Small provincial practices have more in common with large commercial firms than you might think, finds Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

Recently I was chatting with a dear family friend. Crispin is an architect, owner of LBR Architecture, a small practice near Norwich and one of the reasons I’m now an architect myself. When I was 15, with a very hazy idea of what architecture was, he gamely invited me for two weeks’ work experience in his four person office; which evolved into a whole summer of doing their filing before I settled on my A-level subjects. I took his encouragement and patience for granted at the time and am only recently realising how lucky I was to have such a friend; and how much clearer eyed than many I was about the realities of practice life before I started university.

As even a sporadically regular reader of my column will know, I chose to move to London and work in a large practice, but my experience in his practice and occasional summer jobs in other small East Anglian practices during my studies has given me a respect and appreciation for the path I didn’t follow – and for the people who choose it. Our families are still good friends and we now enjoy infrequent but long conversations about architectural life – a sort of “spot the difference” between small provincial and large London practice. What struck me this time though, as we compared the impact of covid, was how really architecture is always architecture and the joys and challenges of life in practice vary largely only in scale.

Both of us are now experimenting with blended working and enjoying the mix of work from home and office life; both of us bemoaned the lack of time and budget many clients are willing to invest in good design (though I suspect this will never be enough for any architect no matter how long the programme or high the budget) and both of us noted that though there are only a certain number of ways to draw even the most basic building element the interfaces and particular requirements of each project mean you will always be re-drawing it. Every building is bespoke no matter how identical their briefs may seem – and why are we always surprised by this?!

His constant worry is their server health; I am not even sure where our servers are

We also agreed on the relative uncertainty of the architect’s role on a project team at the moment. While both of us are well used to working in a lead consultant or lead designer role he is old enough to remember when the architect truly led the team – a role we seem to have long relinquished with our inability or unwillingness to take responsibility for technical design. We were also in keen agreement of the annoyingness of earning a living – the projects that “pay the bills” and must be done despite their fairly repetitive nature. Infrequent in all scales of practice, it seems, is the project that sets your heart and bottom line racing simultaneously!

We found our biggest divergences in the cosmetics of practice life. Their QA process involves Crispin checking his architectural staff’s work; ours involves a technical team larger than his entire practice. We both use Revit but where I have the privilege to rely on in-house BIM specialists Crispin must manage with Google and the Autodesk advice line. His constant worry is their server health and information management; I am not even entirely sure where our servers are located. He also noted in conversations about colleagues past and present that the role of jobbing architect – someone who is happy to turn up and do the job well but is not too interested in promotion and advancement – is not something he sees in provincial practice. Perhaps outside of London the ideal John Summerson wrote of in his 1942 essay “Bread and Butter and Architecture” of working up one’s own practice still feels like an achievable ambition.

I left our conversation with the firm conviction that an architect is an architect. We have a central set of skills, albeit one which we are curiously incapable of defining well. No matter how varied our chosen style of practice there is much more that unites us than divides us. Divisions between London or provincial, large or small, public or private sector, commercial or “design-led” practice styles, feted as they often are, do little but create unhelpful conflict in a profession that should be uniting around its core strengths as we enter the maelstrom of industry and legislative changes likely to be facing us this year.