Architect of change

Architect of change

In an industry notorious for loud and often clashing personalities, architect Andrew Stoddart makes for a refreshing change, discovers Peter Baber.

It is a truth, although perhaps not one that is universally acknowledged, that the one thing many a successful architect likes building up, apart from skyscrapers, is their own profile. This has been the case since at least Renaissance Florence.

After all, even today they still talk about Brunelleschi’s dome. But egomania seems to have come particularly into play since the dawn of the 20th Century, with household names like Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Edouard-Jeanneret Gris, aka Le Corbusier.

At the start of this century, we even had the spectacle of much being written about one Zaha Hadid and how monstrous it was that her design for the new Cardiff Opera House had been rejected. Yet at the time nothing Ms Hadid had designed had actually ever been built.

Verbal fireworks erupted again in summer 2009, when the Qatari royal family, who had employed Lord Rogers - renowned for his Pompidou Centre and Lloyds Building - to design a new housing development on the site of the former Chelsea Barracks, told him at the eleventh hour that they would not be using his ideas after all.

It turned out that Prince Charles, that well-known airer of architectural opinion who branded plans for London’s National Gallery extension in the 80s a “monstrous carbuncle” (after which the design was scrapped), had intervened personally by contacting the Qataris to make his objections known.

Rogers was furious, and called for a public inquiry into what he saw as Prince Charles’s undemocratic influence on the democratic planning process (although some local residents claimed that, as they had hardly been consulted at all, ‘democratic’ was one thing this process was not). Other commentators were quick to point out how dictatorial Rogers had been over the years.

The columnist A N Wilson called for a public inquiry into how modernist architects like Rogers had been allowed to “destroy” the London skyline. Others made reference to alleged attempts by Rogers in the past to block designs by the more traditionalist Quinlan Terry.

But then – oh dear – it turned out that it was Terry himself whom the Prince of Wales had commissioned to come up withalternative designs for the Chelsea site. Terry is his favourite architect.

Perhaps in a fit of pique, not long after the Chelsea debacle the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) awarded Rogers The Stirling Prize, the most coveted prize in UK architecture, for the second time.

And so it goes – in fashionable Chelsea. But not perhaps in less fashionable Huddersfield.

For there is one architect in that still noble town who believes that such grandstanding gets so much in the way that some architects forget what their central purpose is: to see the wishes of their clients brought out into reality.

Andrew Stoddart, managing director of Above & Beyond Architecture, says he has absolutely no interest in trying to create a “house style” in his practice – one which would enable him to look back in the years to come and quickly identify which part of the skyline was down to his firm.

“I am not really interested in creating that as a legacy,” he says.

“We want to be known for achieving our clients’ aspirations and requirements.” You can see what he means when you consider the fate of one building that has jazzed up the London skyline in recent years and given its designer great kudos. As a business journalist, I was more interested to discover from a tenant that, two years after it opened, the building was still 40 per cent unlet.

Though he originally hails from Reading, Stoddart is not a refugee from the south. He honed his architectural skills at a leading practice in Leeds after studying architecture at the University of Huddersfield.

“It was a great experience,” he says. “I was made an associate after three and a half years, and I was working on great projects with a career path laid out for me.”But it got to the point where, he says, “the way the organisation worked didn’t fit with me”.

“We were doing a lot of work that enhanced our portfolio,” he says, “and sometimes that worked very well, but other times it did not.” He fully understands why the practice might have chosen to adopt this approach. There was intense rivalry between practices at the time, as Leeds came out of the early 1990s property recession and speculative property development was rife. Each practice wanted to make sure it was seen as the leader.

“But I felt I could create a business that could deliver the same result,” he says, “focused on delivering the requirements our clients required.” Hence the name of the practice he set up - Above & Beyond.

Stoddart said he did not want to run a “surname-oriented practice”, and not just because he didn’t want the practice to be exclusively focused around himself.

“Our name was a statement of intent about what our business was going to do,” he says. “I wanted to distinguish myself from tradition, and what was expected.” Even today, he says, an Above & Beyond project will be approached in a subtly different way to the norm.

“We tend to spend a lot more time with the client than other practices,” he says. “We have some set processes in terms of our investigative work and the questions we ask. We might do two or three meetings before we start anything. We then define and play back what the idea is, and establish key performance indicators. We go back and retest those. We then take that forward and will do feasibility work.” This does take time. On one major project - the new headquarters for the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) - the company had been working with the client’s management board for six months before they even started on the design phase.

