations that influence planning matters and development in particular areas. Being embedded in a local area translates into expert knowledge of the planning system and relevant local authority parameters for acceptable development. It gives smaller practices an edge navigating the planning system and greater chances of success in achieving planning approvals quicker. This translates into time and ultimately money savings for clients (on fees for repeat planning applications).

Finally, architecture firms working at the scale of domestic residential development acquire expert knowledge of relevant construction/ fabrication costs. They are regularly called to find cost savings in aid of adherence to budget and, in the process, become familiar with a range of methods for cost savings. Clients of small practices benefit from this knowledge that can help stretch any given budget.

Contrasting dark Valchromat and timber joinery at Slim Studios, Camden.

Written by Dan Marks.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are smaller architecture practices more innovative?

Architecture practices tend to be more innovative before they grow. Buying into a smaller architectural practice at the earlier stages of growth and development is also buying into their innovation culture. You’ll also likely work with a team that regularly perform across a multitude of areas across both project and business. This, we believe, helps foster a culture of lateral thinking and creative problem solving.

What are the benefits of choosing to work with a smaller architecture practice?

There are lots of benefits – to name a few, you’ll benefit from a closer working relationship with the project architect and greater involvement from the practice owners when working with a smaller practice. This type of close collaboration ultimately leads to a more bespoke and tailored design in contrast to the often-formulaic output of larger practices. There is also likely to be greater stability of the project team and less staff turnover than that of a larger counterpart.

Is a smaller architecture practice better value for money?

In many instances they can be – smaller practices tend to have lower overheads and running costs than larger ones, where you might be paying for an established reputation and larger company structure. Smaller practices are often embedded in a local area developing an expertise when navigating the local planning system and greater chances of success in achieving planning approvals more quickly, translating into time and ultimately money savings for clients.

How do I know which small architecture practice is right for me?

Start with research and make a shortlist. Check the practice website and social media pages for precedent projects that resonate with you. Precedent projects don’t necessarily need to be the exact same property type as yours, rather, look for a design sensibility that you can relate to. Interview the practices you like. Personality fit is key, you are about to embark on a journey with this person and team so as well as being confident they can deliver it is worth making sure you are choosing to work someone you relate to on a human level. Read our tips on finding the right architect for you here.

Client Testimonials

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