Real demonstration of engagement
“The thing about a partnership is that it is like a marriage; to get on there has to be give and take. The partners can be chalk and cheese but that can work if each has their own niche. There will be conflicts if people are passionate, and that is an indication that they’re engaged with the business.”
David Lester was the longest serving partner at architects Williams Lester until he retired in 2017. And while he believes that inherently, the ambition of every architect is to run their own practice, he’s not convinced that it’s reflected by their degree courses. “When I went to college we weren’t taught business acumen, so what happens is that when an architect starts a practice they get so tied up in the architecture that it can be a few months down the line before they think maybe they should start invoicing. And I still don’t think there is enough focus on communication and people management skills at university.”
The practice was started by Walter Williams in 1987 after he had left retirement apartment developers McCarthy and Stone. Lester took over from him at the retirement apartment developer and then after two years joined his practice. “Through McCarthy and Stone we had built a network of potential clients between us who remembered us,” he explains. “And actually, what always excited me was meeting the client and being able to draw out of them what they really want.”
In 2008 they sold the practice but after experiencing a clash of philosophies, they took it back. Meanwhile, architect James Green, who had worked at the practice for three years had emigrated to New Zealand. The 2011 Christchurch earthquake resulted in billions of dollars being injected into the construction industry there, but family reasons brought him back to Blighty. By this time Lester had brought his partner out and was making shares available to colleagues, so as Green explains, “it all dovetailed together beautifully.” By which he means he was able to rejoin an established business and become a co-owner rather than attempting to set up his own practice.
Lester was pleased with the arrangement. “If you don’t bring in new blood, your clients grow old with you. And new blood injects enthusiasm back into a practice.
“It was important for me coming in to the business again that I didn’t attempt to drag it in a particular direction,” says Green, who was appointed director in March 2017. What happened is that the directors took a day out of the office “on retreat” to discuss where the practice should be going. “Although we work with each other all day, in the office we are really only talking about the work, not the future,” says Lester. “What we came up with was a three-year roadmap.”
“I want to see Williams Lester become a strong regional practice,” says Green, who, from working on large, complex healthcare buildings from his time in New Zealand was familiar with systems which can be put in place to support rather than stifle. “Other practices for example see BIM – the acronym for building information modelling which enables everyone involved in a building project to work on the same set of digital files – as a constraint,” he observes. “We believe it is creating a collaborative environment, and we should embrace that because the value to the client is immense. There have to be systems in place to support growth, to ensure that processes can be expanded without jeopardising hard won client relationships with delivery which is less than optimal.”
Not surprisingly because of the background of the founders, the care sector is a prime source of work, and the demographic of the south of England shouldn’t be a constraint in that respect. But the repertoire also includes conservation, residential, commercial and leisure, and urban design. “I think a practice needs to be as diverse as possible to protect itself from any particular economic cycle,” muses Lester. “An architect should be able to design any building.” A counter argument is that a small practice can spread itself too thinly. “Having a specialism means a practice is recognised as the ‘go to’ guys,” suggests Green.
What doesn’t change is the fine line between creativity and commerciality. “When an architect reveals their design, they bare their soul,” says Lester, “so if the client says I don’t really like this, you have to be able to take it on the chin. Defend your position but not to the death. Emotional intelligence has to be as strong as your technical skills at that particular juncture. We live in a commercial world and a business has mouths to feed.”
So balancing creativity with commerciality is a perennial question. “Architects will always want to push boundaries and focus on detail,” says Green, “because it’s in our nature. Managing creativity is a subtle process. The success of a practice lies in its ability to achieve that balance, to be able to understand where the client perceives real value to be. This is where communication is important, so that clients understand that they are getting a better building. The landscape of local architectural practices has changed dramatically. There are a lot of small startups and sole practitioners – they aren’t businesses as such, because they may only have one key client and they aren’t looking to grow their practices. And Green has a view on what any firm needs to embrace if it is to move onwards and upwards. “Surround yourself with good advice,” he says. “And you have got to recognise that one day you will outgrow your existing advisors because you require a different level of experience and knowledge to be applied.”