Back in 1999, there were also new ideas the practice introduced that have since become commonplace, but were not so then. One was the use of 3D, introduced as a matter of course from the start. The other was talking about interiors too.

Above & Beyond was set up as an architecture and interior design practice from the beginning, partly because Stoddart says he had come across too many architects who believed – wrongly – that interiors would automatically follow.

“We have the ability to offer an integrated approach,” he says. “So we would get people into the team, and offer interiors as both a stand-alone and a joined-up solution. That also helps us cross sell.” Nevertheless, opening a new architectural practice on your own is always a risky option, and a particularly unusual thing to do at the age of 33. Most people choosing to start up a new business choose to do so either in their early 20s after a couple of years in the real world, or in their early 40s. Not when they have a wife, young kids and a mortgage, as Stoddart did then, and still does (though the kids are somewhat older). He says it’s different for architects because of the seven years of training they go through.

“You don’t really enter the world of business until you’re 25,” he says. “So you get to your early 30s or wait another ten years before you set up in business.” He says he was lucky to have a wife who had a secure job, and a business model which he could see would work.

“It took three months to get our first clients coming back through the door,” he says. There is also the issue common to all businesses of having to find new contacts. For Stoddart, this would have been a particular problem because he deliberately chose to set up in Huddersfield. It was a town he remembered from college days, but also a town that was relatively removed from the established – some would say domineering - network of architectural practices in Leeds.

“I wanted to make a clean break,” he says. “I had become networked into that Leeds scene, and the fresh start as an individual was all about getting out and leaving that behind – taking the fantastic experience, but to a new environment back in Huddersfield, where I had studied.” The move meant looking for less obvious, possibly more architecturally mundane sectors in which to work.

But for Above & Beyond, that has proved something of a blessing, as the practice has carved out a particular niche in transport architecture. At the moment it is busy with projects at Huddersfield and Dewsbury railway stations and, aside from the SYPTE headquarters, it also developed the Arundel Gate interchange in Sheffield.

The firm first started such work in 2001, when a former client notified Stoddart that the contract to tender for the SYPTE work was coming out.

“We went through the process, and got on the panel,” says Stoddart. “It was a five-year framework that we won again in 2006. Off the back of that, we got the confidence to bid for First Group, and we came under their framework in 2004 and again in 2006.

It was a snowball effect, because we are now working with Northern Rail, Mersey Rail, and First Group at a group-wide level.” The company has also been notified that it is very likely to win significant work with a new client who is an operator well outside the Yorkshire region. Another sector in which the practice is working is care homes. It is currently working with Yorkshire-based Roche Healthcare, and doing a feasibility study with Manchesterbased Meridian Healthcare.

It is a good time to be in the care homes sector, because for the past few years it has had trouble acquiring suitable land in the face of competition from far better resourced housebuilders. Now, the tables have turned.

“Land values in this area are typically based at £10,000 to £12,000 per bed created,” says Stoddart. “So you get a 60-bed care home on an acre of land, which equates to around £720,000 an acre.

“If you spoke to a housing developer there is no way they would be able to pay that, even if historically they might have been looking at £1m an acre.” Nevertheless, the sector has given Above & Beyond a new way of working. Since Chris West, a man with much experience of Leeds property, joined the firm as business development director last year, Stoddart says they have been acting as go-betweens between land owners and potential developers.

“Chris has been very proactive,” he says, “being able to generate work by working with agents and landowners, and knowing who to put different types of sites to. We are generating a lot of work in that sector.” That, of course, means that you are not competing against other practices for work. Which is just as well, because the current recession has really made the practice focus on its core areas.

“Right now, we are beginning to see an upturn in orders coming through and opportunities for 2010,” he says. “That started a couple of months ago. But before that it was a very challenging year.

Turnover this year, he reckons, will probably fall to £800,000, although thanks to the work West has brought in he thinks next year is already looking as if turnover will be £1.2m or above.

Naturally, this has led to some shedding of staff. They used to have a full-time marketing manager, but such activity has now been outsourced to Huddersfield-based Fantastic Media.

“It has turned out to be less investment for a fuller service,” says Stoddart, “which we manage and oversee.” As a result, the practice sailed past its tenth anniversary last September, and looks to have a secure future.

But does Stoddart really not want to put his mark anywhere on the Yorkshire skyline? How does he attract new young guns, for example, if they are not being encouraged to think of their own ambitions first? Stoddart laughs and says recruiting has never been a problem. “The architecture world is full of egos,” he says, “and I have no particular gripe with that. Some clients will want that, but they are not necessarily the clients we want.”