Meet the MD: Alasdair Stephen, Dualchas Architects

Alasdair Stephen

Meet the MD: Alasdair Stephen, Dualchas Architects

Working with family is one thing, but could you start and run two businesses with your twin? Alasdair Stephen does, and he fills us in on his approach to entrepreneurship.

What is it the company does?

Dualchas is an award-winning Scottish architecture practice headquartered in Sleat on the Isle of Skye with a second office in Glasgow.  For 21 years Dualchas has been spearheading Highland's renaissance architecture as a practice which specialises in rural housing and community buildings.

Describe your role in no more than 100 words

Along with my twin brother Neil, we run Dualchas. We also have a sister company, HebHomes which is based in Glasgow which creates architect designed, affordable and environmentally friendly kit homes. I mainly focus on day-to-day running of HebHomes with strategic input to Dualchas which is led by Neil, on Skye.

Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?

I graduated into a recession from Strathclyde University in 1992.  Instead of heading to London or abroad as almost all my contemporaries did, I decided to learn Gaelic from my grandmother on Skye and ended up studying Business and Communications at the Gaelic college Sabhal Mor Ostaig. 

On graduating from there I set up Dualchas with Neil, firstly run from the spare bedroom in my Gran’s house on the family croft. I have been involved in Dualchas ever since, and proud to have played my part alongside my brother and our talented team to become an industry leader in rural architecture. Together we have designed hundreds of homes and won several RIAS, RIBA and Architecture of Year awards.

We decided to set up HebHomes in 2004 out of a desire to address the housing shortage in rural Scotland with beautifully designed but affordable kit homes. I have been self-employed through my whole career.  I have never worked for another practice.

What do you believe makes a great leader?

People who I admire as leaders continually self-improve.  For example, Nicola Sturgeon – who I knew through student politics at university. A natural introvert, once shy in social situations, she has self-improved in her chosen profession to command Scottish politics and inspire, especially amongst women, across the world.  This ability to improve and overcome personal inhibitions, giving the outward appearance of confidence, is the sign of a great leader in my eyes.

What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?

Architecture is a time-consuming and bureaucratic profession.  To achieve good architecture takes research and a lot of work.  This is not reflected in fees so balancing quality and profitability can be difficult.  The biggest challenge going forward is using technology efficiently, not just in the office, but in the wider construction sector to deliver cost effective buildings.  New houses are increasingly unaffordable – they are expensive to build.  It is a huge challenge for an industry which also faces a recruitment crisis with an aging workforce and Brexit.  Off-site automation and robotics is badly needed.

How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?

I’m a great believer that exercise is the best way to alleviate any stress or worry, job related or not.  When on Skye I will run up hilly roads and the worse the weather the better. On reaching the top, exhausted, turning your head to face the magnificent views, all stress will be gone.

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I have a vague memory of wanting to be a postman.

Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?

It’s a very relaxed workplace but I once employed someone who would eat his breakfast in the office every day.  His preparation and consumption of his muesli was like a ritual. He would tap his bowl with his spoon three times after every mouth full.  It would drive me crazy.  I eventually realised it was a way of avoiding work.  He is no longer employed by us.

Where do you see the company in five years’ time?

Our plan is that Dualchas will be working on a wider range of buildings with larger public buildings and larger scale houses and housing developments.  Construction is cyclical and architecture practices to suffer first when a downturn comes.  However, it is a huge industry and we expect our growing reputation will allow us to expand and prosper.

What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?

When we first started up we lived frugally.  Both Neil and myself had part-time jobs, we stayed with our gran, and we kept expenses to a minimum.  We made sure we never borrowed from the bank.  Having just read Shredded by Ian Fraser I think avoiding banks was a good move.  That’s my advice for starting a business.  For growing a business it is important that regular meetings are held, targets set and decisions actioned and reviewed.  However, probably the best advice is to employ the best people you can and learn from them.

What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?

To make sure you invoice for your time and talent correctly.  Too many architects work for little or nothing and they have no one to blame but themselves.  If you don’t value yourself don’t expect others to.