It’s all change at the practice as its leadership makes way for the next generation. Karen Mosley and Richard O’Neil talk about how to do an orderly succession, the crunch moment that led to it and the decision to walk away from two flawed MMC school projects 

Mosley O Neil

Karen Mosley, left, and Richard O’Neil, right

“Too often we hear in our profession of people sort of hanging on, not wanting to let go,” says Karen Mosley. “That stifles progress.”

The HLM managing director is talking to Building Design as she contemplates her own succession at the firm where she has worked for 36 years. This week, Mosley will step away from her role and stay on the board as a director, as will the firm’s chair Richard O’Neil. They will be replaced by two current directors, Michael Scherdel, who will be the managing director, and head of design Philip Watson, who will be the chair. Lorraine Robertson will also become the operations director.

It is the culmination of a decade-long transition plan aiming to draw a line under one era of the practice, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, and to steer its future course. 

Handing over the reins requires delicate management in any firm, but it seems the architecture profession can be particularly susceptible to fallouts. Just look at Adam Architecture founder Robert Adam, who called the process a “bloodbath” after he was voted off the board by his former colleagues. Avoiding such a public row takes careful handling and many practices will have experienced the lengthy discussions that go on behind the scenes at the top levels to ensure a smooth transition of power to the next generation.

Scherdel Watson Robertson

From left to right: Michael Scherdel, Philip Watson and Lorraine Robertson

“I think you’ve got to be able to stand back and say, actually, for the longevity of our business, for our brand and for innovation, we need to just see this as an evolutionary process,” Mosley says. “I think you’ve got to be prepared to see change, you know. It’s natural.”

It also requires an element of trust between the individuals involved, and a degree of expectation management for people who might be expecting promotion. Ensuring everyone knows where the firm is heading is almost like a “contract”, according to O’Neil. “You’re binding people together to take it all forward, and when you get that community culture, when you get that movement, there’s strength behind it.”

You’re binding people together to take it all forward, and when you get that community culture, when you get that movement, there’s strength behind it

Richard O’Neil

HLM has been careful to build strong relationships as the succession plan has developed in order to hold the firm together and avoid the kind of strife seen in some other parts of the profession. For Mosley, speaking to Building Design on a quiet afternoon the week before the changes are made public, it is the end of an “incredible journey”. 

“It’s half past five on a Friday night and it’s feeling like we’re sort of a week away from Richard and I reflecting on the journey that we’ve been on,” she says. “Not just as individuals, but as a practice, and the journey that we’ll continue to go on.”

The Wave by HLM Architects 5

HLM’s The Wave building for the University of Sheffield

HLM’s journey

The moment has taken on greater significance for Mosley and O’Neil because of the flurry of awards which the practice has amassed in the past few years, including being named practice of the year at the Building Awards in both 2022 and 2023. It has been a vindication for a process started back in 2014, when there had been a collective acknowledgement that the firm needed to reinvent itself after a challenging few years.

HLM specialises in UK public sector projects, which were squeezed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis as funding for big schemes dried up. While order books had been filled up for a year or two by ongoing projects, the firm realised that a crunch was approaching. “By 2009 we could see that it was going to be a major problem, there was the austerity aspect and they were going to turn the taps off,” O’Neil says. 

So the firm diversified by going international, securing work in the Middle East where it set up studios in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This filled in gaps in the UK market which grew wider as the new David Cameron-led coalition government doubled down on its cost-cutting agenda.

By 2013 the firm was seeing green shoots coming back in its core UK business, but was also having to come to terms with a changing market. “I think the whole design process had moved on, and I think we were left behind a little bit,” O’Neil says. “We just felt at that time, ‘hang on, let’s just do a big reset here’. Let’s think about what we’ve achieved so far after 50 years, but where are we going?”

