The boom was great for allowing small practices to flourish, but what will they do now? We meet three from around the UK that are taking a novel approach to business in a recession

Sjölander da Cruz, Birmingham

For Marco da Cruz, setting up a practice with his wife was a chance to move away from the commercial projects he was doing at Level Seven Architects. Maria Sjölander’s contacts from Birmingham City Council’s architecture service have brought in the education and community projects that dominate their portfolio.

But even though they’ve carved a niche for themselves, they’ve not lost a taste for exploring new areas. “We’ve always concentrated on projects with a community focus. But when a project ends you have to look for a new client,” says da Cruz. “We’ve always had to seek out new markets and do things that we haven’t done before and that’s really helping us out at the moment. We don’t do anything different to other practices, but we are persistent. And we always try to publicise our projects.”

Sjölander da Cruz staff outside their Birmingham office. From left: Ollie Chapman, Dave King, Chris Jarvis, Maria Sjölander, Marco da Cruz and Rob Illingworth.
Sjölander da Cruz staff outside their Birmingham office. From left: Ollie Chapman, Dave King, Chris Jarvis, Maria Sjölander, Marco da Cruz and Rob Illingworth.

The couple founded the practice in 2001 in their spare bedroom and almost accidentally became specialists in refurbishment projects, transforming old buildings into valuable community assets on a limited budget. A prime example is Exley Children’s Centre in Staffordshire, a neglected community centre transformed for £170,000 and now used as an exemplar by Cabe. Currently they are investigating converting a 1920s cinema into a “community enterprise centre” and a disused Victorian school into a dance centre and arts facility.

They’ve also experimented with new construction methods to give them the edge over rivals — recently they completed a £2.5 million primary school in Shropshire using insulated panels constructed off-site that meant the main structure of the school could be built in less than three days. “We’re quite keen to get into the primary capital programme, as are most smaller architects at the moment, so we’re looking at how we can refine the design for clients at other primary schools,” says da Cruz. The practice has been on trips to Scandinavia to investigate new school design theories that can be used alongside the panelling system.

Sjölander da Cruz’s largest project so far is the £3 million Green Rivers Community Centre in Walsall, which is about to go on site. Still on the drawing board is a £5 million synagogue project in Birmingham which involves replacing the existing synagogue with a smaller building and preparing the remaining area of the site for sale.

Fortunately, the pressures of working together have only strengthened the couple’s relationship, but da Cruz believes it’s helped their practice too. “If we’re bidding for work we tend to go together because interviews become less formal. We can communicate better with potential clients because we can just be ourselves and we can see if they like us or not.”

SEArch Long Sutton, Lincolnshire

A lot of people settle in the town in which they were born but few make it their mission to put it on the map for sustainable architecture. Jeremy Harrall founded Sustainable Ecological Architecture, or SEArch, in 2001 and has been steadily building up a portfolio of exemplar projects in Long Sutton, Lincolnshire ever since.

“I’ve never lived anywhere else,” he says. “It’s as flat as a billiard table, although to say it’s a featureless landscape is probably a little unfair. I’m leaving my mark on the settlement — I have set myself a goal to see it accumulate the largest collection of environmentally sound development anywhere in the UK. If you’re going to deliver the sustainable communities of the future, you need literally to do it from the community and as part of the community.”

Harrall took an unusual route into architecture, leaving school at 16 and training to be a plasterer before taking architecture evening classes at Lincolnshire Polytechnic. He qualified in 1999 and used his architectural work to fund a doctorate on earth-sheltering techniques.

From left: architectural technician John Rogers, office manager Julie Butcher, architect and managing directorJeremy Harrall and managing director Holt Myers.
From left: architectural technician John Rogers, office manager Julie Butcher, architect and managing directorJeremy Harrall and managing director Holt Myers.

SEArch is involved in the whole development process. The practice recently completed Unity Gardens, a social housing scheme in Long Sutton that consists of six naturally ventilated, naturally heated, earth-bunded houses that generate more electricity than they use. SEArch identified the site, designed the scheme, saw it through planning and found the client, Lincolnshire Rural Housing Association.

Harrall continues to pursue research interests too. SEArch has been working with contractors and product suppliers to develop new construction methods and products, including a Lafarge concrete that consists of waste slag, pulverised fuel ash and ground recycled glass.

Visitors to Long Sutton may be able to spot SEArch’s projects — they have a distinct aesthetic. South-facing facades are glazed while internal surfaces are either architecturally dressed masonry, lime rendered or bare concrete to create healthier, dust free environments.

The practice does take on projects elsewhere too, including consultation work for the UN and the British Design Council. It currently has 27 ongoing projects and is about to move into bigger offices and take on new staff.

