“Flexible, inclusive workplaces don’t happen by accident, they happen by design.”

Talks on HSA's Strategy for Practice

Act Small But Think Big

In the past month, both Su and Sarah have presented lectures to students at the University of Liverpool Architecture School, and the Manchester University School of Architecture respectively. The audience for these lectures were architecture students, undergraduate and postgraduate, who were investigating potential career opportunities and paths. With this in mind, Su and Sarah thought it would be useful to focus on how they started out, how HSA wins work, and HSA’s strategy for the practice as it grows.

Continue reading to enjoy excerpts from these lectures to gain an insight into how we use creative skills to evolve and develop the practice of acting small but thinking big.

The Lectures

Following successful careers at very different Liverpool city centre practices, Su and Sarah realised if they wanted to have a greater involvement with the direction of a practice, and a better work/life balance if they ever wanted children, they would need to either change job or create that opportunity myself. They chose the latter.

Our Office + Practice Ethos

“Flexible, inclusive workplaces don’t happen by accident, they happen by design.”

HSA have been on Penny Lane since March 2017, in a lovely wee studio we did up ourselves, and now 5 members of staff.  It was a very deliberate move, to buy a shopfront, and for it to be out of the city centre.  It embodies our ethos of breaking down barriers, de-mystifying architecture, makes us physically and visually accessible, and is fundamentally a great advertising opportunity. We deliberately curate an open and ‘human-friendly’ culture within our studio, we do not condone regular late-night working nor unpaid overtime.  We treat our staff fairly and (through necessity originally rather than by design), we demonstrate that flexible working can still result in quality work.

Our approach to practice was recognized by the RIBA last year as one of 9 Practice Role Models across the UK, the only one in the North West. What exactly does being a Practice Role Model mean?

We’re still working that out ourselves, but so far it is giving us an opportunity to continue to challenge how we practice, giving us an insight into larger organisations within the group, tapping into shared knowledge, and expanding our contact base for collaboration.  It has given us a platform for becoming more involved in ‘the system’ in the hope that we are part of a catalyst for change in the profession.  For example, Su is now part of the RIBA Small Practice Committee and for the last two years have been on the panel at Guerrilla Tactics.

If you want to read more about this accolade go here.

How we win work

So, all of that is very interesting, but how do we actually win work?

Well, for us, our practice ethos very much dictates what project work we win. As a snap-shot, in the last year, of the projects we have worked on:

75% were Referrals, with 35% of those being repeat clientsThe remaining 25% were direct approaches from the client – via phone, email or even literally walking in off the street / through the front door.

Of these direct approaches, over half were hyper local within a mile and a half – either the result of a google search of their nearest architect (the benefits of being in a suburb rather than the city centre), or walking past the shopfront.  The remainder were for very specific set of skills – eg complex heritage project, a community-based project, or needing a D&B solution on a tight budget.

  1. Social ethos, a desire to meaningfully consult with their community or stakeholders.

Click here to read about Park Palace Ponies, a conversion of a disused picture house

  1. From our Local area and often with a strong interest in design

Click here to read about Maray, an example of a start-up project

  1. With a Tricky site or brief that needs our 3d creative problem-solving, not always just about “Architecture”

Click here to read about Formby, a project that reconnected a school through new, larger dining facilities

  1. Core domestic projects through referral

Click here to read about  Quarry Street, an extension of a bungalow due for completion later in 2020

Practice Strategy

Short term, its always about the bottom line.  We are not independently wealthy, we have to ensure our projects are viable.  We have a moral and financial responsibility to our staff, which can be quite frankly terrifying on a month to month basis.

We are always though discussing, what’s next?!

It’s a blessing and a curse.  We could really just continue to do project work and to show by example.  But there is that niggle –  to keep challenging ourselves.

Our aim this year was to become more involved in education and universities with an eye on establishing a basis for formalised research and development – recording and publishing, sharing and collaborating further afield to spread the message about how we practice.  This so far has taken many forms – lectures like this one today; Su tutoring at LJMU; discussing a cross-disciplinary PhD project with Liverpool Uni Sociology department; all complimenting our established roles as guest reviewers and Part 3 examiner in the North West.

We think this is crucial, both to ensure students have regular contact with people who walk the walk as well as talk the talk, but it also feeds back into our own practice – opens us up to new ideas and influencers, and helps to talent spot too!

We recognise that as a profession, and particularly as women, ‘Business as usual is not an option’.  If our responsibility though, is to successfully demonstrate a different way of practice, then surely at some point everyone else will cotton on and competition for our niche will increase? This is partly thus what drives our constant evolution of practice and assessment of what we stand for.  It is a fine balance avoiding the echo chamber, but it is critical to find your audience.  And don’t be afraid of using your principles as a basis of practice.

One of the speakers at the conference, Daniel Wahl, an author and educator struck a chord – rather than the ‘survival of the fittest’ Darwinism we are generally educated about, biologically speaking apparently, evolution is actually: diversification, and then reintegration through collaboration, rather than competition.  This applies to biology, it applies to economics, and in our case, to architectural practice.