HLM Wellington 1

HLM’s proposals for Wellington Barracks in Westminster

“We were probably coming out of the back end of the recession,” Mosley adds, “and I suppose it was just recognition of where we are, where we want to be, and then thinking how we’re going to get there and realising that we weren’t the finished article, and that we needed to continuously learn about ourselves.”

It was recognition of where we want to be and realising that we weren’t the finished article, and that we needed to continuously learn about ourselves

Karen Mosley

The practice hired an external consultant to carry out a 12 month programme aiming to “give the board an executive poke in the eye”, O’Neil says. “It was a time to look in the mirror and really say ‘what are we doing together here? What’s our culture? Let’s reset that. And we had some really positive, constructive conversations”.

Sustainability and the climate agenda was one area where the firm realised it needed investment, partly because of changing regulations but also out of a “consciousness to do the right thing”.

The next shake-up began in 2017, when Mosley was appointed managing director and O’Neil became chair, working closely with his predecessor and mentor Chris Liddle. Two years later it rebranded its design philosophy as “Thoughtful design to create better places for people”, while focusing more towards offering staff a progressive and supportive workplace environment, becoming an employee ownership trust (EOT) in 2021. It also set a series of strategic objectives, namely gearing itself towards growing markets including net zero design and MMC.

HLM’s recent experiences with MMC have not all gone as smoothly as it may have liked. Two modular school projects designed by the practice were ordered to be demolished at the end of last year because of structural defects. It was a story which made national headlines. 

During construction, HLM had walked away from the schemes due to concerns it had with contractor Caledonian Modular, which later fell into administration in 2022. “It was a decision which nobody would take lightly, but we just felt we had no choice,” says O’Neil.

The Department of Education later found the schools, the 1,200-place Haygrove School in Somerset and the 630-place Sir Frederick Gibberd College in Essex, had not been constructed as designed and could not be assured as safe to occupy. 

Sir Frederick Gibberd College in Harlow

Sir Frederick Gibberd College in Harlow, designed by HLM and built by Caledonian Modular but later found to be structurally unsafe

While the incident was unfortunate for HLM, its bold decision to leave the projects has arguably strengthened its reputation in the eyes of public sector clients by demonstrating expertise and sound judgement. 

“We have robust protocols to go through when we undertake projects. And if there’s any areas of conflict or aspects we need to identify and do due diligence, then we will probably be a bit more vocal about it. And you know, I’m not sure what we could have done at the time over and above what we did do,” O’Neil says.

>> See also: Government launches wider probe into Caledonian Modular after school closures

Has it affected how the firm now approaches projects of this kind? “It probably has shaped us a little bit,” O’Neil says. “I think you always learn from these things. If you don’t, then you’ve missed an opportunity.”

For Mosley, the experience is an example of how far the firm has come in recent years in defining its purpose and strengths, and how it has sought to set itself apart as a leader in the sector.

“Some businesses disappear, some brands disappear, some get consumed into other brands. I think we’ve got such a strong heritage and legacy, we wanted to see that live on, ad infinitum.”

Succession: HLM’s new senior leadership team

Michael Scherdel – managing director

“Being part of the HLM family for over 30 years and now taking up the post of MD speaks volumes of our ethos, how we trust in our team and that having a succession plan is essential. The HLM culture and brand remains strong and I’m feeling excited about the future for our people, our clients and the spaces we create for society”.

Philip Watson - chair

“HLM’s design profile and influence across industry has never been better than it is right now, but we won’t be resting on our laurels. Far from it. We’ll be driving forward new plans to create an even more inclusive and nurturing workplace, focusing on achieving sustainable outcomes for our projects, and investing in research that will further enhance our reputation as innovative and thoughtful designers.” 

Lorraine Robertson – operations director

“The future is bright for HLM, and I’m looking forward to taking on the role of Operations Director as part of this continuing journey, fostering the development of the next generation of design talent. People are at the centre of all of our work, from our EOT structure to the people experiencing our designs, and this is an integral aspect of HLM which will never change”