“We’ve never advertised and never marketed. All the work has come via referrals and we’ve been very selective about who we work for and what work we do,” says Harrall. “This business has never been about generating money.”

Studio Three, Liverpool

Long before the recession hit, Studio Three Architects was forced to reconsider the way it dealt with new clients after a series of near-disastrous non-payments and collapsed projects. Now it runs basic background checks and asks each client to fill out a credit application form to make sure that they will be able to pay the project fees.

“A few years ago we got stung on three or four jobs at once,” explains practice co-founder Mushtaq Saleri. “At that point we made a conscious effort to spread the workload, but also to do things like bill monthly and make sure that Is are dotted and the Ts crossed. We don’t work at risk even for small feasibility studies. We’re creatives but we want to run this as a business.”

The practice, from left, James Griffiths, Andrew Thompson, Amanda Wanner, Mushtaq Saleri, Amanda Sexton and Steven Bennett.
The practice, from left, James Griffiths, Andrew Thompson, Amanda Wanner, Mushtaq Saleri, Amanda Sexton and Steven Bennett.

Saleri admits that some clients have been scared off by this straightforward approach, but it has helped the practice to ride out the recession in relative comfort. Late payments are rare and it’s not struggling to find work, with projects spanning various sectors from churches to private houses, schools and doctor’s surgeries. More unusually still, the practice has never taken out a loan, growing slowly as the workload increased.

Saleri studied with co-founder Amanda Wanner at Liverpool School of Architecture, and met Andy Thompson while working at Ellis Williams Architects, before the three established the practice in 2003.

The practice’s other secret weapon for managing risk is the close ties they’ve maintained with academia. Saleri now tutors at Liverpool part-time, and Wanner is a senior lecturer on the interior architecture course at Leeds Metropolitan University. “It’s really helped in terms of staying in touch with the wider profession,” says Saleri. “We’ve been able to spot rising stars through the universities. We still interview a wide range of people, but it makes sense as a smaller practice to employ people that we’ve come across before. It’s much less of a risk.”

The practice takes a collaborative approach to every project, with all staff encouraged to listen in on meetings. A design file is created for each scheme, which eventually becomes the planning statement. “Generally all six of us know what’s happening on every project which brings more to the projects really. We don’t have an in-house style, it’s really just about staying true to where the concepts have come from and getting the client involved with that.”

Quick Sketch: Sjölander da Cruz

Staff 7
Year founded 2001
Turnover £350,000
Architectural idols Sigurd Lewerentz and Carlo Scarpa

Biggest coup
Being nominated for the First Building Award at the Stirling Prize 2005 for Sure Start Tamworth. “But our biggest coup is really how we have helped improve the quality of teaching spaces for hundreds of children by listening to, understanding, and then responding to their needs. Kids want their schools to be full of experiences and possibilities, and we get the opportunity to design places which may be a child’s first experience of a non-domestic environment and will form long-lasting memories
for them.”

R&R “We have lunches around the meeting table, and trips to look at architecture. Most ambitious was visiting Lewerentz’s Björkhagen Church and then staying in a summerhouse we designed in Stockholm.”

Quick Sketch: SEArch

Staff 5
Year founded 2001
Turnover £300,000
Architectural idols César Manrique and the early work of Edward Cullinan

Biggest coup
“Seeing six happy households living free from the threat of fuel poverty in Unity Gardens (pictured right), the UK's first near-autonomous social housing scheme. I also enjoyed winning the RICS's 2006 Sustainable Building of the Year Award for the UK's first earth-sheltered social housing scheme (after five years’ occupation, still running on less than £5 per week) against shortlisted projects such as Foster’s sustainability showpiece the Great Glasshouse in Wales.”

R&R “A difficult task; reading and running help.”

Quick Sketch: Studio Three

Staff 6
Year founded 2003
Turnover £250,000
Architectural idols Carlo Scarpa, Heath Robinson, Carlo Mollino, Victor Pasmore, Jean Prouvé, Pierre Koenig, Craig Ellwood, Charles & Ray Eames, Kasimir Malevich, Lee Miller and Alvar Aalto.

Biggest coup
Chavasse Park Pavilion at Liverpool One. “Grosvenor put their faith in our young team for one of the smallest projects on the site, but on one of the most prominent locations. We proved that a small practice, given the right support, can deliver alongside the very elite of the profession.”

“We try and get away as a studio at least once a year — mainly with trips to see new buildings in other cities around the country. We often make the trip to a trade show in London but we’ve also had complete non-architecture days out, such as picnics and going to see tennis and football matches. Lucia (our Spanish work experience student) has recently introduced the marvellous idea of bringing in lunches for the studio — which we sit, share and eat together. We are planning to continue this new tradition, however the offerings may not always match up to the treats of fine Spanish cuisine — pies and scotch eggs have been threatened!”